Workplace Diversity

Achieving Diversity Demands Less Talk and More Action. And Good Intentions Alone Won't Do It.

If your diversity program is coming up short, here are three actions you can take.
Achieving Diversity Demands Less Talk and More Action. And Good Intentions Alone Won't Do It.
Image credit: MoMo Productions | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Founding Executive Director, UMSL Accelerate
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If you're like me, you probably never heard of inclusion riders until Frances McDormand mentioned them in her Best Actress acceptance speech at the Oscars. But these contract clauses, mandating certain demographic hiring goals for casts and crews at movie shoots, will likely become more ubiquitous as conversations around diversity continue to increase -- in both Hollywood and the wider world.

Still, while the value of diversity has become a staple in everyday dialogue, there has yet to be much real progress to show for it, particularly in the startup space.

Case in point: A Silicon Valley Bank study found that among the startups it studied, the percentage enacting inclusion programs last year climbed from 25 to 41 percent. And that's certainly good news, but 71 percent of these startups still had an all-male board of directors. More shocking still: A stark 57 percent lacked any female executives.

Related: 6 Simple Actions Startups Can Take to Foster Diversity

In short, while diversity and inclusion were the rallying cry of 2017, reigniting chatter around a long-standing issue, we all have a long way to go. Just putting down on paper your company's good intentions to increase inclusion or to build a program isn't enough to forge a truly inclusive culture.

Why inclusion doesn't take root.

Traditional diversity programs have come up short for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they don't prioritize true inclusion. Focusing on hiring-numbers alone may get more women or minorities in the room at your company, but without ensuring that their voices add to the conversation, you'll pretty much be running in place.

Furthermore, you can't force the bias out of your employees: A Harvard Business Review study discovered that diversity training, hiring tests and similar methods of encouraging diversity can actually have the opposite of the desired effect: increased workplace bias.

Additionally, diversity initiatives can favor some stigmatized groups while leaving others out: Diversity initiatives have traditionally prioritized the Latino and African-American communities, while groups like Asian-Americans have largely been left out. And affirmative action has benefited white women more than women of color.

Related: How We Increased Gender Diversity in Our Boardroom

Our own team’s efforts at achieving inclusion, using the STL Diversity and Inclusion Accelerator, grew out of the need to solve problems in diversity through entrepreneurship.

Here, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, we've designed corporate and industry accelerators. In that context, we realized the unique opportunity we have to share our experiences of living, working and collaborating with the members of our diverse community.

Importantly, we live right next to Ferguson, Missouri, in the North County area of St. Louis, where the fatal, and controversial police shooting of Michael Brown took place. By pairing our diverse community with our entrepreneurial mindset, we recognized that our accelerator model could provide more than just return on investment.

Inclusion programs, in short, can be effective. But to truly succeed at these initiatives, a company needs to weave in diversity from the ground up. Here’s how to get started:

1. Take a step back for self-reflection.

From my experience, people want to learn more about inclusion efforts. At a recent Venture Café networking event I attended in the St. Louis innovation district, a local business leader said that he attended diversity/inclusion meetings at least three times a month. 

While Deloitte found that 71 percent of organizations surveyed said they strived for an inclusive culture, those efforts may come up short: Inclusion efforts should be based on specific companies’ clients and mission. Be aware of the people who make up your company and their diverse backgrounds and thought processes. Then, structure your program around those findings.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, is working to increase its diversity index score. With its clientele growing steadily more diverse, the VA has worked to make itself more inclusive not only to the veterans it serves but to its employees. It's established specific hiring goals, such as employing more people from the Latino community.

2. Don't try to be everything at once.

Diversity isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. The Harvard Business Review reported on two main approaches to diversity initiatives: value in difference (“our differences make us stronger”) and value in equality (“our differences aren't obstacles to opportunity”). Neither approach is inherently better or worse; it just depends on what resonates with your particular organization’s mission and culture.

If emphasizing the way employees’ differences make their perspectives valuable works for your team, stick with it, but know that that's not the case for every company. For instance, last summer, Deloitte reported that it was replacing WIN (its workplace women’s group), and Globe (its support unit for gay employees), with inclusion councils.

The intent of these councils is to bring employees from every background into the same room to learn from one another’s experiences. Why the change? Deloitte said it learned that the 57 percent of its employee base who are millennials preferred not to be isolated by their demographics.

Related: How 'Groupthink' Can Cost Your Business (and 3 Corporate Examples)

Above all, be consistent: Don't try to emphasize both approaches at the same time. The same HBR study rightfully pointed out that, "Saying that you care about differences and think they are important -- and at the same time, you don’t -- could both dilute the broader message and come across as inauthentic."

3. Trade your stick for a carrot.

You won't achieve true inclusion by trying to force it upon your team members. Instead, engage your management staff in the process of solving this issue. Encourage managers to mentor employees whose backgrounds and cultural touchstones differ from their own. In-house mentorship programs are known to increase representation of people of color by between 9 and 24 percent, according to the previously cited Harvard Business Review study.

In addition to mentorship opportunities, enact social accountability measures among the leadership team. MIT’s Sloan School of Management found in one study that a firm was habitually giving its African American employees lower pay raises, despite the fact that they had titles and work ethics similar to those of their white counterparts. When this firm made the performance-rating and pay raises -- by gender and race -- visible to everyone, per the researcher’s suggestion, the pay disparity quickly dissolved.

By actively engaging your staff, rather than trying to force the issue, you'll be able to make inroads into solving the diversity and inclusion issue.

Not everyone can be an Oscar-winning advocate for inclusion riders. But we can all take steps to build effective inclusion practices into the fabric of our companies. Whether it’s building a diversity accelerator or leading a management team of diverse mentors, everyone can do his or her part to foster inclusive workplaces.

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