Does Your Team Roll Their Eyes When You Talk About Diversity?

Attaining the strategic advantages of a diverse team requires empathy and commitment to inclusion that overcomes unconscious bias.

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By Janet Ikpa

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"Welcome to the staff meeting! First item on our agenda -- improving our company's diversity numbers."

I've seen many reactions to that statement -- excited murmurs, slumped shoulders, nervous glances and, increasingly often, eye-rolls.

Unfortunately, many people haven't or don't engage in conversations around diversity, despite the data that shows its importance. I could tell you that ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to show a stronger financial performance. I could tell you that we consider new ideas when we hear dissenting opinions from those who think or look different than ourselves. Or I could tell you that companies with diverse leadership are more likely to introduce product innovations than those with a homogenous leadership team.

Related: 5 Ways to Be The Leader Your Team So Desperately Needs

While the head of diversity at Apple shared her view that even a racially homogenous team can be diverse because of their life experiences, embracing cultural diversity and minimizing bias are still the primary goals of most innovation oriented companies. But this type of change is inherently difficult for both companies and individuals. It's one thing to recognize that diversity has value in the workplace, but it's another thing entirely for employees to come face-to-face with a bias they don't know how to address. It can be an uncomfortable process, but it's critical to diversifying any organization and working toward the ultimate goal -- empathy.

Many incorrectly assume that empathy is simply the ability to feel sorry for another's circumstance. But in fact, it's the ability to feel another's enthusiasm, frustration or even fear. It's a powerful business skill that can lead to inclusive action, where individuals can be moved to do better.

Empathy is also required to build team trust and create a more productive work environment. Research shows that a lack of diversity is drastically affecting the retention of underrepresented groups, which costs the tech industry more than $16 billion every year. Without a company's willingness to engage in inclusive conversations with those most marginalized, the revolving door of diverse talent will spin faster and faster. As a result, many companies are beginning to realize that creating an empathetic work culture slows down that revolving door. They're realizing that empathy ensures all employees -- across the spectrum of physical ability, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, relationship status, financial standing, etc. -- have a voice, are understood and are given equal opportunities to participate in everything from company decisions to company events.

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One way to foster empathy is to encourage inclusion -- and that can start with hiring. Early on at Hired, part of our hiring process involved asking candidates to interact with a strategic board game similar to Battleship, popular in the United States. We realized that the candidates who didn't grow up in the U.S. spent up to 20 minutes just to understand how to play the game, which introduced new challenges as they competed for positions against candidates who grew up playing the game. We recognized that our own hiring practices were putting non-U.S. applicants at an automatic disadvantage, and that we thereby weren't enabling inclusion or fostering empathy for those with a background different from our own.

As a result, we decided to take action. We asked ourselves why we built it this way, and realized that cultural familiarity was one of the many root problems. We listened to our employees who recalled their experiences during this part of the interview, and through empathy and inclusion efforts, we made a change. We altered that portion of the interview so candidates could instead pick between one of three problems to solve, to ensure that those unfamiliar with Battleship weren't negatively impacted -- all with the hope of encouraging a culture of fairness and empathy.

Inclusion efforts apply to staff meetings and social events as well. Executives can make sure the leaders who typically don't have a seat at the table, including those who are underrepresented, are given time to speak on behalf of, and in front of, the company. But their opportunities to speak must be about the work they're doing, not just about diversity. If they're only invited to speak on diversity, there's a danger of alienating them and other employees, as they'll begin to feel excluded as a statistic instead of included as valued members of the team. Further, if it becomes clear that an underrepresented group is rarely attending company social events, company leaders can look for ways to make it more inclusive. Being aware of these aspects can promote inclusivity, and will create more opportunities for everyone to build relationships with people who don't share the same background. This makes it possible for all employees to meet the people, not just read the statistics, that make up their diverse workplace, which builds a foundation for empathy.

Related: Paying Lip Service to Diversity Doesn't Work -- Here's What Does

Building diversity strategies on the human need for empathy can rally a new generation of support -- and if you've already started to take these steps in your company, don't stop now. We'll know we've made progress when instead of widespread eye-rolling, we see widespread support from all company employees. It's exciting to see how our conversations have expanded to talk more about diversity. It's a great first step. Now it's time to act -- by encouraging everyone to support a company culture that promotes empathy.

Janet Ikpa

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Lead at Hired

As the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Lead at Hired, Janet Ikpa drives Hired's diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. She also focuses on increasing the level of inclusion and diversity awareness, commitment and strategic action to attract, hire and develop underrepresented communities in tech.

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