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How Diversity Helped Bring My Company Together By allowing employees a safe place to discuss social justice and providing training on how to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace, we have been able to create a better workplace for everyone.

By Kathy Jeffery Edited by Amanda Breen

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Diversity, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, "is the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations."

It is well known that in business, diversity and inclusion are key to unlocking new and innovative ideas, as well as increased productivity. Yet many companies struggle to prioritize hiring diverse candidates whether at an individual, leadership, executive or board level. Even with states like California, Washington, Massachusetts and New Jersey mandating board diversity, the numbers are still dismal. While hiring like-minded individuals might provide comfort, you don't always get innovative thinking. Your ability to solicit different perspectives is limited compared to what a more diverse group of individuals can bring.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a shift on the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion to take into consideration: ensuring there is a sense of belonging. Belonging is more than just getting a board position or a seat at the table. It is being asked your opinion, having your voice heard and respected, and being an active participant in the dialogue. As a company's diversity of thought forms into a superorganism, those that encourage belonging can be the advantage that sets them apart from the competition.

The social unrest and injustices that we saw last year caused a lot of angst and really spurred people around the world to want change from the brutality and dehumanization that was happening to people of color. In my own company, I could see that our employees were struggling with how to be an ally and, in many cases, not knowing what they could do to help their fellow co-workers. As a chief people officer who focuses largely on company culture and emphasizes the importance of empathy, we had begun the year prior embedding DEI and belonging in our culture, but 2020 was the impetus that allowed us to invest more deeply and devise a plan to action.

Related: Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices for Your Workforce

Open discussions on social justice

After looking at every aspect of the organization from a holistic viewpoint to better understand how and where diversity affects it the website, its leadership team, policies, and the way that we recruit, reward and compensate we decided as an organization to prioritize having social-justice discussions where employees could talk openly about social-justice issues that concerned and affected them. We prioritized these discussions because we believe giving employees a platform to express their viewpoints is the best way to build a sense of belonging and a culture of caring and compassion.

In families where there's dysfunction, it's often because they don't talk about things, and when they don't talk about things, everybody makes assumptions, which leads to conflicts. We didn't want that to happen to us, so we said, "Let's talk about it, let's have conversations with employees and really open it up to what's going on in the world." We had a series of discussions on racism and policing. We talked about the hate crimes against Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and the challenges that the LGBTQIA+ community faces.

All of these discussions were held as open forums that would start off with a short video and a few questions and then would open up for discussion so employees could ask questions and express their experiences. It was an opportunity to better understand the struggles others were facing, and although some stories were heart-wrenching, it taught us in an eye-opening fashion that the only way to understand what someone is going through is to listen and put yourself in his or her shoes. So, while uncomfortable for some, it was short-term; the discussions were powerful and strongly welcomed by everyone in the organization. Throughout each discussion, we encouraged employees to be present in their discomfort in order to have more productive conversations.

Related: We All Know There Is a Lack of Diversity in the Workplace. Who Is Responsible?

Training, empathy and a support network

Through the social-justice discussions, we also learned that we needed allyship training because people still felt like their hands were tied behind their backs and didn't know what to do. We provided allyship training for the entire organization to help everyone understand the importance of being an ally, the action that allyship supports and to really emphasize having empathy for others. We coined a term internally called "unified empathy" for our leaders to commit to positively impacting those around them. We provided resource materials for our leaders and employees to educate themselves and discuss ways to learn about social-justice issues. We encouraged getting to know employees and what matters most to them by using curiosity so that in the event that a team member is affected, they are knowledgeable and able to support appropriately. Ensuring our leaders are prepared and our employees have access to support networks and mental-health benefits has played an enormous role in creating a safe environment amid the turmoil of current events.

Related: 4 Lessons 2020 Taught Us About Adaptability in the Workplace

Bring in an outside consulting firm or your curiosity

If your organization is able to hire a consulting firm, do it. Professional consultants are great at spotting weaknesses and creating strategy maps to help move diversity forward. We took a multiple pronged approach by hiring a firm that provided a learning platform with a dozen or so micro-learnings on topics like unconscious bias, inclusive hiring for managers and allyship, which were implemented into our organization, along with an assessment of over 300 questions to discover internally and externally how we were affecting our customers, patients and employees. We looked at every corner internally for diversity in our processes and systems. And so, with the information gathered from the assessment, they were able to pinpoint areas that need improvement and provide guidelines for us to achieve short- and long-term goals that we ultimately will align with our values and embed in our culture. These insights have been extremely helpful.

For startups and companies that are small or don't have the kind of money available to bring in an outside consultant, my advice is to look at your company from all different avenues and do a thorough analysis yourself and, of course, include people different from you and listen to what they have to say. While recruiting is a great place to start to bring diversity to your company, it shouldn't be the only thing you look at. Get the conversation on diversity going, ensure people have a platform and encourage hearing different perspectives, create a safe space, research best practices and be creative in finding ways to bring people together.

As a multiracial woman who can pass as a white woman, I know that my privilege helped me in my career. Earlier in my career, I was rather introverted, and it took me a while to believe that people really wanted to hear my opinion. It was through great managers that believed in me, and ultimately believing in myself, that I found my voice. Your business will experience the benefits of diversity improved employee performance and morale, greater innovation and increased profitability first-hand, which proves that your life can only become richer when incorporating more diversity.

Kathy Jeffery

CPO of Pear Therapeutics

Kathy Jeffery is an empathetic and results-driven leader of people and culture, leadership learning, DEI, health and wellness and HR technology.

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