Diversity in the workplace remains an important topic and issue, facing companies of all sizes. It may have come under fire recently as companies look for budgets to cut, but that does not mean that we should be leaving corporate diversity behind in 2024.
If anything, workplace diversity becomes even more important and can be a big difference in your success as a business owner.
Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.
Most of the time, I hate writing about the same things or the expected things. I like to put my spin on an issue, write about things from an unexpected angle.
In the past, when I’ve been in charge of writing social media or blog posts for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I tried to avoid the standard “look at how diverse this company is.” A few years ago, instead of writing about the same old, same old diversity angle that all corporate accounts were taking, I took a different angle to recognize the day. I talked about an initiative that we started as an employee benefit – student loan repayment.
See, King fought for education equality for everyone. And I was proud of the fact that I was able to push through an initiative to help current employees of that company to pay for their education, whether they were currently in school or still paying the debts of schooling already accomplished. The company benefited from that education and should help employees pay for it.
Also, I’ll completely admit that the company probably wasn’t capable of putting up a really good “look at how diverse we are” kind of post, especially in management ranks, and I didn’t want to be insincere or otherwise portray the company as something it wasn’t. Honesty and all that, even in corporate communications.
But this year, as we approach the Martin Luther King Jr. Day and celebrate his life, work, and legacy, I am going to talk about some of that low-hanging fruit, so to speak. Mostly because I’ve got a story to tell you from a recent interaction with a business owner that I think we need to explore more.
So, what does diversity look like in 2024?
Story Time with a Local Small Business Owner
I had an interesting discussion with a business owner recently. An owner who shall rename nameless, and yes, some of the details have been changed to protect him. However, it is important to talk about the issues that this discussion brought up, both for me and for the owner.
See, he started to say something and then hesitated. But then he said “You are in the South, so you probably understand.”
Here I am thinking: “oh my, where is he going to go with this?” See, I’ve heard a lot of people say a lot of crazy things over the years. Some of which are not fit to be repeated and a lot of what I wish I could forget. But I don’t think I’ll be forgetting this conversation anytime soon.
He then said “I think DEI initiatives are bullshit. Don’t ever bring a DEI initiative to me.” As you can imagine, my eyebrows probably went straight to my hairline and my eyes were comically big.
Here I am, sitting at a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. Home of Dr. King and his family, his church, and the “Cradle of the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” Who is this guy to say that DEI initiatives are bullshit? Sure, Georgia and the South has a bunch of really brutal and ugly history with all things race and diversity, but we’ve also worked really hard to overcome that history. (I know, this is not universal, but in Atlanta, I hope that we have come further than many others, so just keep rolling with the story.)
To say I was shocked, that a business leader would say such a thing to me, a woman first of all, but also to a lawyer – oh my. This is going to get crazy.
He went on to tell me that when he was at a recent company event, he looked around, and he saw that the staff he put together was diverse – he has adults from 21 to 80 years old on his staff. The staff has a good mix of men and women (he made no mention of and I am not aware of any non-binary staff members). The staff is of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and he also mentioned that some staff members had a variety of disabilities.
OK, so this is bad, but it is not nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. The longer the conversation went on, the less bad it really got. And while I’ll never recommend that anyone come out and say “DEI initiatives are bullshit,” I did eventually see the good intentions behind his statement.
So let’s break down this story and where there is likely still room for improvement.
Doing The Right Thing
If everyone always did the right thing, then there wouldn’t be a need for so many of the laws that we have. I mean, seriously, my life would be so much easier as a lawyer, although we probably wouldn’t need so many of us to begin with.
But, alas, we don’t always do the right thing. So we, as a society, have built rules and norms around our lives to help us and others do what we, as a society, have deemed to be the “right thing” whether that means wearing seat belts and car safety to not killing our neighbors.
In the business world, we have lots of laws to protect the less powerful – think workplace safety because of the injuries that factory workers would get, limits on child labor, minimum wage, and yes, anti-discrimination laws.
I could talk for days on the business case for doing the right thing. But honestly, you’ve heard all of them before and don’t need them repeated. And you wouldn’t be here reading this post if you still need to convinced to do the right thing. So I’ll save both of us the time by not repeating the stats and reasons to build a diverse workforce.
The bottom line is really there’s an awesome business case for it AND because it’s the right thing to do.
The Basics of Employment Non-Discrimination Laws
I’m not going to even begin to claim that I can cover the U.S. employment non-discrimination laws in a single blog post. Not even a book. Seriously, there are a lot of them, and they are complicated. In addition to federal laws, you can also add a variety of state and local laws that make the world even more complex.
But the basic premise of all non-discrimination laws in the United States is that it is “illegal to discriminate against someone because of that person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.”
In addition, it is illegal to retaliate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a complaint, or participated in an investigation or lawsuit concerning potential workplace discrimination. These laws cover every aspect of employment, from recruiting and hiring to employment to termination.
It’s Not About Checking the Boxes
While the business owner in question has built a good staff that appears diverse, it is worth reminding him and everyone else that diversity is not about “checking the box” to be able to say that you have white and black, Hispanic and Asian, men and women, young and old, straight and gay, able-bodied and disabled.
Sure, that’s a good first step, and I do not want to discount that since we live in a world where a lot of people have been excluded from any employment at many companies for a very long time. We are also in an era of “manels,” a lineup of speakers at a conference that are all male and usually white, and very homogeneous boardrooms, typically also male and white.
But now, it is time to go beyond the surface level. Let’s get to the meaning and purpose of DEI that’s more than checking the box.
How Diverse is Management?
One of the first things that we look at is the diversity of the management ranks. It’s not OK if your diversity is all in the entry-level ranks. The managers and the executive suite also need to be diverse.
Also, is the diversity limited to certain functions that are more common for women to hold? Think about it: how many companies have used the Chief Human Resources Officer to “check the box” of diversity in the C-suite by filling that spot with a woman? But how many women are the head of Research and Development? Operations? Legal? Or even the CEO office?
The business owner has done an acceptable job in building his management ranks. He, as the CEO is a white male. His number two is also a white male. However, there are others in management – in VP or Director-level roles – that are diverse. As he continues to grow the company and the management ranks become larger, I hope that the diversity continues to grow as well and provide for more diversity at the very top of his organization.
Discrepancies in Training and Mentoring
Along with the current management team, we need to look at the future of our management team. Ask yourself, are we doing a good job of training and mentoring the next group of managers and executives to lead? Are we providing the future leaders with the development that we need for them to take over leadership positions?
One of the big employee retention factors is career development. This needs to be done for all employees, regardless of diversity efforts. But providing an equality of opportunity to all employees, regardless of their diversity characteristics, is important in retaining employees. Excluding diverse employees from these opportunities is a quick way to run them out of your organization and also impact the management team of tomorrow.
Discrepancies in Salary
Another area that is often a miss when it comes to diversity, and can/has lead to many lawsuits, is discrepancies in salary based on protected classes.
When it comes time to offer potential new employees or to give raises to current employees, it is easy for dramatic pay discrepancies to appear, especially over time. Think about it: if women are less likely to negotiate their salaries than men and then future pay raises are based off those starting salaries, it will not take long for large discrepancies between the pay of women and men.
One of the things that the business owner I was talking to made sure to reassure me was that the company had recently put in pay bands to help this. Each position has a range that they will pay which does help to limit or mitigate this risk.
However, it is also not uncommon for companies (definitely not saying this one has, but just in general) to make exceptions to pay bands. So over time, it is important to do at least annual company-wide compensation reviews to ensure that the salary and bonuses have parity between protected classes or that exceptions can be explained.
Diversity is More Than The Protected Classes
There is a lot more to diversity than the protected classes like race, gender, national origin, etc. Those are just the beginning.
There are other areas where we should encourage diversity – first generation college graduates, socio-economic diversity, geographic diversity, single parents, and body size are just a few examples of categories that we can help to build a more diverse workforce.
When you listen to sales and marketing training, you’ll hear it once and you’ll hear it a million times – we buy from those that we “know, like, and trust.”
And we all have a tendency to use short-cuts in that process. We trust you because you have warm, inviting eyes or smile. We like you because we have a similar background. And we know you because you have similar experiences. It’s literally human nature.
We have to work to overcome that tendency, especially when we are building our team around us. Because that short-cut process often sends us down really bad roads to illegal discrimination and a lack of diversity in our workforce.
For example, if you want to recruit new employees from your college only, because you have short-cut the “know, like, trust” process, you may be excluding a lot of diverse individuals from your workforce. Think about legacy admissions when diverse candidates were long excluded from that school. Will your candidate pool be sufficiently diverse to ensure you have quality candidates to build a diverse workforce?
We don’t set out to make these bad decisions, but often our unconscious biases lead us to these bad decisions. So it’s on us to be aware of how these can play out as we build and manage our teams.
Blind Resume/Interviews and Recruiting
We all want to hire the best and brightest to work in our companies, right? What if our unconscious bias is hindering that, right at the very beginning of the process?
One way that companies can work to overcome this is to review resumes and conduct interviews blind. No, I’m not talking about putting blindfolds on people, at least not literally.
But you can remove names and address information from resumes when you review them. This will protect you from possibly excluding potential employees based on things like national origin or even race. Yes, there are tons of cases out there about hiring processes excluding people because the name doesn’t sound white.
Similarly, don’t look at pictures so that you are not enabling your unconscious bias to make snap decisions based on characteristics of protected classes. You can also have a round of phone interviews versus Zoom interviews for the same reason. Give yourself and your hiring managers a chance to make some decisions that do as much as possible to exclude these bad decisions based on unconscious bias.
Unconscious bias also plays a big role in how we develop our team members. Let’s go back to the mentoring and training topic from before. Do we always mentor people that look like us and that we connect easiest to? Is that bias harming the professional development of our team?
It is important that we ensure that our professional development efforts are not hampered by our unconscious biases in who, how, and when we help our team members. This should be a consistent effort, across the board for everyone.
Long-Term Commitment to Diversity
Look, I get it. We never want to be told that we are wrong, that we have failed to do something as a business owner or leader. Initiatives, especially in this context, are often seen as a way to correct some wrong of the past, our failures of building a diverse workplace.
So, when the business owner has someone tell him that he needs to have a DEI initiative, he sees that as a personal accusation that has failed to do something as a leader. I don’t think that this particular small business leader has done a bad job at diversity in his company – he’s actually done a pretty good job, all things considered.
But as he, and all of us, continue to grow our companies, we have to maintain a long-term commitment to diversity. We need to continue to work to get better, making the effort to increase all aspects of diversity, equity, and belonging in our workplaces.
And yes, the business case is there – from employee recruiting and retention, to customer loyalty, and to your personal growth.
Building an Inclusive Workplace
It’s not all about building a diverse team. The long-term commitment involves retaining the diverse employees that you have hired. We’ve already talked a bit about how training and career development play a major role in that.
But there are other things that you can do as a leader to help build an inclusive workplace.
Have you taken a look at the benefits your company offers? Does your selection of employee benefits help attract and retain diverse employees?
Some of the benefits that specifically may help you build an inclusive workplace include:
- Flexible Holidays: Not everyone is Christian, so if your paid company holidays all revolve around Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas, you will be leaving some employees behind. You can build a more inclusive workplace by having floating holidays – perhaps the employee wants to take off Jewish or Muslim holidays instead of Christian holidays. Or they want to take MLK Day and Juneteenth instead. Offer your employees a chance to pick which holidays they want to observe. Bonus: you won’t have to work as hard to find coverage on those typically hard to cover holidays.
- Parental Leave: Especially for moms, maternity leave can be really important to feeling welcome in a workplace. This time to physically recover from a traumatic medical event (no matter what they say, pregnancy is traumatic to the mother’s body) and to bond with the child is a wonderful benefit for the mother. Go that extra step and extend the parental leave for fathers and yes, same-sex couples of either gender. You’ll attract a lot of potential new parents to your company.
- Student Loan Repayment Programs: Want to attract employees that are first generation college students? This could help diversity in a lot of protected classes, including race, gender, national origin, and more. And some classes that are not protected, but are still important. After all, college education is expensive these days, so let’s help out the younger generation (and even some GenX students that still have college loans).
- Flexible Work Options: Historically, minorities have had to deal with a lot of harassment in the workplace. Some of this is in the form of micro-agressions. When companies went remote during the pandemic, many minorities reported greater satisfaction with their work when they did not have to deal with this harassment on a daily basis. Remote work also gives more options for single parents dealing with child care issues and for disabled individuals that may find it difficult to commute daily.
Celebrate Diversity in Authentic Ways
A major step towards building that diverse and inclusive workplace is celebrating the differences between our employees. It’s not about “not seeing color.” It’s about recognizing and celebrating what makes each of us unique.
Where many companies will get this wrong is that the celebrations are not meaningful or authentic. They are a check the box kind of deal – adding a menorah at Hanakkah to the Christmas decorations, having a taco bar on Cinco de Mayo, etc.
You can make these more authentic in a variety of ways – have a learning session where either employees or outside speakers talk about the differences in religious practices so that we can all understand each other better. Hire a local small business owner to cater a meal from their heritage (think: Indian restaurateur to cater an Indian meal, Jamaican chef to cater a meal of Jamaican food, etc). Buy art for your office from culturally diverse artists. If you play music at the office, include artists from a variety of domestic and international backgrounds.
The key to making these efforts authentic is that they go beyond the performative. Getting tacos from a large multi-national, private equity backed company doesn’t hit the same way as getting a catered lunch from a local, authentic Mexican restaurant. Adding the extra step of supporting another locally owned small business makes the effort more impactful.
Don’t Forget About Your External Facing Efforts
Your employees watch what you are doing internally. But they also watch what you do externally. One way to increase the sense of inclusiveness and belonging in your employees is to make sure that you are showcasing them externally.
When you are building your marketing programs, are you highlighting the accomplishments of your team members? Are the ones that you are featuring from a diverse background? Or are those employees always the same group of individuals?
What you show in your marketing and how you treat your customers goes a long ways in how your employees feel. An easy step to improving the inclusive workplace and to make customers feel welcome is to include diverse representations in your marketing.
Also, make sure that you have a diverse team that can give critical feedback on your marketing efforts. You really don’t want to step into a mess because you made culturally insensitive comments, claims, or representations because your marketing team is not diverse. It will hurt your brand, with both customers and employees.
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I had the chance to get to know Dr. Nika White, an expert on all things diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. She released a book in 2023 called Inclusion Uncomplicated where she gives simple and practical tips to improving diversity in the workplace. I highly recommend that you read this book – it’s an easy read for leaders at every stage of the management ladder to help improve DEI in their workplaces. But while it is an easy read, you’ll learn some great tips that you can use right away to help the long-term commitment to DEI.
And finally, Dr. White would probably agree with the business owner that I’ve talked about here. In Chapter 7 of Inclusion Uncomplicated, she talks about transforming the corporate culture. And she says it isn’t about programs or initiatives. To Dr. White, diversity is about your culture – what you do every day over the long-term.
So maybe in the end, the business owner was right. DEI initiatives are bullshit. You shouldn’t NEED one to do the right thing. But until all the other companies out there catch up, we can use these initiatives to push those recalcitrant executives forwards into enlightenment.