5 Tips to Start Practical Diversity and Inclusion Activity for Your Organisation

Diversity is all about difference in the workplace. Difference in age, gender, cultural background and ethnicity. With diversity comes different views, a greater level of different experiences and opportunities for learning. It leads to better decisions and there is growing, compelling evidence it leads to better performance. Potential employees, particularly millennials, will be drawn to workplaces that have a strong emphasis on diversity, as a hallmark of being a better corporate citizen. Large customers are assessing potential suppliers on the evidence of how they deal with diversity in the workplace, and granting business accordingly.

So, should you care about diversity as an SME? You bet you should.

You may have thought that diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) programs were part of corporate, government or businesses with deep pockets. However, organisations of all sizes will be under pressure to show plans, policies and actions regarding DEI. Social movements such as ‘#MeToo’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ are putting the spotlight on prejudice, discrimination and equality on a global scale.

So how does this all boil down to you doing something about diversity in your business, no matter how small or large?

Here are some critical steps on what you can do now to tackle DEI:

1. Recognise and understand your diversity position

Do a quick exercise to assess what current levels of diversity you have. Have a look at the ownership, board, executive, management and employee levels. Include temporary and contract staff. Start with the ratios of gender, people of colour and age. You might find that you have a management team that is 20% female, but an overall employee picture of 45% female. The numbers matter so you can have an informed conversation.

2. Add diversity and inclusion to your values and policies and make them visible

Most organisations, of any size, will have policies on safety, bullying and harassment, and equal opportunity – these are a ‘must’ to do business. Similarly, people are now starting to look for policies and value statements on DEI. These might be prospective customers, suppliers or employees. Make these policies and/or values visible on your website and other platforms where people will go to look up your company.

3. Understand your bias

Much is said now about ‘unconscious bias’. The simple fact is, we treat people who look different to us…well, different. Even very well-meaning experts fail the various tests of treating everyone the same. But it is what you do after the initial response that is important. Many of us overcompensate and start treating people like pets. Or we develop an exaggerated interest in someone’s country of origin and ‘what it is like over there’. (Hint—most people initially want to fit in and don’t want a fuss made of where they came from. The same goes for someone younger or older than the average. They don’t want their age to be constantly referred to).

The point is, that bias exists in everyone, but we have to learn to counteract that without overcompensating. Treating everyone as valuable, required and unique is the goal, difficult as it is.

4. Start the DEI conversation with your current staff

You don’t have to be a diversity expert to start having the conversation with your staff. Just as you would with things like safety, bullying or cybersecurity, many of your issues and solutions will be uncovered by starting a genuine conversation. It will be uncomfortable at first, but not talking about it is embedding the problem further.

When I started working many years ago, it was commonplace for men to refer to women’s menstrual cycle in terms of behaviour. If a sharp word was said, or a conflict took place, it was put down to ‘that time of the month’. Women who were in management positions and were assertive and confident ‘had balls’. The world may have moved on in recent decades, but there are possibly still some people in your organisation who may use prejudicial language against women and others. This is often done in humour.

­­­This needs to be part of your ongoing conversations with your team to help stamp out any form of discrimination, even in jest, so that you keep moving towards an inclusive workplace.

5. Change your hiring practices

There are many well-known studies about how overtly prejudiced a typical recruitment cycle can be, such as the case of a famous US orchestra that was dominated by males for years and women musicians were not hired. Even though the audition took place behind a curtain, the male leaders of the orchestra could hear the applicant walking to their station. They could usually detect the walk of a woman compared to a man. Once applicants were told to take their shoes off before walking onto the stage, women musicians started getting hired on merit…

While your process may not be as dramatic, you can do some simple things to help eradicate bias.

  1. Look at the language of your ads. Do you include hard messages such as, ‘Needs to thrive in stressful situations’? Or ‘has to deal with conflict’ or ‘needs to be flexible with working hours’. If you are, then you are not attracting a broad range of candidates and mainly appealing to a male bravado. Most professional jobs will come with some stress and conflict but do you need to call it out before a candidate has even thought about joining your organisation?
  2. Go easy on the gaps. Consider last year. Many good people lost their job in March 2020 and had very few prospects of finding another. Similarly, women (and men) who spent one or two years having a child and devoted themselves to parenting find their prospects can diminish – one of the most difficult and educational experiences you can have. Yet we judge a CV with gaps in employment and worry that they’ve been ‘out of the game too long’ or will have difficulty ‘getting up to speed’.
  3. Go easy on the café job. Similar to (b) above, someone may have spent a long time finding the job they are qualified for and so they worked in a café or bar to make ends meet. This shows a tendency for hard work and resilience, yet we will often judge it as a negative.
  4. Confidence is not everything. Many high achievers (women and men) are not confident, assertive people and often cannot explain their achievements well in an interview, or, in some cases, are reluctant to bring them up at all. You need to be able to look for this and work harder to draw this out when interviewing candidates. Don’t rush to judgement in that they ‘looked good on paper’ but couldn’t ‘cut it’ at the interview and then get drawn to candidates who are super confident and strident.

There is much ground to cover with DEI. It is not just the latest US management fad and will affect all businesses of all sizes in Australia. It should not be a ‘tick the boxes’ exercise but one that reflects your values and your human approach to doing business overall. Getting on the front foot now to set up a more diverse and inclusive workforce will improve your business immensely, now and in the future.