As a member of the LGBTQ community, Jennifer Brown knows as well as anyone how important organizational diversity and inclusion efforts can be. That’s part of why her consulting organization focuses on training leadership and organizations on how best to implement diversity and inclusion strategies. In a recent interview with Brown, we discussed how organizations can get started on creating a workplace that has successful diversity programs.
Fortune 500 Leads the Way
There are quite a few differences between how larger organizations like Fortune 500 companies approach diversity and inclusion and how smaller and midsize organizations approach them. That’s partly due to their monetary and people resources. Brown, who has worked with many Fortune 500 and small and midsize businesses, had some insight into these differences. “There is an accelerating interest and investment both financial and time-wise in this whole topic that I’m really seeing grow, and these leading companies have been at it for years.”
She also said that “it’s not an accident that the world’s biggest companies and the world’s most profitable companies are also the world’s most advanced companies when it comes to diversity and inclusion.” She mentioned that many of them have been applying their efforts for decades. Offering a reason why the top companies have been working so hard at diversity and inclusion, Brown said that “they understand deeply and innately why this is important” because they understand the business case for diversity. That business case surrounds data that “clearly shows the competitive advantage and importance of … having a message around diversity and inclusion.”
The Business Case for Diversity
Studies on this topic have come to one conclusion: Diversity is better for a lot of reasons. One of the most important reasons for business owners is that diversity simply improves the bottom line. According to a 2017 report based on 1,681 companies, organizations with above-average diversity scores reported that 45% of their revenue came from innovations within the last 3 years. Companies with below-average diversity scores, however, reported that only 26% of their revenue came from such innovations. On any scale, that is a huge gap.
Small to Midsize Businesses Have a Lot of Potential but Can Be Stymied with Fewer Resources
For small and midsize businesses, “it’s harder to do diversity and inclusion when you barely can get your needs met with your HR processes,” says Brown. In other words, these companies simply don’t have the kinds of resources that Fortune 500 companies have for creating and maintaining a diversity and inclusion program.
Nevertheless, Brown suggests that there are real problems with not addressing diversity and inclusion “because you are really missing an important opportunity to do the work now.” The sooner businesses can get started, the sooner they can hire and attract more diverse talent. She also cautions businesses to remember “that your marketplace, your buyers, and your customers are diversifying rapidly” and that they will notice if your organization has fallen behind. She adds that “there is such transparency now … and companies that have no public message about diversity are at risk.”
You Can’t Just Solve with Recruiting
Recruiting diverse talent clearly helps a company build diversity. But if that’s the only thing your organization is doing, it won’t be enough. Brown explained that “if you recruit people that are already underrepresented into a workforce that doesn’t feel comfortable for them because of the lack of representation,” they will, at the very least, be unhappy and uncomfortable and be more likely to leave. And if they do leave, they may convey their negative experience to their community, which will most likely avoid applying to your company, creating the potential for a diversity desert.
Getting Things Done on a Budget
Brown had many ideas for how companies such as these can get programs started or improve existing programs without having to spend a lot. Her first piece of advice is “to present the business case to leadership.” Showing leadership how important diversity and inclusion are may convince them to make time and resource investments for improving or starting a program.
Much of Brown’s advice revolves around creating safe spaces for and nurturing diversity groups within the workforce. “First I would inventory the organization and see if there are any champions that are already talking about” diversity. She explained that there are probably already groups in your organization that leadership may not be aware of. She said that “there may be grassroots gatherings going on among affinities, people are meeting, but leadership may not know.” She continued, “If things are informal and organic and off the radar screen, they can be brought in the light” as a formal, acknowledged, and recognized part of a company’s ability to grow.
Even small companies will likely already have these grassroots groups; making the effort to formalize them costs very little and can be very effective, said Brown.
Another choice you have, according to Brown, is to “work at the top of the house. Even if you are a lower level employee. Look for allies, people who are raising their voice,” and get them to lead a diversity or inclusiveness council comprising a couple of senior people. “That can be your channel to leadership, and that group can provide air-cover and funding, and get involved and sponsor any effort you start.”
The beauty of these methods, said Brown, is that you don’t need to spend a lot of time or money to organize them. “In fact,” she said, “it’s how a lot of these efforts have started, by enthusiastic people who care but don’t have it as their job … often because that job doesn’t yet exist.”
Even if you have a very small company, you can still create a diversity committee. “I have a friend at a company with 30 people, and most of the employees are on it.” They have regular meetings, book clubs, and get-togethers and collaborate to form strategies; “I think you can do a lot, you just need to be together. Stick up a flag, say who is interested, get people together, figure out how to get feedback.”
Resistance and Defensiveness
“Every organization needs help,” says Brown, referring to the fact that even the most aware and involved organizations are going to come across challenges that they must meet and overcome with regard to diversity and inclusion. Resistance is one of those challenges and can come in many forms. Any diversity and inclusion program should come with resilience to some inevitable resistance, whether it’s apathy, ignorance, or even accidental.
When asked about this challenge, Brown stated that “there is hope for every person. I really think sometimes resisters can become champions. They just haven’t had the information presented to them in the right way.” They just have to be “unlocked,” she added, whether that be through sharing a personal story, by presenting the data from the business case, or by illuminating their competitive disadvantage. Despite how it is done, when a resister is unlocked, he or she can become a powerful advocate.
Jennifer Brown is a diversity and inclusion expert and the CEO & Founder of Jennifer Brown Consulting.