Diversity & Inclusion

HR Pro on the Value of DEI: Differences Spark Innovation, Engagement

Chad Sorenson, president of the HR Florida State Council, the state affiliate for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), has over 25 years of experience in business, both in corporate communications and HR. And it’s that experience that has prompted him to do a lot of thinking about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workforce.

Through his work with employers, he’s seen firsthand how important diversity is in an organization. When an employer focuses on DEI efforts, “you’re going to see an organization that has a high level of employee engagement,” Sorenson says. “And when you see that, you’ll see everyone coming together.”

And people coming together from diverse backgrounds produces outstanding results, Sorenson adds. “The differences produce more innovation, more innovative ways of thinking about issues. Problem-solving will happen.”

Strong DEI efforts contribute in other ways, as well. “If you take a look at diverse organizations that interact with the community, the more that they mirror what the community looks like, the more the community is going to feel comfortable working with that organization,” Sorenson says.

Conversations Are Key

In addition to his role with HR Florida, Sorenson is president of Adaptive HR Solutions, a company he started a little over 12 years ago in the middle of the Great Recession—“not because I wanted to, but because I had to because the recession impacted me as well.”

Through his company, Sorenson has focused a lot of his efforts on leadership development and training, which has helped him develop ideas about how companies can incorporate DEI into the workforce. His approach starts with conversations with employees.

“Talk to employees,” Sorenson says. “Understand what their concerns are. The last thing you want to do is develop a plan in what you think works without having the employee conversation, and then it completely flops because there’s a huge disconnect.”

The conversations can be formal or informal. They can be facilitated by employee resource groups (ERGs), or a company can create a new full-time position or have someone already in the organization take on the responsibility. No matter how it’s done, Sorenson says, the company needs to be intentional about the effort.

Guard Against Preconceived Notions

An organization won’t have a diverse and inclusive workforce without taking steps at the recruitment and hiring level. Sorenson notes his goal in recruitment is to remove the preconceived notions that can sabotage recruiting for diversity.

“You see someone walking down the street, or you see someone walking in for an interview, or you listen to an accent or dialect on the phone, and you get these preconceived notions, which are often wrong, about a candidate,” Sorenson says.

One way to tackle the unintended bias is to focus on the necessary requirements for the job. Sorenson says to think about both the hard and the soft skills and the various other qualities needed for the job. Ask questions such as “Does the new hire need to be a team player, an individual contributor, someone who has experience working with blue-collar employees, or someone who has focused on vendor relationships?”

“Whatever it is, make a list of all the requirements and then compare each candidate with that list,” Sorenson says. That’s important “because too often we compare one candidate to another right off the bat, and we have inherent biases that sometimes get in the way.”

When each candidate is analyzed in terms of job requirements, those involved in hiring may be in for a surprise. When candidates are given a simple rating on each job requirement, “you may start to see a pattern where you’ve removed the bias … because you’re only focusing on that one skill at a time, and then you start to take a look at the whole picture of the candidate,” Sorenson says.

“I’ve seen where a candidate who didn’t have a fighting chance before all of a sudden rose to be the best candidate,” Sorenson adds. Individuals who may have a characteristic that would put them in last place if only compared with other candidates instead of the job’s requirements may end up on top when matched up to the position’s needs.

Training Hiring Teams Vital

In addition to focusing on job requirements, people involved in hiring need to understand why workforce diversity builds strong organizations, Sorenson says. Focusing on the preconceived notions that lead to implicit bias can derail DEI efforts. Sorenson notes training is key to building awareness about the tension that often occurs between people because of characteristics like race, sexual orientation, national origin, etc.

Training can help hiring teams “see from another perspective and help them understand why diverse thought and different folks coming in can really help the company grow,” Sorenson adds. The goal is to make sure people understand that biases exist, and issues can be created “if we’re not intentional about recognizing it.”

The aim of training should be to promote awareness of implicit bias, not to create a colorblind organization, says Sorenson. Organizations need to learn to recognize differences and “appreciate what everyone can bring to the organization.” Organizations make progress when they appreciate race and culture, disabilities or special abilities, and people from different backgrounds and countries, he adds.

“I’ve seen efforts like that start to turn organizations, and it’s not a one-shot,” Sorenson says. “None of these things are one time. Boom, we did it. OK, check the box, move on to something else. It’s a continuous effort that has to happen.”

Sorenson notes that hiring teams also need people who will challenge the preconceived ideas of others, someone who will say, “So, tell me why you’re thinking that because it sounds like you’re doing that just based on this characteristic.” Such challenges are thought-provoking and help people see when they need to look at a situation differently.

Societal Concerns

Organizations aren’t immune to concerns of the outside world. Sorenson says efforts such as the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements can serve to start conversations within organizations. Those conversations can help employers understand how they may need to make changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents another challenge for organizations—one that potentially can disrupt DEI efforts. “I think because COVID was all-encompassing and so many things changed because of it, DEI efforts may have slipped out of focus, because there were urgent concerns, and it’s a matter of life and death with COVID,” Sorenson says.

But helping employees feel valued in the workplace is also vital, he adds. When planning how to make workplaces safe from COVID, organizations need to examine how plans may positively, negatively, or neutrally affect DEI efforts “because we don’t want to unintentionally create disparate treatment for one particular class or characteristic of employee, so we need to make sure that everyone knows that DEI is important as we go through this,” he says.

“I think when it comes down to it, DEI efforts are part of a respectful workplace, and I conduct a training in which I say a respectful workplace is not just the absence of disrespect,” Sorenson says. “A respectful workplace is where everyone can come to work to give their best and to feel valued because of it.”