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Diversity Hands

Done Right, Inclusivity Is Good Business

Dec. 4, 2020
When a diverse workforce feels safe psychologically, they perform better.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding workforce diversity training in the United States right now. That is not likely to go away anytime soon, but one fact management needs to remember is that when inclusive policies are implemented correctly, they add to workplace harmony and improve productivity.

Copious research has shown this to be real. Studies conducted by several top universities support the idea that diversity makes teams work harder and delivers a higher quality of work. In 2018, McKinsey & Co. reported that public companies in the top quartile for gender diversity and ethnic and racial diversity in management were 21% and 33%, respectively, more likely to have returns above the industry mean.

A Boston Consulting Group study also found that companies with higher levels of gender, geographical or industry diversity also enjoyed greater revenue derived from the development of new products and services. (The same study also found that innovation jumps once the proportion of female managers within an organization rises above 20%.)

But you can’t have innovation if employees are afraid to speak their minds. “A workplace where employees believe they can speak up candidly with ideas, questions and concerns, and even make mistakes without fear of reprisal or adverse repercussions, contributes to inclusivity and can improve performance. This construct is called psychological safety,” says Michael D. Thomas, principal attorney in the Los Angeles office of the Jackson Lewis law firm.

“When employees feel free from worrying about repercussions—how they will be perceived or what people will think of them—they are able to be more engaged and connected in the workplace. They spend less time and energy being stressed or anxious, can create more mental space to think creatively, share their unique perspectives, and are more actively engaged in problem solving.”

Thomas offers several tips about how management can create a safe, inclusive environment for their employees:

Understand stereotypes and preconceptions, and conduct a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) assessment.

“We all have conscious and unconscious biases,” he notes. “Unconscious biases are more concerning because, by definition, we are not fully aware of them. Unconscious biases are beliefs about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. A critical step in creating psychological safety is to understand one’s personal biases, along with those of the organization.”

He explains that an initial step in creating psychological safety is discussing bias, as well as conducting anti-bias training. However, implementing diversity initiatives in a vacuum can actually turn out to be harmful for an organization. A better approach is to conduct a DEI assessment of key metrics and cultural indicators, and then prepare a DEI strategic plan to inform development of effective initiatives.

(DEI assessment tools and plans are widely available and can be easily found through a quick search of the Internet. One simple, easy-to-understand plan for creating one comes from the Society for Human Resource Management.)

Empathize and be curious.

Put yourself in the shoes of a new employee and try imagining what they are going through, especially when this person is a different race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability or status from the majority of employees, Thomas recommends.

Don’t apply a one-size-fits-all approach to creating teams or assigning supervisors without understanding the potential for those who are underrepresented to feel excluded. Empathizing with the experience of employees who may be doubted or judged because of personal characteristics could change how you create teams and assign supervisors.

Empathy and curiosity in the workplace include asking employees about their ideal supervision: the style of communication (email or call), type of feedback (direct or example), and frequency of checking in (daily or weekly). This doesn’t mean that you have to accommodate all these requests, but listening and trying goes a long way, he argues, saying it builds trust and encourages employees to “buy in” and feel engaged.

Onboard with intentionality.

An important step in mitigating cultural barriers occurs at the start of employment in the form of effective onboarding. Thomas cites research showing that this brings new employees up to speed 50% faster, which means they’re more quickly and efficiently able to contribute to achieving desired goals. Effective onboarding also is said to dramatically reduce failure rates and increase employee engagement and retention.

Often employers believe the best approach is to hire talent and provide training over time, he points out. “But making efforts to help employees feel welcome and valued upfront will build confidence and belief that they belong. It will also reduce stress and anxiety and create an initial feeling that it is safe to engage or add value. Moreover, if an organization lacks diversity, careless onboarding can heighten feelings among underrepresented employees of not belonging.”

Be consistent.

Litigation can arise when communication and behavior do not align. Make sure actions match your messaging. In recent times many employers have released statements committing to fight against racism and to promote diversity and inclusion. “Public statements and training, however, must result in changes in workplace behavior, otherwise you lose credibility with employees,” Thomas warns.

Similarly, some workplaces have “unwritten rules” on achieving success, which can run counter to an inclusive environment because of inconsistency between written metrics for performance and promotion and workplace realities. If a functioning inclusive environment is in place, there would be no need for any unwritten rules. Until that is the case, knowing the unwritten rules or what they may be up against at a minimum empowers an individual to make more informed decisions about navigating their way, he says.

Psychological safety ultimately involves trust, which takes time to build and work to keep. If an employer’s actions are inconsistent with its diversity and inclusion messaging, it will lose credibility. “Employees, particularly those who are underrepresented or who have been marginalized, will feel less safe in the workplace because of these inconsistencies.”

Develop opportunities for more interpersonal interactions.

Employees need to have more opportunities to interact organically to form social bonds and trust over time. If employees feel more comfortable in the workplace, they are more likely to discuss any disputes internally and seek to resolve them cooperatively.

“When management takes the time to build an understanding of other people, it becomes more comfortable to speak up. It is helpful for workplaces to think of ways to foster and support positive, healthy interactions among employees,” Thomas observes. This may include collaborations across teams, informal discussion at periodic team meetings, or setting boundaries and expectations for employee interpersonal engagements that are informed by inclusion.

Recognize the value of a diverse pool of employees.

When you create a work environment where employees see a representation of themselves in varying positions within the workplace, they are more likely to feel comfortable being themselves. One way to achieve this is by increasing the diversity of the pool of candidates considered for positions. The Rooney Rule in the National Football League and the Mansfield Rule adopted by numerous law firms are two examples of ways to increase diversity within all levels of an organization, Thomas argues.

“Diversity and inclusion is a journey. Like most journeys, a well-crafted vision is key to its success, but be wary of legal traps. Failing to think strategically about diversity can result in employees feeling unsafe in the workplace,” he says. “A well-crafted diversity and inclusion strategy fueled by data from a diversity assessment creates more employee engagement, less employee turnover, and, importantly, helps reduce stress, anxiety and fear that may result in litigation.”

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