Companies hear it all the time: Workplace diversity pays. Businesses with policies that reflect value for diverse employees and opinions not only report more engaged and productive teams, but also a better bottom line.
And plenty of recent studies back that up. An analysis of 40 different studies comprising 1,800 professionals found that firms benefited when their workforce incorporated a healthy mix of both inherent and acquired diversity.
Inherent diversity reflects the genetic and ethnic traits you may have been born with. Acquired diversity describes your distinctive expertise and skills that facilitate success in your field. In this research, firms that took advantage of this “2-D” definition of diversity were 45 percent more likely to see increased earnings in market share. According to the research, 2-D diversity also yielded significantly greater opportunities for companies to capture a new market.
That’s all fine and good, you may say, but how do you build this intentional corporate policy? And how do you ensure the spirit of these policies is reflected in day-to-day operations? What are the ingredients to corporate change?
Clearly it’s not as simple as hiring a few more people with diverse backgrounds or including more women in executive positions. How do you build a business that speaks to the values of today’s marketplace and today’s workforce?
Driving an inclusive corporate policy
To delve into that question, we turned to Jennifer Brown, a diversity consultant based in New York. The author of a new book, “Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change” (to be released November 2016), Brown served as a consultant to some of the largest corporations in global manufacturing, insurance and banking sectors.
In many cases, she said, companies come armed with the same basic question: What does it take to become a company that reflects the values of today’s diverse society?
Frequently, she said, the company asking that question has just suffered a loss. Either a corporate account or a potential business relationship delivered the bad news in one way or another: Your corporate values don’t appear to match ours.
In other words, a “lack of traction in diversity and inclusion was a contributing factor to losing that relationship or not being able to pursue that relationship.”
As painful as those words are to hear, Brown told us, they amount to actionable advice for the company that really wants to transform its image and the productivity of its workforce.
Brown said one of the first things to remember is that corporate change happens from the top down, not the other way around. “Embedding the expectation that there will be diverse representation in key corporate practices and policies” is crucial. That includes everything from recruitment to the much more complex questions of how a company builds its corporate culture, such as: “How do we grow them, promote them, invest in them [and] advance them?” Brown said demographics speak volumes about your workplace policies as well.
But it’s also important to remember your workforce isn’t the only representation that tells a story about your values. Your suppliers, customers and vendors do as well. Are your policies and procedures open and supportive of small business owners that offer a product or service you need? Are you reaching out to diverse communities when seeking new customers and clients?
“Workforce, workplace and marketplace [represent] the value equation for diversity inclusion,” Brown said. “And there are multiple opportunities in each one of them.” Businesses should know [their] data, be analyzing [their] current state as an organization and bench marking [themselves] against other companies” while at the same time, “setting goals and targets for improvement.”
She said it’s good to keep in mind that very few, if any, companies have actually attained all of their goals when it comes to building a diverse and inclusive company.
“Some of those arenas are harder than others to tackle,” Brown told TriplePundit. “[Start] by understanding the makeup of your workforce, first and foremost: who you are bringing in, who you are promoting up. Make sure you have that human resources data to look at. I would say that’s primary.” Look at your marketplace. You may not be capturing as much as you would expect.
And keep in mind that “diversity is your friend,” Brown continued.
“It is your enabler for sales. It is your enabler for building and keeping more relationships that impact your bottom line, that permeable membrane between what is inside the company and the external world. You want the diversity [of your workforce] to resonate with diversity of your customers and your marketplace outside the company.”
Executive leaders set the tone of the conversation
Of course an inclusive team isn’t the only indicator of a diverse workplace. “The role of top leadership is so important” to building a company’s image.
“What the chief executive says or doesn’t say and how effectively [leaders] communicate” plays a huge role in how employees perceive the environment they work in, the expectations and the risks of being a part of a team in which they share their own distinctiveness.
Leaders who are willing to share elements of their background in order to show they “embrace opportunities for inclusion” can have “an exponential ripple effect down that organizational hierarchy,” Brown explained. “That person has tremendous ability to influence how the company shows up on an issue.”
Still, she said, the number of executives who are willing to share as a means of conveying their support for diversity and inclusion policies is still growing.
“I think some CEOs and companies are getting it and understand that in order to energize and engage their employees to the maximum extent, they need to be talking about diversity and inclusion on a regular basis: what it means to each individual of the company, what it means to them personally,” Brown told us.
And it counts even more when the CEO is someone who may not appear to have experienced challenges because of his or her background or gender. “I think we can say everyone expects a non-straight white male executive, (of which there are not that many) to speak more often and more authentically about what diversity means to them, because it is maybe an early part of their story. But to hear a white straight male executive speak about it in a credible, passionate authentic, knowledgeable way is extremely rare.”
The Billion Dollar Roundtable
The growing acceptance of diversity and inclusion can also be measured in the number and kind of certifying organizations that support such goals. The Billion Dollar Roundtable fits in a category of its own: Its membership is open to companies that average a minimum of $1 billion per year in procurement from women-owned or minority-owned businesses. And the support for its initiatives is significant.
BDR members include companies from pretty much every business sector, with household-names ranging from Kroger and Walmart in the consumer merchandising sector to Kaiser Permanente and Johnson & Johnson in healthcare. They not only recognize companies that support small businesses, said Brown, but also provide a pathway for small businesses to find companies that have progressive values.
Conversely, there are also a growing number of certifying organizations that recognize and lend support to businesses in their areas or interests. They include the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, which lends support and certification to organizations that are at least 51 percent owned and operated by women, and the National Minority Supplier Business Council, which certifies companies that are at least 51 percent minority-owned and operated. In both of these cases, the certification supports business owners who wish to comply with the requirements for grants, but also provides support and recognition for qualifying member businesses.
For the business striving to incorporate diversity and inclusion into its business policy, organizations like WBENC and NMSBC offer a means for expanding contacts of verified businesses with good track records. And by doing so, Brown said, it helps boost up enthusiastic small businesses.
The certifying organization “grows businesses from mom-and-pop to huge businesses employing hundreds of thousands of people because of one particularly good relationship that they were able to bid on and were ultimately able to win a contract for. …That will create real economic value for businesses that have traditionally been outside of that realm. So [it translates to] real impact on multiple levels.”
Brown said the diversity and inclusion movement is in its own way a nod to those of previous generations who “never felt they could bring that diversity into the workplace.” With changing attitudes toward diversity and inclusion becoming more pervasive in the marketplace today, more companies are realizing that a positive corporate policy that advocates for social inclusion is critical to their economic success.
Additional information about Jennifer Brown’s book, Inclusion: “Diversity, the New Workplace and the Will to Change can be obtained via her website.
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