In today's extremely competitive yet socially conscious business environment, one of the best ways to sustain an innovative organization and attract talent is to create an inclusive environment where a diverse range of voices can be heard. Just think of all the areas in which diversity is a powerful asset: The ideas students are exposed to in school, input on public policy, the culture of a city or a country.

Why would successful businesses be any different?

When a company creates a culture that celebrates diversity and welcomes contributions from all of its employees, it will benefit from a robust, open exchange of ideas and an atmosphere of mutual respect. Everyone will feel free to bring all their knowledge and skills to the table.

But as Kate Fiedelman, who spearheads diversity and inclusion efforts at Pinterest, pointed out when I first began digging into this topic several years ago: “Caring about diversity has to exist innately.”

So if diversity and inclusion are becoming more important to American businesses, how can you ensure that you're making the most of your talented workforce by amplifying all voices in your company?

Tip 1: Engage employees in diversity and inclusion efforts

"Real inclusion is more than the neutral acceptance of differences--it's the proactive effort to derive benefits from those differences," says Jolen Anderson, the chief diversity officer at Visa. Anderson oversees the implementation of a wide range of initiatives designed to foster inclusion at the company.

For example, the Visa Women's Network connects women with one another to discuss the unique challenges they face, develop solutions, and build professional relationships. According to Anderson, members of the network have also "provided input on areas such as looking at our employee benefits as it may relate to supporting working families, and looking at program opportunities to help women advance their careers."

Other companies acknowledge the role that mentors play in facilitating inclusion among underrepresented groups. For example, Erica Lockheimer, head of engineering at LinkedIn, committed to launching a mentorship program in 2015 after the company realized the need for more diversity in technical roles. According to Lockheimer, senior mentors were instrumental in her career early on, and she wanted to help build that same level of support at LinkedIn.

While putting female employees in contact with one another provides mentoring opportunities and often opens up avenues for collaboration, companies also need to treat these groups as resources that can provide valuable feedback and recommendations.

Visa has taken the same approach with ViBE (Visa Black Employees) - an employee resource group (ERG) that Anderson says has evolved "from a group that may have been focused on the important aspect of community and creating connections to ultimately helping us reinforce and drive our diversity strategy in a very strategic way."

There's a reason why roughly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have ERGs: They provide a strong sense of community, an outlet for inclusive collaboration between employees, and a way to make those employees feel more connected with the company.

Erika Irish Brown is the global head of diversity and inclusion at Bloomberg LP, and she points to the substantial evidence in favor of ERGs: "...at many companies, including Bloomberg, survey data indicates that employees involved in ERGs have higher engagement scores than those who are not."

Tip 2: Build a professional culture that rewards "upstanders"

Although a company's leaders have an essential role to play in catalyzing greater diversity and inclusion (by hiring and promoting the right managers, establishing rules and guidelines that promote inclusion, etc.), this effort requires buy-in at every level. And as a 2017 Deloitte report notes, it also requires "changes in processes and systems" that all employees need to be capable of implementing and observing.

Furthermore, Anderson notes that the process of creating a diverse and inclusive organization certainly starts at the top, but she also stresses simple steps that an individual manager or leader or even an employee can take - like asking for feedback often, engaging with reticent employees, and welcoming dissenting opinions.

She says Visa encourages employees to be "upstanders" instead of "bystanders" - they should actively work to eliminate bias and put their coworkers at ease, while also feeling comfortable enough to share their point of view: "We want everyone to be working together to feel comfortable, whether coming to your manager or peer, or to legal or HR, to say when they've identified something that is not aligned [with the company's values] and understand that that would be taken very, very seriously."

Having a diverse workforce isn't the same as having an inclusive company culture. This is a point Laura Sherbin and Ripa Rashid made in an article for Harvard Business Review last year: "Without inclusion, however, the crucial connections that attract diverse talent, encourage their participation, foster innovation, and lead to business growth won't happen."

Tip 3: Broaden your definition of diversity

When many people think of diversity, demographic characteristics like gender and ethnicity come to mind. While these are vital factors in the development of a diverse workforce, Anderson explains that there is a second dimension of diversity based on life experiences, like where you went to school, the languages you have learned over time and the skills you have gained over your career. Capturing both dimensions brings a rich combination of backgrounds and perspectives that ultimately foster a dynamic and innovative work environment."

The Deloitte report mentioned above makes the same point: "Organizations would also benefit from expanding the definition of diversity beyond demographic and social identities."

However the power that comes from assembling a diverse workforce diminishes without the impact of inclusion, a feeling of connectedness in the workplace, where different perspectives are valued, and all employees feel comfortable coming to work every day to do their best.

This is an observation echoed by the Deloitte researchers: "Leaders and managers can benefit by listening to people who think differently, because they often bring some of the team's most innovative ideas."

Anderson put it more succinctly: "You get great ideas from perhaps unexpected places."

Why would any company want to keep those ideas hidden away?

Published on: Mar 22, 2018