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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Why your diversity efforts should make employees uncomfortable

By Michelle Y. Bess / April 23, 2018

Diversity, equality and inclusion. These beliefs are the basis of the common human resource acronym for DEI.

These three beliefs are a starting point. But as someone who has built her career around diversity and social justice, I strongly believe that the “e” in DEI has to be twofold: In addition to equality, that “e” also has to account for equity.

Equality and equity are not one in the same.

Equality ensures that all employees are able to bring their full selves to work and expect to be treated in the same way. What it doesn’t account for is differences in where we come from. It assumes that we all started at the same place and need the same things to be successful.

Get comfortable with discomfort

Equity goes a very necessary step further by acknowledging that we all need different levels of support in order to reach our goals. In essence, equity is how we level the playing field.

Without it, your corporate diversity inituatives run the risk of being surface level because you’re not acknowledging institutional ‘isms’ that negatively impact your workplace and community. And without acknowledging a problem, you can’t fix it.

To put it plainly: Equity makes many people uncomfortable.

At the base level, it means there will be a more significant level of institutional support invested in some employees than in others in order to ensure their success.

Those from more advantaged backgrounds will receive less support than those whose demographic or socioeconomic status has prevented them from progressing at the same rate as their peers or being offered the same opportunities.

Picture a tall person, a short person and a fence that neither can see over. The tall person needs a 2-foot-high stool to see over the fence, but the short person needs a 4-foot-high stool to see over the same fence.

Using the same 2-foot-high stool as the tall person leaves the short person still unable to see over the fence. He or she needs more support to reach the same place as the person who has an inherent advantage.

Where it gets uncomfortable is that the tall person sees the short person’s 4-foot-high stool and thinks, “Hey! I could see even better if I had that stool. It’s not fair that she gets a taller stool just because she’s short!”

It’s not fair. But it’s not supposed to be.

Just as we acknowledge that the short person didn’t choose to be born in a vertically disadvantaged body, we at Sprout believe that no one chooses to be socioeconomically, racially, geographically or otherwise disadvantaged.

It’s our commitment and our duty to even the playing field so that everyone here has an equal chance at satisfaction and success.

Grounding your DEI efforts in the bedrock of equity starts with a commitment to making inclusion everyone’s responsibility – not just the talent team’s or your managers’. Everyone’s.

Because when you enact systematic change like uncovering and addressing one of the key roots to the problem of inequity – unconscious bias – your team and your organization will both benefit.

Recognizing unconscious bias is required

There’s a moral imperative connected to equity to create opportunities for those who have been historically underrepresented, systematically oppressed and effectively held back from certain opportunities.

To be clear, focusing your diversity initiatives around equity doesn’t happen overnight and its success is dependent upon recognizing and dismantling the individual and culture-wide biases that exist throughout your organization.

We unconsciously make choices day to day to spend time with people who look, think and behave like us.

We avoid those whose opinions don’t match our own.

We block them on social platforms and disengage in uncomfortable dialogues.

We build walls between us and them. Without really realizing it, we all take part in homogenizing our communities.

Companies that rely heavily on referrals tend to exacerbate this phenomena. Referred employees are statistically happier in their work and less likely to leave. Making it easy for recruiters to unintentionally lean on them.

However, referrals tend to bring those homogenized communities within the company structure.

That’s why we recently changed how we approach referrals to make them more inclusive and less prevalent throughout the hiring process.

Identifying the areas of need within our company, sourcing and seeking candidates with qualified skill sets vs. relying on who comes in through referrals has helped us innovate and become less exclusive.

We’ve also implemented unconscious bias training across the organization and we reintroduce the training before each interviewer meets with a candidate.

The topic is widely discussed at our monthly, company-wide DEI meetings as well. This ensures that the conversation around unconscious bias is fluid and ongoing.

Equity is good for company growth

Mediating impactful conversations around unconscious bias and investing in the personal growth of your employees results in a healthier workforce. But it doesn’t stop there.

An equity-first mindset can be good for your business, too. Especially in three key areas:

1. Revenue

Your workforce has to hold a vast amount of perspectives to reflect your customer base and potential reach. You can’t expect to create a product that meets the quality and needs of all or even most demographics if you’re working with a homogenous group of people.

When YouTube launched their video uploading app for iOS in 2012 5-10% of their videos were uploading upside down. It took a bit of research for the company to realize that the issue was a result of the app being designed by a team that was comprised of mostly right-handed people and those videos that were uploaded upside down were filmed by left-handed people.

Obviously the team didn’t intentionally exclude left-handers, but without any southpaws on the team YouTube couldn’t factor in that experience, therefore making a product that didn’t serve a chunk of their customers’ needs.

This is a fundamental example of how a team could use inclusivity and equity to catch issues before product launches.

Imagine what demographics you may not be serving because your team isn’t a reflection of the demographics of your audience. By increasing diversity you’ll effectively be creating products that serve more people, which will in turn boost revenue.

2. Retention

To be clear, in order to retain your employees you cannot just focus on diversity. Adding more people of particular identities you must also work on inclusion, which is ensuring those diverse folks feel comfortable existing within your company. Give these employees the space to be heard, share ideas and make an impact. Let them know that all identities have a seat and voice at the decision making table.

There’s a popular saying:

Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.

When you build an inclusive culture it allows employees to be “fully engaged at work and fully themselves.” A statement Sprout’s Chief People Officer, Maureen Calabrese, constantly reiterates. And the data shows that fully engaged employees are more productive, stay longer and result in a happier workforce.

3. Competitive edge

In tech and across industries we are hearing more about how important DEI is to the bottom line. So much so that many organizations consider their approaches to be intellectual property.

In a recent article entitled, “Diversity Hiring Is so Competitive, IBM is Suing a Microsoft Executive Over It,” an executive is getting flak from her previous company because they feel she took “trade secrets” about their DEI strategy to her new company.

Seven years ago, IBM’s legal team may not have blinked twice at a former employee sharing DEI best-practices and tactics with their new employer. Diversity was seen as a niche pursuit by the HR team. An attempt to comply and check a box.

If IBM’s case proves anything it’s that DEI is becoming a serious business imperative and that the lack of formalized programming has real consequences.

Every employee is responsible for diversity, equity & inclusion

Merck, CEO Kenneth Frazier, said something to the Harvard Business Review that resonated with me:

Businesses exists to deliver value to its society.

What that looks like for each company varies, but if you subscribe to this belief then you have no excuse to put diversifying your workforce on the back burner.

In the era of #MeToo, every CEO will say they care about diversity and inclusion.

But caring is different than confronting the issue and communicating why it is integral. If you establish your values early on, DEI becomes the way your business operates.

DEI should never feel like an afterthought.

DEI is core to your company culture.

DEI is spreading knowledge and empowering others.

If you collectively work as a team to address unconscious bias and make diversity, equity and inclusion every employee’s responsibility your workforce will be responsible for real, fundamental progress and change throughout your industry. And there’s nothing surface level about that.

Michelle Y. Bess

Michelle Y. Bess

is the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Lead at Sprout Social, a premier connector of people, a personal shopper and champion for people of color. Bess serves as a Board Director of Degrees of Change, President at the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Associate Board, and Founder of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Professionals Meet-Up.
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