This article originally appeared on Forbes.
Many organizations see diversity and inclusion (D&I) as a complex, challenging subject or a burdensome task without an assured payoff. Leaders often don’t know where to start their D&I efforts, and they may turn away from initiatives when they’re not sure how to get traction. But that sense of burden can be shifted altogether if D&I is treated explicitly as a business imperative, says Damien Howard, executive vice-president of social ventures at Per Scholas, a national skills training nonprofit that prepares individuals who have traditionally been underrepresented in the technology industry for high-growth careers.
Even if diversity has not been a primary focus for an organization, most companies need sustainable talent pipelines, and focusing on D&I can be a practical and innovative approach to the business imperative of attracting and developing exceptional employees. “If you’re talking about ‘winning the war for talent,’” Howard contends, a diverse and inclusive culture “is a magnet for top talent, and ultimately results in higher retention and employee satisfaction.” He encourages leaders to see that “creating diversity and inclusion in your company is not building a rocket ship.” As with any other challenging business endeavor, it simply requires focused intention and concrete plans. Here are six structural keys to achieving the business imperative of D&I.
Identify the tangible business benefits if they’re not already clear. “You should not be doing this out of philanthropy, or out of the goodness of your heart,” stresses Howard. “As a business, you should be doing it simply because it makes good business sense.” Significant research shows that a diverse and inclusive workplace tends to provide better staff engagement, higher productivity and less turnover, as well as increasing innovation and profitability.
Make sure you have the right leaders in place. It’s not enough for executives and managers to be well-intentioned, Howard observes, they also need to be “learners, who are steadily willing to embrace new ideologies, understand innovation and are willing to go beyond their comfort zones to admit when they’re wrong and engage with other individuals in tough conversations that lead to a productive outcome.” It’s also crucial to have the insight and stamina to recognize and have open discussion about how daunting and challenging organizational change can be. “Leaders have to lock in and be intentional about setting up safe and productive environments for all, and they have to do that repeatedly,” says Howard.
Rethink your recruiting strategy. Start by reassessing job descriptions to focus on skills, not credentials. Talent and competence are not necessarily measured by academic degrees or even years of experience. So get really granular about the skills employees will need to succeed in the job and how you’ll identify and evaluate those skills. Then rebuild your job descriptions and hiring practices to reflect those concrete requirements.
Strive to remove both explicit and unconscious bias from your recruitment and selection processes. “Being interviewed while Black,” for example, can include biased conditions such as microaggressions and stereotype threats that put these candidates at an automatic disadvantage. Tools and technology such as AI can be used to reduce bias in screening resumes and evaluating work samples. In addition, it’s beneficial to have a diverse group of interviewers who are trained in an interview process that is standardized to ensure that each candidate experiences the same questions, tests and rating procedures.
Determine both quantitative and qualitative D&I targets. Reporting is a critical aspect of any business imperative and is often tracked at the board level or made public. So think carefully about which diversity dimensions you want to focus on and the metrics you want to use—and then be vigilant about enforcing them. Howard suggests keeping the measurement simple; for example, specify that on a certain team you expect to see a 10% to 15% increase in diversity until you reach a 50/50 balance. “What really drives success is assigning responsibility and establishing accountability around the metrics [as you would with any other business goal],” says Howard. “The only metrics that don’t work are the ones that you don’t wrap accountability around.”
Provide internal sponsorship for underrepresented talent. All employees should have a “clear and achievable path” to career development and growth, Howard notes. In many organizations, there are well-understood, informal paths for employees of the majority culture, but not for minority employees, so companies should standardize development trajectories and career progressions. Simultaneously, to keep their talent pipelines flowing and diverse, organizations can formalize support through mentoring and sponsorship programs that help white sponsors learn to provide psychological safety and show minority employees that they are valued and worth investing in.
Help each individual navigate workplace challenges. The systems that exist in corporations today have been in place for hundreds of years, and neither conscious nor unconscious biases will disappear overnight. Howard has placed thousands of new employees in organizations such as Google, Cognizant and Capital One, and he emphasizes developing “essential skills” for self-management and relationship-building to help underrepresented employees operate in new and unfamiliar environments. Employees need to “exercise deep emotional discipline,” he explains, and meet workplace challenges “with a sober mind and a diligent approach” because “there’s no such thing as landing in an ideal place with people who will just simply accept you the first day.” In fact, Howard notes, it can be exhausting to maintain self-monitoring and self-regulation, so the support of internal peer groups like Employee Resource Groups (ERG) or outside counselors can be extremely helpful.
When companies treat D&I as a project or initiative, they can inadvertently create a perception of short-term focus and only minimal support from executive leadership. It’s easy to perceive D&I efforts as a flavor-of-the-month program and for them to languish without sufficient corporate commitment. But when companies give D&I the status of a business imperative with the explicit goal of changing an organization’s approach toward talent, they take a major step toward attracting diverse workers and ensuring that those workers enjoy rewarding careers and contribute to the organization’s ongoing success.
Onward and upward —