To say diversity and inclusion are in the spotlight these days is a massive understatement.
The Black Lives Matter protests and push against systemic racism have called out the inadequate response from many employers in addressing a lack of diversity in their companies and industries. My own industry, tech, is a particularly bleak example.
A look at the stats show how little progress has been made on D&I in that industry in the past 5 years, despite considerable attention being paid to the issue. Many companies have increased efforts to hire diverse candidates, but it’s a fact that people from underrepresented groups still leave these companies at a higher rate. That’s likely because, while diversity seems like a concrete goal, inclusion is a more difficult concept to address.
Solving this problem starts by getting clear on what inclusion is. To quote Verna Myers, VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” True inclusion means ensuring the people who join your team feel like they belong, can express who they are and are supported at work. That’s what makes people want to stay at a company and it takes more than lip service. It means operating from rigorously held core values like respect, accountability and collaboration.
But even as more companies appear to take inclusion seriously, they still often struggle to make improvements — because their attempts to fix the problem may actually be making it worse. Here are three surprising ways I’ve seen well-meaning leaders sabotage their own efforts — without even realizing it.
Viewing inclusion as a policy, not a value
My company was recently recognized as a Great Place to Work for Inclusion. This means at least 90% of our employees feel they’re treated fairly, regardless of personal characteristics like gender, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation. But here’s something that may surprise you: we don’t have any policies aimed at fostering inclusion.
Why not? It’s simple — if you need policies to help people feel included, you’re missing a baseline of respect baked into your culture. In fact, some studies have shown that mandatory diversity training at companies can actually serve to increase prejudices. That doesn’t mean anti-bias and anti-racism training isn’t valuable, but the learnings have to go much deeper than a half-day workshop. They need to be ingrained in the fabric of your company values around inclusion, justice and equity.
To be clear, you do need to be intentional about addressing imbalances. When I started Diff, we were six white guys in a room. Correcting that came down to creating a culture of respect and fairness. We took steps like ensuring pay equity across genders, bringing in values coaches to help with communication issues between our staff, and flattening out our hierarchy so anyone can talk to anyone.
We didn’t set out to hit diversity targets, we set out to be a place where people — no matter who they are or where they come from — want to work. Today, that’s reflected in a workforce that is about 40% female — including in technical roles — and reflects the racial and cultural makeup of our community.
Do we have more work to do? Absolutely. But our retention rate of over 90% — a big achievement in a field known for swiftly revolving doors — is an indicator that we seem to be on the right track.
Tolerating toxic clients
You might have the healthiest internal culture in the world, but exposing your team to disrespectful, offensive or discriminatory clients can bring toxicity in from outside your organization and taint your team’s experience at work. I realize not all companies can afford to pick and choose their clients (we certainly can’t, at least not yet) but working with the wrong clients may cost you more than the revenue is worth.
It doesn’t happen often, but there have been times we have chosen not to work with clients who don’t align with our values. In one case, a popular pro-firearms group approached us to build a website. We did a gut check and quickly realized that taking on this client would make some employees at our company feel uneasy. We passed on the project. Sure, we lost some potential revenue, but it was more important to ensure our team felt supported.
On rare occasions, we’ve even “fired” clients who have repeatedly shown that they’re not able to treat our team with respect. (I don’t mean the odd miscommunication — we’re talking about a habitual lack of professional decency.) It’s a bold move to make, but it pays dividends in retaining the integrity of our work environment.
Overlooking accessibility in your products
Are the products or services that you offer inclusive for all different kinds of customers? If what you create isn’t accessible (or at least striving to be), what message does that send? Tech companies especially tend to overlook this because we think of the internet as a great equalizer. In fact, it can be a very exclusionary place.
For instance, we know that people with disabilities often struggle to access information and services online because many websites are still not built using best practices for accessibility. So we make sure to add image description tags, subtitles for videos or high contrast type to the sites we build. These are simple steps many companies just don’t think to add. As a result, they’re missing out on the purchasing power of the people they’re excluding and sending an unintentional message to their teams that accessibility and inclusion don’t matter outside their doors (not to mention, breaking the law in many places).
Another example of external inclusion: Last year, Microsoft released an adaptive video game controller developed with input from children with disabilities. It included touchpads instead of buttons and bright colors for those with visual impairment — and the company continues to gather input with a mission to keep improving. The resulting product not only empowers young people, no matter their ability, it also sends a message to their staff that accessibility and inclusivity isn’t just an internal initiative.
Ultimately, the success of inclusion efforts isn’t that hard to determine. Do your diverse hires stay? Do they recommend friends for job openings? Are they represented at every level of your organization? Does your company reflect the community you operate in, your customers and their end customers? If not, it’s an indication you might need to take a closer look at the “I” side of the D&I equation.
A version of this article was originally published on Bay Street Bull.