Best practices for a diverse culture

It's about more than a modification of workforce planning and hiring practices or tweaking of HR strategy

Best practices for a diverse culture

The call for more diversity and inclusion in our workplaces is everywhere — from boards of directors, employees and stakeholders to social media posts and research articles in business journals.

However, while we may understand the importance of diverse and inclusive workplace cultures, we are less clear on how to get there. Without a comprehensive understanding of the essence of diversity and inclusion, employers are more likely to focus on numbers and the representation of various groups in the organization.

As human resource leaders, we know that the goals are far richer — while diversity is about the makeup of your workforce, inclusion is about culture and belonging.

Genuine and authentic

At its core, the goal is to ensure that all employees — regardless of their identity, race, culture or perspective — are able to be their genuine and authentic selves at work. A true culture of inclusion enables differing viewpoints and opinions to safely arrive in conversations and be appreciated by others, ultimately contributing to a vibrant workplace that is more likely to attract and retain talent and deliver on its organizational goals.

However, the challenge of implementation is significant. Building a diverse and inclusive workplace culture requires more than just modification of workforce planning and hiring practices or tweaking of human resource strategies. It must be integrated into the organizational fabric, permeate every department, and be embraced and understood by all employees.

That’s a fundamental paradigm shift that can only happen when leaders engage in brave conversations about self-identity, unconscious bias and the use of power.

Understanding identity

The heart of diversity and inclusion initiatives is identifying, acknowledging and celebrating identity. Each of us has a unique identity, and we each bring multiple perspectives and experiences to our work. When these differences are welcomed, individuals trust that they can show up at work as their authentic selves and contribute fully.

When we do not attend to questions of identity — both our own and those of our employees — our workforce culture will suffer.

This requires leaders to bring a sense of open and respectful curiosity to not only their own but others’ identities within the workforce. Leaders are responsible for reflecting on their own identities and the factors that have shaped them. They need to ask themselves questions about their leadership style and personality, and how their self-identity manifests for others to see.

This active self-reflection is the first step to creating and enhancing a culture of safety at work where others can be their authentic selves.

Acknowledging unconscious bias

Research has identified that bias is an inescapable part of being human. This is why it is so important to recognize and understand how unconscious bias impacts decision-making.

To make inroads with any initiative to enhance diversity and inclusion in our workplaces, the critical first step is to acknowledge that bias — both conscious and unconscious — plays a very real role in people’s day-to-day interactions with each other at work.

An exceptional starting place to learn more about unconscious bias is the free Implicit Association Test developed collaboratively by Harvard University, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington.

This bias is why we default to making decisions that are not always based on well-thought-out processes, it’s why we include or exclude people, and it’s why some individuals are more likely to be promoted or listened to than others.

Recognizing when bias appears can support the paradigm shift needed within workplaces. If people become aware of their own bias, they are more able to identify its potential impact on decision-making and take steps to counteract that impact. Being aware of how they may have been triggered by a particular element of a person’s appearance, demeanour or other personal characteristics allows them to step back and ask if that bias has influenced their perceptions and actions.

Only then can they consciously activate strategies to counteract their judgments and be more thoughtful and reflective. This necessary perspective will support diversity and inclusion efforts.

Shifting the power balance

Finally, and most importantly, the conversation around diversity and inclusion raises important considerations for the way leaders understand and identify with their power. In her 2016 book Power: A User’s Guide, executive coach and leadership consultant Julie Diamond argues that leaders must become more self-aware of how they use their power, how they feel about that power and how their power impacts others.

This self-awareness is the first step to using power effectively — not to control, but to bring in diverse perspectives and create a culture of inclusion.

Leaders must be authentic in their efforts to include people in conversations whose perspectives might not align with their own. It can be difficult to do this, as many leaders may feel threatened or challenged, and many employees may feel anxious about presenting ideas that differ from those of their leaders. While these conversations may be challenging, they are necessary.

Increasing awareness of how our own power is at play in interactions with others is an important part of being able to impact change. We want to ensure that we use our power to make a seat at the table for others. 

Using the power

If leaders are serious about making their workplaces safe and respectful environments where employees have a strong sense of belonging and engagement, they need to ask bold questions. They need to reflect on how they identify themselves and others in the workplace, recognize the role that unconscious bias plays in their decision-making, and make efforts to counteract those biases. Finally, they need to use their power in positive, constructive and inclusive ways. 

By prioritizing self-reflection, welcoming potentially challenging conversations and supporting other organizational efforts, leaders can foster and celebrate the growth of diverse and inclusive workplaces.

And as the research literature in this area confirms — such as the 2018 McKinsey & Company report Delivering Through Diversity, which emphasizes the correlation between diversity in the leadership of large companies and financial outperformance — employers that prioritize a diversity of thought, perspectives and ideas are more likely to achieve organizational goals, both creatively and collaboratively.

This work is not easy, and it definitely takes time. Sustained effort, honest conversations and organizational commitment are required. But there’s no doubt the outcomes are worth it. 

Janet Stewart is founder and principal at Stablehouse Solutions in Vancouver. She can be reached at [email protected]

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