A Swiss physician, alchemist and astrologer of the German Renaissance, Paracelsus might seem an unlikely reference for today’s diversity movement. Yet, his words resonate: “I am different. Let this not upset you.”
Paracelsus was not available to talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but Tracy Winn and Joe Gerstandt were.
Winn is a senior human resources advisor from G&A Partners’ Utah office. The company is an HR and administrative outsourcing firm providing expertise and insights on company culture, workplace dynamics and benefits.
As a speaker, author and Marine Corps veteran, Gerstandt has worked with Fortune 100 corporations, small non-profits and everything in between to impact organizational diversity and inclusion efforts.
Diversity and inclusion are essential for businesses to stay in touch with their communities and avoid stagnation that comes from clinging to old, outdated ways of commerce.
“Diversity is essential to business growth and prosperity,” Winn said. “It drives innovation and results in better performance among teams. Companies must have D&I to be able to attract — and retain — top talent these days.”
The elements feed on each other.
“Talent is diverse,” Gerstandt said. “The market place is diverse. Ideas come from diverse places. Properly understood, diversity is fundamental to much of what an organization does.
“The business case is big,” he said. “Unfortunately, the business case does not motivate behavior. At least not in my experience.”
Diversity and inclusion often are used in partnership. A company might be diverse, but it means nothing if its varied workforce does not have a voice. Letting people speak and listening to what they say completes inclusion.
“Diversity focuses on differences and having a team comprised of people from many different backgrounds,” Winn said. “Inclusion is the deliberate act of welcoming diversity and creating an environment where employees feel welcome and comfortable being who they are.”
Gerstandt works to sort through complications.
“Diversity and inclusion are complex ideas,” he said. “They can mean different things in different organizations. The way I use them is pretty simple. Diversity means difference. It is a characteristic of people. Inclusion is an experiential outcome — feeling included.”
Unclear definitions raise barriers to understanding.
“The most common and fundamental problem in organizations is that there is not common language,” Gerstandt said. “People are using the words diversity and inclusion, but they are all talking about different stuff.
“One of the most valuable things you can do is to make sure there is a common language in your organization,” he said. “Until you can ask 10 people at random what diversity and inclusion are, why are they valuable and how do we capture that value — and get consistent answers — you are fighting a bunch of battles you should not be fighting.”
From that, Gerstandt explained, what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.
Corporate leaders must be open to the concept of diversity and inclusion as a way of life, not as mandated square-fillers. Their spirit filters down through the organization.
“Companies should make their commitment to building a diverse and inclusive culture clear,” Winn said. “Promote it on the company’s website and other places where applicants are sure to see it.
“It’s equally important to ensure that current employees also know your mission,” she said.
That means taking understanding one step at a time.
“The most valuable place to start is developing that clear, concise, common language for your organization, especially around the inclusion piece,” Gerstandt said. “What does it mean to be included here? What does that feel like and look like?
“Once you have defined or described the experiential outcome of inclusion, it gets a lot easier to identify the behaviors, practices and policies that need to be in place,” he said.
A clear vision will clarify objectives.
“The most common call I get is from organizations that want to be more inclusive and do not know what to do,” Gerstandt said. “It’s hard for them to figure out what to do because they have not gotten clear of what they are trying to produce.
“If inclusion is your product, you should be able to speak to its characteristics,” he said. “What does it look like and sound like and feel like? How do we know when it is happening.? Most organizations cannot answer these questions. They are chasing a vague, abstract idea.”
That circles back to words and meanings. For organizations that do not have any clear concise language in place relative to what it means to be included, Gerstandt has a couple of ideas to start with:
- Inclusion means I can tell the truth, regardless of who I am.
- Inclusion means I can be an insider, and still be unique– or different. I can be an insider with integrity. I do not have to truncate my identity to belong.
“Those are simple, intuitive ideas to start within finding greater clarity regarding what it means to be included in your organization,” Gerstandt said. “Until you can tell me clearly and concisely what it means to be included in your organization, I do not believe you are likely to deliver it.”
Companies might think they can do diversity and inclusion on their own without any outside advice or assistance. The best results come from learning from others’ lessons.
“Their biggest mistake is believing that taking one single action will fix all issues,” Winn said. “D&I efforts must be ongoing and flexible.”
Gerstandt harkened to the mistake of not having a common language for diversity and inclusion.
“There is no clarity regarding how inclusion shows up in behavior,” he said. “These are the competencies, behaviors, and practices of inclusive leaders and an inclusive workplace.”
He cited other common mistakes:
- Companies house diversity and inclusion efforts in HR.
- There are no behavioral or outcome accountabilities for senior and middle managers.
- Businesses do not actively include white men in the conversations.
“I don’t know that diversity and inclusion should be housed,” Gerstandt said. “However, they do demand guidance and support from across the organization.”
Several companies have emerged as examples of how to do diversity and inclusion right.
“Delta Airlines and FedEx have both been recognized for being in the Top 20 Best Workplaces for Diversity,” Winn said. “Both companies have made a significant investment to train and educate their leaders on the importance of D&I.
“Delta calls their program the Spirit of Inclusion,” she said. “It represents the company’s attitude in valuing all individuals.”
Gerstandt also singled out corporate successes.
“Atlassian and Twitter have been doing cool things internally,” he said. “I really like Atlassian’s focus on team balance. ONEOK and Mutual of Omaha are doing cool things with employee resource groups.”
To those, he added companies recognized in a Forbes article, “Four Companies That Are Getting Diversity And Inclusion Right — And How They’re Doing It.”
You can hire the most diverse workforce possible, but it counts for nothing unless individual employees know how they contribute to corporate success and are listened to for their inputs.
“It’s not enough to hire diverse employees,” Winn said. “There must also be inclusion. If employees are not included, made to feel welcomed and valued for their differences, your diversity efforts will fail.”
Diversity depends on deeds that match words.
“Lots of companies today bring an increasingly diverse workforce into a culture that does not actually value diversity,” Gerstandt said. “That does not work out for anyone.
“If you want to benefit from diversity, you have to create a container that values diversity,” he said. “Organizations need to evolve their culture, their relational skills, their leadership and their relationship with conflict.”
Where progress is made in one area, it falters in another.
“Lots of organizations are making progress on diversity,” Gerstandt said. “Very few have taken any real actions relative to inclusion — other than saying nice things about it.”
Another article looks at how fear of being different stifles talent.
Companies can create day-to-day practices to improve diversity and inclusion initiatives that also feed into a larger effort.
Find out from employees what practices and observances are important for them. Let activities and events be generated from the grassroots rather than be imposed from those above who have no clue.
“Create a communication tool for your employees,” Winn said. “Then they can easily suggest ideas and share thoughts about the company’s D&I initiatives. Be sure to listen to those ideas.”
Actions require commitment from above and throughout a company.
“Develop competencies and behaviors for managers and hold them accountable,” Gerstandt said. “Build diversity and inclusion questions into interviews and promotion decisions. Diversify informal networks. Talk about it every day.”
He added other good practices:
- Adopt a more intentional approach to decision making and disagreement done well.
- Train managers on conflict management.
- Reward truth-telling.
- Train everyone on bias.
- Coach and train employees on storytelling, and give them venues to tell their stories.
- Stop hiring people not willing or able to behave and lead in inclusive ways.
There are ways companies can measure the effectiveness of their diversity and inclusion strategies.
“Numbers don’t tell the full story,” Winn said. “Companies need to examine whether key decision-making processes involve a diverse group of employees.
“They should ask themselves if there’s diversity within all areas of the company, especially at the top where big decisions are made,” she said.
Let employees verify that the language you use is the language they use.
“If you have a clear definition or description in place for what it means to be included, possibly your greatest metric is asking your employees if that description matches their experience,” Gerstandt said. “Again, most organizations do not have that in place.”
He added that entrepreneurs should see if retention rates, engagement rates and promotion rates are comparable across social groups.
“One of the most telling things is how your organization feels about conflict and disagreement,” Gerstandt said. “If you truly value difference and diversity, you will have to be intentional and proactive about disagreeing well. Few companies are.”