Research tells us that diversity and inclusion in the workplace is are competitive differentiators. If that’s the case, why are so many businesses – and the technology sector in particular – struggling to achieve more diverse and inclusive teams?
For starters, there are headlines galore about the diversity challenges within STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) tracks, where the IT sector resides. Then there’s the fact that the talent pool for tech jobs is much smaller than the industry would like it to be — and there are many cool tech companies competing for that small pool of talent.
But let’s face it, while the goal may be challenging, it's achievable.
The first thing companies need to understand is what it means to have a diverse workplace. Diversity and inclusion professionals are quick to note that diversity isn’t just about race, gender and ethnicity, or what’s visible. There are many dimensions of diversity that are just as important and should be included in any company’s diversity goals; for example, diversity of style, function, background, experience and ability, Patrice Jimerson, global diversity and inclusion director at Appiro, an MSP, shared with us.
Add to that list age, military experience, sexual orientation, different learning and thinking styles, and personality types.
Another fact to digest is that diversity and inclusion reflect a company’s culture, not strategy.
“Business leaders will tell you that culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said Jimerson. “If you don’t have a culture where people are engaged in a proactive way, meaning they would be willing to give you their discretionary talent, or the talent you didn’t pay for, willingly, then you’ve got a challenge,” she said, adding that companies must bring all they should bear on all the products and services they offer.
In fact, culture is one of three key foundational elements required for building a strong diversity and inclusion practice. The others are executive leadership and engagement.
A company must have a culture that values the basic diversity and inclusion tenets. Executive leadership also must walk the talk and demonstrate behavior that reinforces what they spout.
“If that’s lacking, it’s very difficult to drive diversity programming,” said Jimerson. Diversity should be evident among executive leadership, or how can managers be expected to do something that’s not actively supported at the top?
Franklin Reed, director inclusion and diversity at TekSystems, agrees.
“It’s got to be important enough to executive leadership to measure parameters, goals and resources, and [to] demonstrate commitment and willingness to do things differently than they’ve been doing it.”
Next is engagement. Many companies task HR, marketing or operations with the diversity and inclusion role; however, diversity and inclusion are an art and a science that’s a little bit of culture change, a bit of organizational behavior, a bit of diversity compliance, and a bit of legal. A serious diversity and inclusion program is best suited to a professional with the skills, credentials and experience.
It takes a varied approach to move the needle on diversity and inclusion; there are fundamentals to follow, but there’s no silver bullet. It's difficult — so it’s critical to get it right the first time.
“Diversity and inclusion conversations often bump up against personal values, and if it doesn’t land appropriately, it’s hard to get back to the table,” said Jimerson.
This is where having a practitioner can make or break a diversity and inclusion effort. Getting funding to support these types of efforts is also a must.
It’s quite common that companies try to draw a straight line between an HR practice and the bottom line. That’s even tougher to do for diversity and inclusion and it’s easy for people to hide behind analytics.
“Because the work is hard and its expensive, it’s often the first thing cut when business decisions need to be made about funding,” said Jimerson.
Other challenges that organizations can expect when working a diversity and inclusion program is that recruiting staff might take longer and be more expensive, making HR nervous — and making it a hard sell. With diversity and inclusion efforts seen across companies and industries, diverse talent might also be more expensive.
Finally, a big hurdle and unintended outcome that many companies face when rolling out a targeted diversity and inclusion program is that people feel excluded. Here, experts say, it’s important to have the language and be prepared to explain why the company is doing what it’s doing.
“Educate the entire organization and require input from everyone, not just leaders,” said Reed.
The case studies for diversity and inclusion are clear. Reed points out that more diverse teams are more likely to provide solutions that address the multiple needs of the customer. Businesses with more diverse teams are also better able to attract more diverse talent — and be more innovative. And, diverse teams also outperform their peers.
“At the end of the day, it has everything to do with your company’s ability to meet the needs of your customers, which means that you’re meeting your business objectives,” said Reed.