Investing in company culture and people-first work environments has become an increasing priority for companies of all industries and stages. This growing trend goes hand-in-hand with thoughtful and inclusive diversity programs, enabling employees of all backgrounds and life stages to feel great about their work. Diversity benefits entire organizations — not just the individuals who work in them. It’s been linked to increased employee retention and happiness, as well as company growth.
Research from McKinsey found that companies with diverse staff members are 35% more likely to financially outperform more homogenous teams. However, despite the data supporting the business case for diverse work settings, the average employee population of US companies illustrates how difficult it can be to effectively build an inclusive, diverse workforce.
Project Include was founded to help leadership and human resources teams at tech companies better understand what they can do to drive change and promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Their goals are to translate insights into action and enable companies to establish higher-functioning, more inclusive work environments. Project Include’s founder Ellen Pao joined Managed by Q during the fall of 2016 to share some of the insights she and her team have uncovered to help companies implement effective and sustainable diversity programming.
Diversity and inclusion in the workplace starts with real talk
Throughout her career as an investor, attorney, and company leader, as well as through her experience with Project Include, Pao has had exposure to dozens of companies of all shapes and sizes. She has found that no workplace has the same issues as another, especially when it comes to diversity. Regardless of a company’s challenges, progress begins with an honest assessment of your office environment.
“Some companies who think they’re great at diversity usually aren’t. It’s the ones who really feel like they’re struggling that actually understand what the issues are. That’s what makes it really hard,” Pao said. To start, companies need to learn how to talk about employee inclusion openly, and “learn to be comfortable with the fact that some of the topics are really uncomfortable,” she said. Confronting the problems is the first step towards learning how to solve them.
These conversations shouldn’t be limited to personal experiences. People tend not to escalate issues that have happened to them because they’re afraid of how they’ll be perceived. Employees should feel empowered to come forward when they see an issue that contradicts the company’s values, as the individuals affected may be less likely to speak up. It’s this proactive mindset and empathy for others that will effect change.
A framework for implementing change
Pao has found that most people are able to acknowledge when there’s a problem at their company. The hurdle for driving change isn’t a lack of awareness about the issues — rather, it’s often a function of inaction.
What Project Include has found is that many are hesitant to try new things for fear of criticism. What if it’s not enough? What if we’re not successful right off the bat? While any attempt to improve inclusion is better than nothing, one of the biggest mistakes companies make is assuming there’s one solution to improving workplace diversity. No single diversity training, company talk or bonus program can drive real change. Rather, a consistent effort to promote inclusion on a regular basis is what drives improvement.
According to Pao and team, there are three keys to successful diversity and inclusion programs:
It should include all people.
All people not only pertains to gender or under-represented ethnicities. Programs should account for all races, ages, life stages, sexual orientations, disabilities, and more.
The reason, Pao explained, is that “the people you do include may not mix in because your culture isn’t truly inclusive.” The goal is to create an environment designed with all employees’ needs in mind. It’s also important to promote inclusion at different levels across the organization. Companies can better hire and retain talent when employees can see successful people in roles similar to theirs.
It should extend to all activities.
Inclusion should extend to all company efforts and activities. Pao learned that many companies focus their diversity efforts solely on hiring. While important, investing only in hiring practices excludes employees with longer tenure at the company.
The companies Pao studied found themselves losing talent within a few years, leaving the company with an increasingly homogenous environment over time. Alongside recruiting practices, companies should focus on their culture and development programs at varying stages of employees’ careers.
It should be measurable.
Measuring employee engagement enables leadership to develop an accurate assessment of their company. It also provides companies hard metrics to track over time and quantify progress. Project Include distributes surveys after employees have been with a company for six months, a point that’s been defined as a benchmark for when employees are settled into their roles. By this point in time, an individual can make a more complete assessment of their organizational culture.
These surveys give employees the opportunity to surface what the company is doing well, where there are areas for improvement, and what, from the employee’s perspective, could make them feel more included. Having these tangible insights arm companies with the information they need to create a more inclusive environment for the team.
Inclusion requires maintenance
The same way a single approach can’t solve inclusivity issues in your office, a multi-faceted program that lacks attention and oversight post-launch can’t be successful.
“As organizations scale, their problems scale,” said Pao.
Companies should implement diversity and inclusion policies as early as possible and revisit them regularly to ensure alignment with company values. “The idea of fixing things early, and doing the hard work early — even though you think you have a million other fires — is important. It may be painful and it may not seem like a top priority, but it’s an investment in the long term,” Pao added.
The goal of promoting inclusion and diversity in the workplace isn’t simply to check a box. The purpose of these programs is to get your team to a place where everyone feels like they can do their jobs well. This drives employee engagement and happiness, and ultimately, it’s good for business.
Illustration by Tin Nguyen