Everyone knows the saying “if you build it, they will come.” The same rule applies to the type of work environment you create. Diversity doesn’t happen overnight. And a more diverse team of employees means a broader range of perspectives brought to the problem-solving table. When employees feel comfortable taking chances on out-of-the-box thinking and creativity, their productivity will increase.
It’s easy to say you want diversity. But how do you actually make it happen? First of all, you can’t expect your employees to feel safe expressing their identities if you don’t first create an inclusive environment for them. Every individual has a unique intersection of identities – I’m a male but I’m also a father and a Virginia Tech alum and an entrepreneur. These are all important parts of my identity and they increase in importance to me depending on the context of my environment. When I’m around other Hokies at a VT football game, that facet of my identity comes to the forefront.
The same goes with your employees. They have a whole range of labels and experiences that matter to them. By creating a space where they feel comfortable and safe drawing on those perspectives, you unleash their potential to be their most engaged, passionate and driven selves.
Here are some specific ways you can make your business more inclusive and productive today:
1. Diversity networks. One way to make your employees feel more visible and heard is through diversity networks. These are groups that come together based on shared identities, i.e. single moms, veterans, LGBTQ individuals, Asian Americans, disabilities, latinx, etc. These networks help individuals learn from each other, share resources, mentor each other, discuss the challenges and stereotypes facing this facet of their identity and how to address them. Are you worried that this could divide the office more than unite it? Don’t be. These networks actually empower individuals to share their identities with the broader team so everyone can learn from each other. And more often than not, people will belong to multiple groups. This will spark thoughtful conversations between coworkers and improve their collaborative skills.
2. Allow opportunities for team members to express themselves. The only way your team members can suggest innovative ideas is if they have the chance to speak. The quickest way to make an employee feel uncomfortable and unaccepted is to have her coworkers interrupt or speak over her. As the boss, create opportunities for individuals to speak about what projects they are working on, their goals and their struggles. And if you notice that one employee is consistently cutting off her coworkers, pull her aside and have a private conversation about listening before speaking.
3. Diversity training. Everyone has bias. It’s a fact of life that we all come from different backgrounds and interpret the world differently. And it’s usually subconscious. That’s why diversity workshops can be a great way to unpack our biases and privileges. Being able to listen and empathize is useful in any business setting and will improve your employees’ customer service skills. This training is not a lecture, but rather an opportunity for honest conversation and learning. Knowing the history behind specific identities can lead to more conscientious interactions between coworkers. There are lots of diversity workshop tutorials online, such as the Diversity Toolkit created by the online MSW at the University of Southern California, or you could hire a professional to lead the session.This will have a greater impact on your employee retention rates than you may expect. Employees that feel seen and heard are more dedicated to their employers.
4. Open-door policy. Inspire an open-door policy so your employees feel safe coming to you and their other bosses about issues of discrimination, sexism, racism, homophobia and more. First and foremost, listen. Don’t invalidate their experiences by immediately questioning them or taking a side in the conflict. This plus literally keeping your door open will instill a feeling of trust in your office.
5. Show, don’t tell. Show that diversity is important to you by hiring employees that come from a variety of backgrounds. Your work team should ideally represent the full diversity of your customer base. That way, team members can relate and appeal to your clients on a personal level. Representation also works as a strong motivator. When individuals can see themselves in their role models – bosses, podcast guests, interviewees, etc. – they are more likely to imagine higher goals for themselves.
6. Gender neutral bathrooms. Gender neutral bathrooms are more common than you may think. All of the bathrooms in your house are gender neutral! One way to promote a more inclusive environment is to maintain a single stall bathroom available to any employee in the office. This is an easy way to help your employees maintain their privacy and make their work environment feel comfortable. When they’re not worried about doing their business, they can focus on your business.
7. Support each other. Above all, promote a positive and safe work space by encouraging coworkers to support each other. Provide opportunities for coworkers to shout each other out and share positive feedback. As the boss, when someone excels, highlight the success among the entire office. This is also an effective way to combat stereotypes. By moving beyond the caricatures of specific identities, you allow your employees to be seen for their individual strengths and weaknesses.
Diversity matters. Not just because it leads to equality, but because it creates a more creative, collaborative and productive work environment. If you can implement these changes in your business, you will see a higher employee retention rate, increased profitability and an overall happier workplace.