How to Build a Company Dedicated to Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

Ulysses Smith

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion strategist and Udemy for Business instructor

October 8, 2019

There are a number of reasons why you or your employees might want to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in your workplace. You might consider yourself to be a member of an underrepresented group and you’d like your company to help others like you feel more welcome. You might have business goals that relate to employee experience in these areas. Or you may just believe that it’s the right thing to do. Whatever the case, I’m excited to help you and your employees get the conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion started in your organization.

I’ve had the pleasure of leading these efforts at some diverse organizations with leadership roles in higher education, consulting, and the tech industry. And in my Udemy course, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: A Beginner’s Guide, I’ll help you practice the skills you’ll need and present you with several tactics to get you started.

Why prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Research shows that diverse teams are more productive, engage in more complex problem-solving, and produce better outcomes. This is because having different backgrounds and perspectives on a team allows biases to be checked and gives people the opportunity to see the world through the lens of someone else.

Studies have also shown that companies overall perform better when diversity is present. The findings from the McKinsey study illustrate this best. The study determined that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Furthermore, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Think about it: that’s a lot of money and business opportunity that is left behind without a focus on building diverse teams.

If organizations focus on creating inclusive cultures where everyone has that sense of belonging, they end up saving quite a bit of money. Hiring can be an expensive endeavor for many organizations. If the organization is constantly losing people, teams are less efficient, less productive, and the cost to backfill increases exponentially. 

In this post, I’ll cover some of the key terminology and introduce some of the tactics you’ll need to promote diversity and inclusion at your organization.

Diversity is an acknowledgment of difference

By now, you’ve probably heard the word diversity used in a number of instances. But what does it actually mean? Diversity, in simplest terms, is an acknowledgment of difference. In the context of people, it means that we all have different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences given our varied identities.

Understanding that diversity equals different, use of the word “diversity” should be in reference to the collective or the entirety of an organization. This means that a phrase like “diversity recruiting” should actually be just “recruiting.” If we’re strong recruiters, then we automatically focus on identifying top talent from all backgrounds.

Diversity alone is an incomplete narrative focused solely on composition. It does not acknowledge historic injustice, varying levels of access, or other barriers for that matter. That’s why you will often see diversity coupled with a few other terms, which I define below.

  • Inclusion is valuing and leveraging difference (or diversity). In an organization, inclusion means that all people are accepted, respected, meaningfully engaged, and able to fully participate in the activities of the organization regardless of their identity.
  • Belonging is the feeling that you are a valued and essential part of a team. It means that you feel that you are valued interpersonally, and that you are not an expendable cog in the wheel.
  • Equality is treating everyone the exact same way, regardless of background or experience. Depending on the context, this can mean that everyone has the same amount of influence (like voting), everyone is given the same amount of resources, or a policy or process is applied to everyone in the exact same way.
  • Equity means that individuals are given the resources that they need to be their most successful selves. It acknowledges that we all have different circumstances and starting points, and aims to ensure that we reach the same goals with the appropriate level of resources for each of us. Equity is the foundation of any successful diversity and inclusion practice. 

Now that we’ve defined the terms and looked at the benefits of promoting inclusive cultures, let’s look at the skills and tactics you and your employees will need in order to promote inclusion and belonging at your organization.

1. Navigating identity

The process of identity development is ongoing and dynamic, and typically not something that we do consciously. Our identities are influenced by a number of factors and ultimately inform our interactions with others. That development can be quite complex, but let’s simplify it here.

Social identity is a reflection or sense of who you are based on your membership in a given group. Groups that are most common to us include our gender, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion. For many people, each of these has a profound impact on their sense of belonging and affinity in a given space.

Identities can be part of agent or target groups. Agent groups are identities that hold unearned privilege in society. Just so we’re clear on terms, privilege is a set of special advantages that are made available only to certain groups. 

Target groups, on the other hand, are identities that are disenfranchised or exploited. Because we each possess a number of identities and belong to different groups, we have both agent and target identities. For example, as a man in the United States, I possess a lot of privilege. As someone who identifies as Black and LGBTQ, I’m also subject to acts of discrimination. My agent identities are my gender and my citizenship, while my target identities are my race and my sexual orientation.

Talking about identity and understanding your own is hard work, but it’s necessary if you’re seeking to understand the dynamics and experiences that people are bringing into the workplace. In my course, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: A Beginner’s Guide, you and your employees will have the opportunity to go through a few exercises to help explore personal identity and consider how that might influence experiences at work.

2. Becoming aware of blind spots & bias

Navigating your various identities is not just about becoming self-aware, it’s also about understanding the areas or identities where you might have less exposure and awareness. These are what we call “blind spots,” and it’s important that we become aware of them and challenge them in order to mitigate bias.

Unconscious bias is our tendency to make quick judgments and assessments using established patterns or stereotypes without us even realizing it. Our brains are constantly bombarded with information, much of which goes unnoticed because it is so innate and routine. Let’s think of the brain as a prism. With over 11 million pieces of information being fed to us at any given time, the prism filters information in a variety of different ways. For example, our interactions with family and friends, the culture we grow up in, and institutions like religion or the law that typically guide our sense of right and wrong.

All of these factors combined affect how we view and process information, even in ways we aren’t conscious of. I would like to believe that I am a just, objective observer of the world, but the reality is that I’m filtering information just as everyone else is—and we’re all doing it differently because of our unique circumstances. We create narratives about people or entire groups based on the limited information we have about them. This can be detrimental to creating inclusive environments, especially when these stereotypes result in disparate treatment. As champions of inclusion, it is incumbent upon you and your employees to actively seek to make the unconscious conscious, and to learn to recognize and challenge bias.

A great resource to help you and your employees learn a bit more about personal biases and how they can impact interactions and decision-making is the Implicit Association Test. This test was developed by researchers at Harvard in order to test people’s assumptions, associations, and judgments. Despite doing this work for quite some time, I’m still constantly surprised by some of my responses. Try it out on your own and see what you discover!

3. Learning to really listen

While listening seems like a very simple skill that you learned as a child, it turns out that few people have honed their active listening skills. For someone entering into the DEI practice, though, it’s essential.

Earlier, I encouraged you to think about the various layers of your identity. Now consider how all of the people with all of those identities come together and interact in the workplace. As a DEI practitioner, you will often be placed in the position of facilitating many uncomfortable conversations. Active listening is a key skill that will allow you to facilitate this type of dialogue.

In my course, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: A Beginner’s Guide, we’ll look in depth at the LARA/I Method for promoting dialogue, empathy, and understanding. Here’s a quick overview. This method is comprised of four steps: Listen, Affirm, Respond, and Add Information or Inquire.

When you do the first step of Listen, your goal is to hear the principle or feeling that is at the core of what someone is saying.

The affirmation stage simply means that you express the connection or common feeling that you found when you were listening to the other person, and most importantly, convey that you are not going to attack, hurt, or dismiss the other person.

When you respond, you should speak openly and honestly about your social identity, and express your feelings, thoughts, and reactions to others.

And finally adding information or inquiring gives you the chance to share additional pieces of information with the person that may provide additional insight or a new perspective. This could be an observation or experience, a book or journal article, or even to ask a question that might spur additional dialogue.

In my course, your employees can practice these methods of listening, affirming, responding and adding information or inquiring. 

To recap, in this post, I’ve covered why understanding your identity and the complexity of social identity grants you the ability to empathize with others and better understand the lens through which others view the world. We’ve discussed why becoming aware of your blind spots and biases gives you insight into some of the challenges that others face that you are not aware of. And we’ve outlined why learning to actively listen with empathy is a critical skill to helping everybody in your workplace navigate some of the uncomfortable conversations that will undoubtedly come about as a result of your efforts. Ready to explore these topics in more detail and practice developing these skills with your workforce? Check out my course, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: A Beginner’s Guide.

About the author:

Ulysses Smith is a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion strategist and Udemy for Business instructor. Much of his career centers on participatory governance structures and creating access to institutions and decision-making processes for underserved and underrepresented groups.

Through his private firm, Archetype, he has consulted with organizations throughout New York State and the San Francisco Bay Area including Airbnb, Gusto, Genentech, Electronic Arts, and the NYC Human Resources Administration. He is the Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Leader at Blend, the digital mortgage technology provider, where he focuses on creating and implementing a global workforce DEI strategy for the high-growth organization. Prior to Blend, he served as the Head of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity for Mixpanel, a San Francisco-based user analytics startup. Smith previously served in various leadership roles at Cornell University—including Lead Diversity & Inclusion Strategist and Director for Special Projects, Innovation & Strategic Engagement—overseeing the institution’s diversity strategy and focusing on innovative engagement of the changing workforce. Smith is a graduate of Cornell University, earning concurrent degrees in both Urban & Regional Studies and Government.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

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