The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor earlier this year reverberated around the nation and beyond, raising awareness of many forms of discrimination. Among the people eager to do something constructive have been many leaders of the U.S. business community.
A workforce comprised of employees who all think alike has difficulty bringing new perspectives to bear on business challenges. A company seeking to diversify its workforce can draw from a larger and deeper talent pool than a company in which everyone shares the same background. A diverse workforce is more innovative and better performing than a homogeneous one, and studies show that diverse teams generate higher returns for their companies.
However, even though the case for diversity is compelling, achieving it can be a challenge. It’s not something that can be ordered by decree, nor is it something that a chief executive officer can casually delegate to the company’s training, human resources (HR) or development teams and then wash his or her hands of the matter. Issues of social justice are too deeply rooted for a business-as-usual mitigation approach.
At the same time, however, there is also a great and largely untapped asset that leaders can use: the number of employees at every level of the organization who share the belief that something needs to be done about discrimination in hiring, training, promoting and retaining a diverse workforce. Some of them have specific ideas about it. In essence, there are bottom-up diversity strategies that may be more effective ways to secure employee buy-in than a top-down order. A strongly worded email from the CEO just isn’t enough.
An idea that percolates upward through the organization as it gains support can be a powerful instrument. Crowdsourcing ideas on specific diversity initiatives and harvesting input from hundreds or even thousands of employees can also unify employees behind the actions a company takes. But there are likely to be a significant number of ideas resulting from the exercise, some of which are more practical than others. So, how do you sort them out?
It can happen in much the same way as a budget conversation: What are the greatest needs? Where is the low-hanging fruit? Which ideas are likely to generate the broadest base of support? Which ideas are too costly? Although it might sound unusual to compare a diversity conversation to a budgeting conversation, there are similarities in how leaders start both types of constructive conversations. Both are intended to establish priorities and drive meaningful action that respects the diverse viewpoints held throughout an organization. The company can then form a committee of employees to help roll out the resulting initiatives.
Making diversity a priority has to begin with the organization’s leadership through a commitment to identifying the top 10 or 20 goals the committee thinks it can achieve quickly. Once the team has narrowed the field to two or three goals, it can crowdsource those ideas throughout the organization to solicit opinions, refine topics and formulate action plans. There might have been 20 good ideas that grew out of the original solicitation, but trying to put too many into action at once can lead to paralysis and failure.
Here are three ideas to jump-start conversations on diversity initiatives:
Ask employees about ways the organization can support equity in the broader community, such as payroll donations and donation matching, mentoring, and scholarships.
Ask how your company can raise awareness and increase applications from underrepresented candidates for current and future job postings.
Ask about civic, educational or trade organizations outside the company that are focused on diversity and that would be worthy of the company’s support and involvement.
It’s easy to ask these questions and more challenging to analyze and follow through on the responses. Here are some suggestions:
- Pose these questions by email, and consider the suggestions that come back within 48 hours.
- If you are in a big organization, consider limiting the pool of employees polled to one division or one department.
- Pay attention to the ideas that receive the most support as well as the ones deemed most essential to sustaining a movement.
Of course, implementing employee ideas — even good ones — won’t solve all the thorny issues around discrimination and inequity. However, it can be a concrete first step for organizations to move from rhetoric to action.