5 Easy Steps Your Small Business Can Take to Build a More Diverse and Inclusive Workforce

August 14, 2018

Diversity has been a hot topic for most organizations in recent years, and rightfully so: The more research and studies we do, the more clear it becomes that there are many benefits to a diverse workforce (in addition to promoting equality.) This includes things like better retention rates, stronger workforce performance, and higher employee engagement rates.

Because of this, we’ve seen a lot of examples of how big companies are changing their hiring strategies and putting more budget towards bringing in diverse talent. But while these are great to hear, they usually aren’t tactics that small businesses can use – they simply don’t have the resources, consultants, budget, brand names, and staff that the big guys have.

So to help small businesses get a clear idea of strategies to make diversity a reality, I talked with three organizations that are doing some really interesting (and fantastic) work in this area. What I learned from them is truly valuable information that small businesses everywhere can use in their inclusion efforts. Based on our conversations, here are five steps small businesses can take to start working towards a diverse workforce:

1. Educate everyone at your company on why diversity is important  

As someone who works with small business clients globally, the question I hear most often when they first begin undertaking any diversity initiative is: “Where do we start?” They know it’s hugely important and want to be on the forefront of diversity and inclusion efforts, but are unsure of how to take these initiatives beyond a “want to do” to a “we are doing.” The answer really begins with understanding and educating on why it matters so much.

“You start by making a commitment to diversity and making sure that everyone in your company understands how much we all benefit from different thoughts, backgrounds, and perspectives in the room when we are making decisions,” says Emily Gransky, Head of Global Talent Acquisition at Bluebird Bio (a gene therapy company). “It’s about understanding that diversity can be a competitive advantage (which we’d argue it definitely is) rather than something to do just because it’s the right thing to do (which it is). This is key to getting buy-in for the investments necessary to make it successful,” she says.

It’s one thing to make a concerted effort with programs and policies, but without the entire company understanding and believing in the reasons why it is so important, even the best intentions will ultimately fail.

2. Don’t do too much too fast: start with 1-2 initiatives that promote diversity in the workplace

Another potential pitfall when starting out is trying to do too much too fast without a culture of “practice what you preach” in place first. Kerri-Lyn LaRosee, Vice President of Human Capital at The Colony Group (a financial services company), offers some great advice in this regard. “We encourage firms to start with one or two initiatives that promote diversity and awareness," she says. "Implementing too many programs at once can be overwhelming and miss the intent of authentically connecting your employees with opportunities to grow."

According to Kerri-Lyn, in order to build an inclusive environment, all employees must feel that they have a voice and that the company is held accountable. “Company leadership must embrace diversity and provide the means and resolve necessary to grow the future workforce they envision. Mentoring is a critical component of the success of any diversity initiative,” she says.

In short, the best way to start is to educate, prioritize, and make sure you start with a measured plan. Starting internally as opposed to immediately focusing outward on recruiting for diversity first is key.

3. Enable employees to be their true selves and create programs around what matters to them

Diversity and inclusion, as stated earlier, is most definitely not just a recruiting focused issue. Companies need to first ensure that they have an inclusive culture.

A great example of a company that does this well is Mersana Therapeutics, a life sciences company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mersana is an 80-person company, with women representing 50% of their workforce – something very rare in the world of biotech. Caryn Crasnick Maloney, Director of Human Resources, says it starts at the top, as the CEO of Mersana is a woman – but goes beyond that with a lot of the internal efforts they make to ensure an openness of views, backgrounds, and experiences.

“We encourage people to be themselves and we celebrate individuals for who they are,” Caryn says. They do this with programs that allow employees to lead and put into focus things that matter to them (not from the top down like most companies tend to do). This includes employee-led charitable causes, like the Jimmy Fund Walk, to employee championed Green initiatives, individually led lunch and learns, or even an employee-created knitting group.

“Even though we’re committed to the same goals, folks at Mersana have different backgrounds and these informal sessions foster a shared understanding of what our colleagues are focused on,” says Caryn. “We think there are further opportunities to share personal interests from outside of work, as well. Recently, an employee presented a brief journey through Italy’s history, cuisine, culture, and language; another employee discussed his personal involvement in Boston’s Gay Pride program. We appreciate how people bring their personal story to work each day and how that impacts how they perform their job.”

Bluebird Bio also has programs in place that just take the effort, not vast investments of cash to get going. This includes a Diversity and Inclusion team, as well as teams like WILD (Women Influencing Leadership Development), bProud supporting LGBTQ employees, Veterans, Hispanic, Chinese, and African-American interest groups. “We post information all around the ‘nest’ during Black History Month, Pride Month and others, so people can easily learn about people who are different than them,” says Emily.

And last but not least, The Colony Group launched Her Wealth®, an initiative to empower women with the financial confidence and resources to take control of their money and wealth. As part of Her Wealth®, they established a scholarship to advance women in the financial industry. This annual merit-based scholarship is awarded to women who are studying to become a CFP®, CFA, or CPA.”

4. Once you’ve developed a culture of inclusion, make sure you have a diversity recruiting strategy—and measure your results

Bluebird Bio is also taking its diversity and inclusion efforts into their recruiting too. “We also include “b diverse” in every interview scorecard to check if the potential candidate brings that to the group, which will make it that much stronger.” The scorecard also includes "bbb must haves," like b bold (fire), b bright (brains), b yourself (mojo), and more. These are on every scorecard and then the hiring manager adds additional soft skills as well as technical skills. Next to each skill, the interviewer can select thumbs up, thumbs down, neutral, or a star if the canddiate really shines in that area. 

Bluebird Bio also preps interviewers to make sure they are looking for the right things -- and are checking their bias at the door. Here’s a note each interviewer receives:

On top of that, they hope to implement blind resumes later this year in order to avoid bias in the earliest hiring stages. This would exclude a candidate’s name, current company, and school.  

The company also consistently measures how it's doing with the U.S. Equality Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) voluntary data to see if the percentage of applicants from various diversity groups matches the percentage from those groups hired. “We seem to be doing pretty well here,” Emily says, but adds the company is still learning and is always trying to be better.

While most companies have the best intentions, many are obviously still learning what they can do to be effective with diversity and inclusion. For growing companies that are hiring too fast, it’s often easy to just go for specific sets of skills or experiences that you would typically hire for without thinking about diversity or different backgrounds and experiences, a lesson Bluebird Bio thinks is valuable.

“If you are going to focus on diversity and you are hoping to bring in people who may not have gone the typical route to get to your company, there needs to be an appetite for someone smart but not necessarily coming in with the exact experience that they would need to jump right in. There needs to be a strong belief in the tradeoff between experience and perspective of a diverse candidate,” Emily says. This kind of thinking will expand your candidate pool tremendously and offer options to bring in new ways of thinking and varied backgrounds and experiences to your company.

5. Understand the power of diversity in your talent branding efforts

One other lesson is that when you're sharing and promoting your employer brand, it is important to show diversity in what you represent. When people consider a company, the ultimate question they ask is, "Do I fit in there?" Frankly, it is hard to answer "yes" to this question when a potential candidate sees no one like him or herself when doing research.

Mersana Therapeutics, Bluebird Bio, and The Colony Group all do a great job of sharing a very diverse culture in their branding efforts, which has enabled them to not only retain great diverse talent, but to attract it as well.

Here are some examples:


Fight for diversity, but don’t expect change to happen overnight

According to Kerri-Lyn, it’s important not to expect a change immediately. “While we encourage and embrace diversity, we recognize that change does not happen overnight," she says. "As we continue to move towards a more equitable, representative society, it is important to treat all associates with fairness, dignity, and respect.”  

If your internal culture is one that is working towards a more diverse and inclusive culture, you cannot expect to be perfect immediately. Efforts like these take time, investment, and consistency. Allowing for differences and embracing the uniqueness of your employees and their experiences is ultimately what will help set this tone culturally. As Caryn from Mersana Therapeutics so eloquently puts it, “We have learned to be open to all possibilities, to listen to each other and that we’re stronger as a team than we are as individuals.”

This is some solid advice from three companies that are really working hard on their diversity and inclusion efforts. To truly have a diverse and inclusive company, it takes company education, investment, and new ways of thinking about hiring and company culture. I learned a lot from these companies writing this article, and love seeing these examples in action. None of these initiatives require big budgets or thousands of employees or huge brand names to work – just the time, effort, and intention to be better at inclusion.

*Photo from Bluebird Bio

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