Leadership Strategies for a Diverse and Inclusive Corporate Culture

For companies committed to creating a diverse and inclusive culture, recruiting a diverse workforce is only the beginning. For diversity to work, and for individuals and companies to reap the benefits of diversity, leaders need to make a conscious effort to shape an inclusive culture that is reflected in their daily behaviors.

Today, this is more important than ever. CNBC reported that nearly 80 percent of respondents say they want to work for a company that values diversity, equity and inclusion. Similarly, McKinsey reports that 39 percent of their survey respondents said they take organizations’ inclusiveness into account when making career decisions. However, many employees indicated they do not feel fully included at work, they report barriers to achieving inclusion and they want their organizations to do more to advance inclusion and diversity.

Recently, a senior leader within HR had a very frank conversation with us and said, “Look, I can spend a million dollars and aim to increase my recruitment of diverse candidates. But they’re not going to stick around if it’s not an inclusive culture.” The truth is, inclusive culture needs to stretch through everything that companies do. More than ticking a checklist, companies should aim to create a truly diverse culture, with a long-lasting impact.

Recently, Burnalong’s co-CEO and co-founder, moderated a panel entitled “Beyond Diversity: Leadership Strategies for Shaping a Truly Inclusive Culture” to discuss this important topic and provide tangible strategies for corporate leaders to implement in their own organizations. We start by reviewing some critical events that served as a catalyst for corporate change, then diving into key definitions, followed by a brief look at where we are now, then diving into practical examples of how to get started, or progress DEI initiatives at your company. 

Diversity Defined

If inclusion is already a part of a company’s DNA, it’s a good time to amplify it. If it is not, it’s a good time to explore the benefits. What can diversity and inclusion – taken to the core of a company’s mission – look like? How can it impact your employees, your business, your benefits, and society at large?

Diversity is a complex issue that has been defined again and again. At the baseline, it is about representation. It is the human makeup of your organization and the variety of that makeup. It is never about tokenism (“But 50 percent of my workforce is people of color!”), nor ticking a checklist. At its core, diversity is about these three important elements:

  • Inclusion. Measuring diversity is measuring the way people – along with their contributions, their presence, and their ideas – are integrated into a company’s culture.
  • Empowerment. Empowerment plays an important role in corporate diversity. Empowered employees are free to give their ideas. In turn, the organization seriously considers and often adopts these ideas. 
  • Belonging. Perhaps the most important, a true sense of belonging is at the core of diversity and inclusivity. Does your culture encourage people to show up with their whole selves? Employees need to feel safe bringing their whole selves to work, every day. 

Understanding what diversity is – and what it is not – is the first step toward creating an inclusive culture that is reflected in all a company stands for and practices. So how do you get started, or progress, if you’ve already started investing in diversity and inclusion initiatives?

Getting Started with Diversity and Inclusion

Setting up a successful DEI program to bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront – and heart – of your company values is no small task, but it can be done. Start by focusing on moving your company’s mindset from “Let’s have some programs around diversity and inclusion,” to “Let’s think about how diversity and inclusion are essential to our existence and bottom-line.” 

Start with a clear DEI strategy. Bring in the experts to help craft and define what diversity should look like in your organization. A crucial part of introducing and establishing diversity and inclusion into your culture is to link these efforts to why the business exists. 

Next, focus on operational excellence with a clear focus and execution plan. Bring everyone on board and concentrate on across-company buy-in. Choose your focus, and choose it well. Be transparent and honest with your employees. As HR leaders, we can’t solve everything all at once, but we can start small and make a commitment to continual improvements. 

Measure your efforts and build accountability. We all know the saying, “what gets measured, gets done.” Measurement does not mean the simple introduction of a hiring quota. Aim to create a direct connection between the company’s existence and its reliance on diversity to complete this mission. Ask yourselves if you are truly equitable in the changes made to promoting, including, and empowering people of various backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, races, ideas, and experiences? 

As in many parts of organizational management, where the business focus is lacking, long-term results are lacking. A groundswell of volunteers who stand up and start working to support the organization’s mission and vision around diversity and inclusion is laudable. But like any sustainable change, these efforts cannot run purely on passion and volunteerism. 

To make a lasting impact and be successful, diversity and inclusion initiatives need a budget, structure, and strategy. Integration into business goals and bottom-line results will be more effective than any amount of showy programming because there will be scalable support beyond initial passion-led initiatives. Indeed, by investing in diversity and inclusion it will improve your overall bottom-line results as it is good for business. 

Diversity and Inclusion is Good for Business

While there are many benefits to focusing on diversity and inclusion, two stood out in a recent conversation with HR and DEI leaders. First, diversity helps a company’s relationship with its customers. By reflecting their needs, understanding them better, and attracting customers with shared values, it’s a no-brainer. 

Secondly, one can see an improvement in more innovative deliverables when they are worked on by a diverse team. Katherine Phillips, from Columbia Business School, stated, “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.” According to Forbes, working with a diverse team can lead to better decision-making (though with a bit more effort) and the broader perspectives can lead to more innovative solutions. 

Third, and apart from the larger DEI conversation, we have found that diverse programming and inclusive wellness instructors leads to more employee engagement and more notable behavior changes. When someone is able to relate to an instructor, their behavior is more positively impacted and healthy habits are more likely to “stick.” 

Further, offering a wide range of courses allows you to meet your employees where they are with the tools and support needed to succeed in their individual wellness journeys. Outside of fitness, to include everyone in your employee base, it is important to offer programming for people with chronic conditions, medical concerns (i.e. cancer recovery), those looking for parenting classes, financial wellness, menthol health support, and adaptive workouts. 

We have seen, at Burnalong, that when we offer more diverse programming, more employees and their families participate. Not only do they participate but their engagement leads to improved wellness, reduced healthcare costs, more productivity, and higher retention rates as employees feel valued and included.

Overall, an intentional focus on diversity and inclusion is good for business. It leads to deeper, more robust, relationships within your organization and with the audiences you serve. Further, diversity and inclusion enrich final deliverables with varying perspectives contributing to the final product. 

Progressing Towards Diversity and Inclusion For All

When we think of diversifying a workforce and making inclusion a priority, we think of the classic example of “filling headcounts.” Large organizations often aim to fill a certain amount of roles with women, people of color, and people with disabilities. But if you rely on improving diversity merely through external hires, the excuse becomes “we’re not hiring,” or “there were no qualified candidates.”

Even if you aren’t hiring, you can still work to improve diversity at your organization. Aside from company education and programming, simple steps toward a more inclusive organization include gender-neutral restrooms, updating your screening process for new candidates, accessibility across the entire building, creating a diverse recruiting panel, blinding resumes, and prioritizing budgets for diversity and inclusion initiatives. 

As you can see, beyond just hiring, improving diversity from within your company requires cross-departmental collaboration. Both corporate leaders and HR departments should be working together with the strategies set forth by the organization to achieve their goals. Without this back-and-forth teamwork, diversity and inclusion initiatives are bound to fail.

It is important to remember that diversity and inclusion is everyone’s responsibility. Leaders are not the only ones responsible for change, but rather every single individual in a company has a responsibility for inclusion – standing up for themselves and their peers. Individuals contribute and commit to diversity initiatives because when they thrive, organizations thrive.

About Reaching Equality

There’s no denying the fatigue that people can feel about workplace diversity and inclusion, and yet studies and research show that we have a long way to go before reaching equality. 

2021 marks 25 years since the United Nations Declaration on Gender Equality, where it was pledged that by 2020 the world would reach full gender equality. Let’s see how far we are today:

With inequality in decision-making positions like the above, the work is still far from over. Yes, we may be fatigued, but now is the time to take action and make real, meaningful changes.

Starting the conversations, and doing the fundamental work as individuals, employees, and key influencers to ensure equal and fair treatment for all.

Moving Forward

As society continues to grow, our organizations, our programming, and our initiatives also need to grow. Navigating tough conversations about current events, especially as managers, is vital to supporting your employees. Try to make work a safe place for engagement. Recognize bias where it stands. The saying goes, if you have a brain, you have a bias. You’re not a bad company because you have a bias – it just happens. This is not an excuse, however, to stop checking that bias at every level of your system. 

While some companies are just starting to explore the work of an inclusive and diverse culture, some are more advanced. Truthfully, organizations – and the individuals who make up their workforces – are often somewhere in the middle with some initiatives, a decent number of volunteers, and a lot of aspirational goals to become more diverse and inclusive. 

Don’t be discouraged by this, however. The important thing to remember is to keep the conversations going so you are continually growing. Talk about what needs improving, talk about what the goals are, and talk about how the company will hold itself accountable. Talk about privilege and leadership within the company. Talk about the crucial role diversity and inclusion plays in your bottom line and set goals, accordingly. And then get to work.

To hear more of the conversation, listen to the on-demand webinar with Sari Brody, former Global Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at IKEA; Smita Pillai, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer at Regeneron; Shruti Kothari, Director of Industry Initiatives at BlueSheild of California; and Daniel Freedman, Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Burnalong: https://on.Burnalong.com/webinar/leadership-strategies-for-inclusive-culture

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