An overwhelming lack of diversity in many companies is one of the biggest issues in the business world today, especially in certain industries. Nearly everyone agrees that diverse workplaces are more successful—they’re more innovative, there’s less turnover, and overall, diverse companies bring in more revenue. In a 2015 study, McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 15% more likely to outperform other organizations with less diverse workforces. Ethnic and racial diversity made companies perform even better.
The problem is not in the theory of organizational diversity—it’s in the practice. Almost all companies want the benefits of more diverse teams, but building them can be surprisingly challenging. Leadership’s role in this process is absolutely crucial for establishing a diverse and productive workforce, but so many leaders fall short of their responsibilities in creating this environment. Here’s why leadership needs to take the reins—and a few tips for getting started.
Leadership Sets the Stage
Whether a leader oversees just a few people, multiple departments, or the whole company, they’re the role models and representatives of the organization. Diversity can’t be a priority without buy-in from leaders at every level of the organization. Leadership sets the expectations and is responsible for bringing diversity in as part of the cultural fabric of the company. It’s the leaders communicating the status of the company, including the status of diversity efforts. It’s the leaders creating diversity policies and enforcing them within the organization.
Aside from serving as a role model for the company as whole, leaders are responsible for hiring policies, practices, and ultimately, hiring decisions. Hiring policies need to be created to ensure that everyone is on the same page, and to encourage diverse hiring at all levels. True organizational diversity cannot be achieved until diversity is present in leadership, as well as within teams.
Some leaders cite problems with finding diverse talent for some roles, but this should not be used as an excuse for slipping into old patterns and giving up—more diverse talent is out there than ever before in the United States. This particular challenge is felt more keenly in some fields than others—for example, the demand for data analytics workers and the shortage of trained candidates (only 20% of 4 year institutions offer analytics programs) has made it difficult to find candidates at all. Whereas the nursing industry is the exact opposite as industry projections note that by 2025 the nursing industry will experience a shortage of approximately 260,000.
Make it a “Personal Mission”
A push for diversity won’t get very far if leaders aren’t invested in the project. Leaders need an authentic desire to make diversity a priority on an ongoing basis—not just for a few months during a hiring spree. A CEO’s passion and commitment to diversity was found to be an important factor in the success of increasing organizational diversity, with those who made it a personal mission seeing the most success.
Listen and Empower, Teach, and Support
Transitions are always difficult, and becoming a more diverse organization will come with some bumps along the road. It’s a leader’s job to keep their eyes and ears open and offer support and empowerment when it’s needed. That might mean making a concerted effort to entertain and encourage ideas from people with different backgrounds, address any insensitive or offensive comments should they occur, and support employees who may have been made to feel uncomfortable. Listen to your team and proactively respond—they may not approach you directly on their own.
Tailor Your Approach
Diversity in the workplace means that not everyone will have the same views and experiences. This is positive, since it allows the company to avoid blind spots and become more innovative. However, it does make the job of being a leader more dynamic. You will need to tailor your leadership approach to the individual and provide multiple ways for employees to learn and express themselves. This type of approach is beginning to be used in schools to encourage achievement in diverse classrooms, and it can be helpful in the workplace as well.
A Responsibility for Every Leader
As a leader at any level, you can’t put the responsibility for championing diversity on someone else’s shoulders. It’s not easy to get past the buzzwords that are so popular in the business world and make meaningful changes, but you owe it to both your company and your team to commit to organizational diversity. The benefits can be incredible.