How To Support Diversity And Inclusion Beyond Just Words

Jamie Hoobanoff, Founder and CEO of The Leadership Agency, North America’s sales and executive recruitment partner of choice for startups.

You hear it everywhere right now — the conversation about diversity, inclusion and equity seems to be taking place in business meetings, personal interactions and all over the news. However, it seems to me like we have had these discussions before, and inevitably we moved on to talk about other things without ever taking action.

The desired change, the necessary progress that we all say that we support, hasn’t happened yet or at least not enough. In the past, we spoke about a lack of women on boards and panels, and there has been an improvement in female representation over the years. That’s a start. It demonstrates that change can happen when we come together and commit to it. Insist on it. 

Large enterprises can launch splashy media campaigns, hiring quotas and corporate training programs to create and support a culture of inclusion, but the heart of the business community is its entrepreneurs and small businesses. How can we ensure that our organizations are doing all that we can to be inclusive spaces?

Here are four simple — though not easy — ways that you can be a better small business.

With Your Hiring

Lead by example. Engage a diverse workforce. Have decision-makers and a staff that represents a variety of backgrounds and cultures. That may sound obvious, but it isn’t always easy.

Most companies say that they would like to hire a culturally diverse staff, but when it comes to smaller businesses, this can be challenging. How can you find and recruit employees from underrepresented groups when your team is relatively small to begin with?

You have to do it intentionally, deliberately and strategically. Incorporate diversity messaging in your employer brand content, communications and outreach strategies. This can mean going beyond your comfort zone. Small businesses and startups especially tend to hire from their own immediate networks. We commonly hire people we know, who we can relate to, often those who resemble us.

To increase the diversity of your network reach, you can include people from a variety of backgrounds in the hiring process itself. Having diversity in the hiring committee will add diversity to the outcome. If you are engaging a third party to help with your recruitment, make sure that they are aware of your commitment to diversity and that they have the broad reach to help you achieve it.

With Your Vendors

That same strategy can be applied whenever you do business with vendors and partner organizations. Let your support for equity and diversity be known and make it a part of your decision-making process when you choose where to spend your money.

This is where you can have a great deal of influence. Ask important questions of those organizations that want your business. What is their commitment to change? How diverse is their workforce and leadership team? What are their hiring policies?

When these are significant factors impacting whether or not a company can acquire the clients they need, they will take them seriously. Be sure that you are in a position to answer those same questions to potential clients about your own small business as well. 

With Your Partners

Think of the other places where you have influence in your community. Are the committees, associations or other groups for your industry representative of the population at large?

Recently, I was asked to appear on a panel of subject matter experts. We were holding a public discussion on recruitment and outreach. However, all of the participants were white. I would have been just one more voice from an overrepresented group talking amongst itself. I politely declined to participate in a letter explaining how I thought the discussion could be made more impactful with the inclusion of a more diverse array of panelists.   

Similarly, our company was invited to submit for a prestigious industry award earlier this year. While we were excited about the potential recognition, after researching the selection committee, we declined to apply. The trouble was that the entire panel of judges was made up of white men.

I am not questioning the expertise or experience of any member of this group. In fact, I am certain that they are eminently qualified to have been selected as judges for this prestigious award. However, the website for the award highlighted its commitment to honoring diversity and inclusion and recognizing excellence in recruitment and outreach strategies. That laudable paragraph was followed by the photos of the selection committee. It was almost comical how they all looked the same: a uniform panel of middle-aged white men in suits.

We can do better. We must do better. So, while each of those men may be experts in their field, the organization behind the award and others like it need to try harder to reach a more diverse pool of experts and participants must insist on it.

With Your Choices

It would have benefited my company to even be considered for the award and winning it would have been an important recognition. We could have landed new business and reached more potential clients. Declining the opportunity to apply wasn’t in our own best interest, but it was the right thing to do.

We need to ask tough questions of the organizations we work with, and we have to make difficult choices based on the answers we get. Change won’t come through complacency or through short-sighted self-interest.

It’s easy to hire people you know, professionals from your own network. Creating a diverse workforce means reaching further out, including other voices in the process. It might be expedient to go with the vendor you’ve always used or engage the lowest priced service provider, but if you don’t ask the tough questions of those businesses before spending your company’s money, you’re passing up a powerful opportunity to affect change.

Being a better small business means helping support like-minded organizations, committing to diversity and inclusion and ultimately building a better community.

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