Ten tips for increasing diversity in your workplace

When businesses start up, they are often small, tightly-knit groups of pioneers that come from the same background, even from the same family. This works very well in the early survival stages of a venture, but as soon as the business reaches a more stable post-survival growth phase, the founders have the opportunity to look around a bit more widely, and to diversify their workforce.

Those who don’t, forego the richness of varied ideas and run the risk of stagnating, and remaining small and insular. But human resource diversification, like any process of change, can be uncomfortable and risky, says Kgomotso Ramoenyane, Executive General Manager of Human Resources at Business Partners Limited. She offers the following ten tips for entrepreneurs who want to bring diversity into their businesses in the right way:

1. Ask yourself why

Start with examining your reasons for wanting to diversify your staff. If you only want to do it in order to score B-BBEE points so as to get more business, chances are that you are going to find it a frustrating exercise that is likely to strengthen the prejudices of those in your organisation resistant to the idea.

But if your reasons are based on true long-term business advantages of diversity such as more creativity and innovation, increased productivity and opening up new markets. The reasons orders your thought processes and gives you a set of priorities with which to work.

2. Set your targets

You can introduce diversity into an organisation in so many different ways – age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, abilities – that you cannot do it all at once. Pick realistic targets aligned with your reasons for diversifying.

3. Get buy-in

One of the key dynamics of human resources diversification in a business is increased interaction and collaboration between diverse people. It would be odd, and most likely doomed to fail, if you were to start such a process without first gaining the collaboration of your existing team around the idea, the reasons for it, what to expect, and how it is going to be rolled out and measured. 

Given that most small business owners might not have the experience with this process, it might be a good idea at this stage to consult one or two of the organisational change experts available in the market to assist.

4. Recruit according to your plan

If you hold out for the perfect candidate with just the right profile, skill set and aptitude, you are probably not going to make much progress. On the other hand, if you are simply going to appoint token candidates, the project is not even worth starting.

5. Integrate the differences

Recruitment is just the start of diversifying your staff. The whole point of human resources diversification is to forge different perspectives and experiences into a rich, vital team. It takes a lot of work from management to embrace differences and obtain maximum performance levels from a diverse team. It means listening to many different inputs and taking them all seriously, without necessarily throwing out every established way of doing things nor having to try to find a perfect compromise about every issue.

6. Encourage mentoring and coaching

New recruits can always do with some mentoring and coaching in any business. Someone brought in from a different background and experience to the dominant culture of the company is likely to benefit even more from support in the beginning. Pairing such new recruits with experienced members of your staff in a mentorship relationship can go a long way to help form the new bonds that lie at the basis of the idea of diversity.

7. Weed out discriminatory policies and practices:

A diversifying company is likely to come across established practices that unintentionally discriminate against newcomers with differing needs. Staff members in early motherhood might need flexible hours, strict rosters might prevent a worker from attending mosque on a Friday and even a set of stairs might be a formidable obstacle to a staff member with a disability.

8. Start new projects

An influx of fresh blood into a business is a fantastic opportunity for a company to try new projects with diverse teams. It almost defeats the object of diversification if the intention is to stick to business as usual.

9. Look for commonalities

One way of weaving the differences between diverse employees into a rich tapestry is to focus on the opposite – the things that they have in common. Pointed discussions of shared interests and values, and planned activities to emphasise those will help to forge the bonds.

10. Celebrate successes

Diversifying is a difficult and uncomfortable process. It is therefore important to not only to fight inevitable pockets of resistance and come down firmly on individuals who cause unnecessary friction, but also to emphasise the positive by celebrating every milestone towards a truly diverse workplace.

Four steps to create an inclusive work environment for your business

Business owners are lucky that they create their own work environment, unlike managers in large corporations who step into rigid, pre-created cultures. However, many business owners allow the working culture in their businesses to flow organically from their personality, without giving much thought to how it could be perhaps better engineered.

Kgomotso Ramoenyane, executive general manager: human resources at Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), believes that there is a lot to be said for consciously shaping the work environment in a business rather than leaving it up to chance, and specifically to aim towards creating an inclusive culture.

Inclusivity in a business means that the staff members feel valued and free to express who they are, where workers are keen to contribute not merely their contractually required output, but any of their ideas, knowledge and support that can help build the business. In an inclusive environment conflict is not shunned or suppressed, but channelled in such a way that everyone is keen to debate, participate and resolve, even if their ideas do not always hold sway.

Ramoenyane says inclusivity is not the same concept as diversity, although the two are closely linked. Almost always, diversity provides a force that steers an organisation in the direction of inclusivity because different kinds of people – young and old, male and female, black and white, local and foreign – are thrown together in one space and naturally seek to find harmony with each other.

But although diversity can often lead to inclusiveness, inclusivity is more than just diversity. It is quite possible, for example, for a diverse organisation to develop an oppressive atmosphere when management fails to make staff feel valued and included.

Why is inclusivity good for business? Can’t a regimented business where everyone does exactly as they are told also be a highly efficient organisation? Perhaps, but it is also a rigid organisation that is highly fragile in an ever-changing environment, says Ramoenyane. Inclusivity helps a business to adapt easily to changes in the market.

Her list of advantages of an inclusive business culture include higher productivity and lower staff turnover because workers feel valued, solutions to problems are found and implemented quickly because everyone feels free to contribute, innovation thrives because the development of products, services and systems are the result of inputs from many people, the knowledge base of the business expands, making it easier for the business to adapt to changes and ultimately enter and conquer new markets.

Ramoenyane acknowledges that creating an inclusive work culture can be difficult for owner-managers, many of whom characteristically have strong beliefs about how things should be done. Often, they are more used to being listened to than to listen. Another problem is that creating a workplace culture is intangible, abstract and all but impossible to measure. Given all the practical problems that business owners have to contend with, it is not surprising that something like the culture of the workplace is ignored as a fuzzy and less important issue.

Yet the results of an inclusive workplace culture is anything but fuzzy. Those very practical problems that tend to keep business owners preoccupied at the expense of working on their workplace culture can be solved so much easier if the whole workforce is fully engaged in the business.

Ramoenyane offers four steps that business owners can take toward creating a more inclusive business:

1. Define your business goals

If the business owner does not have a clear direction and vision for the business, chances are that the employees’ involvement in the workplace will not go beyond an I-just-work-here attitude. The vision for a business can go beyond growth in turnover and profitability and can include values and ethos. Having inclusivity expressed as part of your vision will of course help towards creating an inclusive work environment.

2. Share your vision with your staff

Whether it is in a series of workshops, discussions, memos or day-to-day interactions with your staff members, explain and engage constantly with them about your business goals. Invite comments and suggestions on how to make your vision a reality, and be genuinely open to their ideas. Employees who buy into your vision are much more likely to feel at home and included in your business.

3. Strive for diversity

With every new staff appointment that you make, you have the chance to increase the diversity of your company. The case for purposefully striving for diversity in your workforce is strong: it can enhance creativity and innovation, it can help to open up new markets and to increase productivity and profitability.

4. Give – and take – feedback

Don’t tell valuable employees for the first time just how valuable they are when they hand you their notice of resignation. By then it is much too late. Giving praise and corrective advice is an art which every business owner should refine and practice as a habit. But it is just as important to remember that feedback is a two-way communication. Business owners must learn to listen as much as they must learn to give feedback. If you can do both with genuine empathy, everyone in your business will feel at home.