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5 Key Steps to Starting a D&I Program

Personal touch helps launch diversity and inclusion initiatives at small organizations

A woman giving a presentation to a group of people in a conference room.

Working at a small business or in a small HR operation doesn't mean that you can't have a meaningful diversity and inclusion (D&I) program. There are five key steps to starting such an initiative in any organization, experts in the field say, even where previous diversity efforts have failed. It takes preparation and persistence from a dedicated professional. But it doesn't require a large budget.

There's a danger in just copying what another company is doing, said Peter Bye, a diversity professional who recently retired as president of MDB Group, a New York City-based consulting firm specializing in business growth.

"Frankly, a whole lot of diversity and inclusion initiatives don't achieve a whole lot," he said.

"It needs to be customized for each company and for different parts of the company," said Deb Dagit, a longtime diversity consultant in Washington, N.J.   

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Building a Diversity Initiative from the Ground Up]

Addressing diversity and inclusion is more important than ever, said Shirley Davis, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, an executive, speaker and diversity expert.

"The world and the workplace have changed," she said. Organizations are more multicultural and multigenerational than ever. "This is our new normal," she observed.

Essential steps to launching an initiative are:

1. Identify key stakeholders.

This starts with the CEO, but there must be buy-in both up and down the organizational chart. Executives, managers, and rank-and-file employees must understand the initiative's purpose and how it will help them do their jobs more effectively.

"Know who your sponsors and objectors are. Identify and prepare for those who are not excited about this," Dagit advised. Finding allies throughout the organization who perform their jobs with diversity and inclusion in mind—and who can extol the virtues of doing so to colleagues—can pay off in a big way.

2. Identify business needs. 

Without a strong connection to how the organization achieves its business goals, the initiative won't succeed. "Think about this stuff from the perspective of the CEO," said Bye. "Who are we? How do our people work together to meet our business objectives? What do we need?"

The vital business questions to address, said Shirley Engelmeier, founder and CEO of Minneapolis consulting firm InclusionINC, are: "How can you sell more goods and services? What do you need to service existing and future customers and clients?"

3. Keep it simple. 

The diversity and inclusion initiative must be focused and easily understood and executed. It doesn't have to be massive in scope, especially at the outset.

"Keep it really, really simple," Engelmeier advised.

A series of small programs—such as online training courses and luncheon speakers on diversity and inclusion topics—can kick off the program, said Fiona Citkin, Ph.D., managing director of diversity consulting firm Expert MS in Warren, N.J.

"This can be done really cheaply. This can be done by any company," she said.

For example, upgrading the organization's website to include photos of and testimonials from diverse employees seems like a no-brainer, but not every organization demonstrates a diverse and inclusive culture on its site—or does so with authenticity.

4. Build in accountability. 

Managers must be responsible for weaving diversity and inclusion into their daily actions. Let them know at the initiative's inception that their role is critical.

"Ask managers to provide you with quarterly or biannual reports on what they are doing to promote diversity and inclusion," suggested Davis. "Make sure that they are asking the right kinds of questions in job interviews."

Accountability is not just for supervisors, Citkin said.

"We are all bosses" when it comes to making diversity and inclusion an integral part of work, Citkin noted.

5. Assess and adjust. 

Whether you use detailed metrics or a less formal way to evaluate the progress of the initiative, your evaluation method must be analyzed periodically and tweaked when and where needed. Engagement surveys can gauge reaction to the initiative. Reports can show whether more diverse job candidates are being contacted and interviewed and whether other program goals are being met.

If there is pushback or if results are not as positive as expected, pivot.

"It might be better to focus on inclusion than on diversity, especially for companies that are new to this," Dagit said. She suggested "inclusion nudges" to individual managers and employees to help them recognize unconscious biases or to develop more tolerant ways of working.

Engelmeier and some other experts caution that diversity training is not always popular and effective. However, "If you are a small organization, it makes training easier," stated Davis. Online training can be inexpensive and can free up HR staff to help employees implement what they learn.

"There is a body of expertise and a mindset needed to work in the diversity and inclusion space," Bye said. But HR professionals can do the research and seek the knowledge needed to get going. Focus on learning about diversity best practices, understanding the organization, establishing partnerships with outside organizations and integrating diversity into workforce planning.

Don't wait too long to get started, experts say. The lack of a diversity and inclusion program can be costly.

"If you're not focusing on it," Davis said, "it's a going-out-of-business strategy."

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. 

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