Diversity in the workplace is hardly a new topic, and the value to businesses is well-established. A recent study by McKinsey found that companies achieving high levels of gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability, while widespread ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams had an even stronger link to profitability.

For more than a decade now, companies (mostly large ones) have dedicated resources to changing the demographics of their workforces—but to little effect. In the S&P 500, women make up just 7 percent of CEOs, while people of color make up just 1 percent at the top.

“I wouldn’t call that success,” says Rita Mitjans, founder and president of BizGuru LLC, a consulting firm that helps organizations improve the diversity of their workforce and inclusion of their workplace. “It’s been very frustrating for people like me who have been working in this field for so long to see the needle move so slowly.”

One of the problems, she says, has been a lack of urgency. But all of that changed this year. The high-profile deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers invigorated the Black Lives Matter movement and introduced terms like “anti-racism” to our lexicon. In short, business leaders are no longer able to sit back and take a do-nothing approach.

“It’s hard to drive behavioral change unless the house is on fire,” she says. “Now, because of what has happened in 2020, the house is on fire. The door is now wide open to have the conversation, not just about race, but about all the other facets that make a workplace diverse and why that’s important.”

And everyone from employees to investors to customers are demanding that companies respond appropriately. “Millennials are extremely vocal about this topic, and many of them will not work for a company that is not doing the right thing and not committed to true equality and inclusiveness,” Mitjans says. “And given the fact that half of our working population today are millennials, if you’re not addressing it appropriately, you’re going to have a tough time recruiting and retaining good workers.”

At this point, small business leaders might be tempted to throw their hands up in the air. With limited resources, what more could they offer than lip service? “The hardest thing is taking your sentiments and your values and turning them into operational practices,” Mitjans admits. But she also encourages small business leaders not to despair—there are steps both big and small that can go a long way toward building a diverse workforce and fostering inclusion in the workplace. Here are her top tips to implement today.

Expand your definition of diversity.

Mitjans says one of the biggest mistakes she sees companies make is having a very narrow definition of diversity. While efforts to increase racial and gender diversity might be most visible, the true definition of diversity is a lot broader. “Some people have very interesting requirements for dress code or restrictions about tattoos and piercings,” she says. “That’s a lack of diversity, too. Ageism is another issue that contributes to a lack of diversity in companies.

The goal is for your employees to not only represent a broad spectrum of backgrounds and viewpoints but to feel comfortable while doing it.

Find out what employees think.

Studies show there’s a big disconnect between how well leaders perceive their company to be doing when it comes to diversity and inclusion and how their employees feel about it. So, ask. The first step is to collect demographic data, which can be captured via an anonymous survey. This SHRM guide to developing a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative provides a comprehensive list of demographics you should be capturing.

Next, find out how your employees perceive your company is doing. “Those kinds of issues need to be brought to the surface, but they need to be done thoughtfully and in a safe space,” Mitjans says. She recommends bringing in a third-party to facilitate a focus group, or creating an anonymous survey for employees that asks pointed questions about fairness, respect, opportunity and retaliation. “People are not going to say those things in front of the owner of the company,” she says. “If leaders want to know what’s really going on, they need to be willing to step out of the way. But a lot of them don’t want to accept that they have accountability and responsibility for creating the culture. And a lot of times it’s just safer and easier to not do anything about it.”

Get employees involved.

Support from the top of your organization is vital to the success of any initiative, but that doesn’t mean ideas should be flowing from the top down. Mitjans touts the benefits of an employee advisory council, a group of employees representing different genders, race, age, department, role, etc., where your company can develop and test ideas to improve diversity and inclusion. When it’s time to turn good ideas into action, they’re more likely to stick when they’ve already gained employee approval.

Don’t worry too much about resources.

Looking to American corporations, with their massive budgets for diversity and inclusion programs and job titles like chief diversity officer, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking a small business doesn’t stand a chance in this department. But this is one place where small companies actually have an advantage. They’re nimble and there are fewer layers of bureaucracy between workers and leaders—and the most effective changes don’t cost a thing. Start by taking stock of your own professional network. Who’s in it? And is it diverse? If so, start networking in different circles. When it is time to recruit, stop looking for candidates in the same old places. Instead of the career services office at your alma mater, find the contact information for the Black or Pride student unions, for example, to find a more diverse group of job candidates. Stop calling your annual employee shindig a Christmas party. By looking at company policies through a lens of diversity and inclusion, you’ll find many low-hanging fruit opportunities for improvement.

Create an accountability structure.

The key to lasting change with any company initiative is accountability. But that can be difficult in small companies, Mitjans says. “They don’t really have a board and there’s no independent body holding them accountable. And they’re hyper-focused on the day to day operations. They’re all about ‘How do I survive tomorrow?’ and ‘How do I get this product out the door?’”

Create an action plan, assign responsibilities and set timelines. Follow through and follow up, communicating with staff all along the way. And don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Mitjans serves as chief diversity officer on call for several small companies. Through our professional employer organization or human resources outsourcing services, XMI also can help you plan and implement changes to help you build a more diverse workforce and foster a more inclusive work environment.

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