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How to Kick Off an Inclusion, Diversity & Belonging Project

Even with the best of intentions, it can be extremely hard to create a good foundation for proper workplace diversity and inclusion. Here, Mertcan shares their 7 steps.
by Mertcan Uzun | Jan 23 2020

Inclusion, diversity, belonging, and equity are gaining importance in the workplace, which is beautiful to see, and even a little surprising. As it’s likely to be one of the most important, difficult and ‘human’ projects your company will ever face, you have to be very careful how you approach this challenge.

Having studied this topic in university, I have now been working on building Inclusion, Diversity and Belonging programs professionally for a few years now. In that time, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest things companies and individuals struggle with in this process is the very first hurdle: kicking it off. While my experience has mostly been in German startups with 50-200 employees, I feel some of the principles I will share here are universal and can be easily applied to bigger companies, too.

How to set up an IDB Project

Here’s a 7-point checklist I’ve come up with that might be helpful for anyone who wants to foster a diverse team or workplace, or to create an inclusive workgroup where everyone feels they belong. These seven suggestions will hopefully help you to kick off a solid inclusion, diversity and belonging project.

1. Get Buy-in from Leadership

The very first step when kicking off any major people-focused project is to make sure that your leadership team is on board with the idea. This is key as they are the ones who, directly or indirectly, shape your culture. People look up to them and want them to have answers to all the big IDB questions. If they fail to do so, this will have a negative impact on how your employees perceive your IDB initiatives and it will be harder for you to do your job.

Leaders have to be sure that they want and support this project, and most importantly, that they are prepared to sponsor it. It may be the case that they’re not that informed which is fine, but they have to be prepared to educate themselves and to understand the crucial impact this would have on their organization. At this stage, you have a big part to play in explaining its importance and I find showing case studies and data points is essential. With data on your side, it will be easier for you to explain the need for this project and make it clear from the outset. However, don’t be tempted to make this into a business case — it’s a human and societal issue and not about the bottom line.

Don’t forget that it’s the responsibility of your leadership team to learn as much as they can and to dedicate themselves to the cause. You might have to take care of kicking it off, but they have to go to meet you. Many people in leadership roles today are still white, male, cis-gender people who hold privilege to one extent or another. They have to learn to recognize their privilege and to learn how to share it. Don’t take over this responsibility.

2. Hire an External Consultant

These kinds of projects are often perceived to be the responsibility of HR teams, and in truth, HR teams often take them on. However, you can’t expect HR teams to automatically know how to run this kind of project, especially given that they’re often tangled up in day-to-day operations. Hiring an external consultant will give this project the perspective it needs.

Consultants will have studied the field and will bring relevant experience from various companies of different sizes and settings. They will have the expertise to tell you what is right to do and what is not OK to do. There are plenty of consultants out there who would be happy to jump on a call with you to discuss your needs. We are working with Inka and Hilary from Strengths Circle.

3. Take the Temperature of your Organization

The third step is connecting with your employees. You have to create the time to start having bi-directional communication with your people to ask them how they feel about this topic and project. It is your employees’ everyday experience that will guide you as they make clear what they would wish to change or see in the organization. It’s essential to understand that their opinions matter most above all else. We recommend that you appoint one experienced point-of-contact internally through which these kinds of conversations can be funnelled.

It’s essential that you ask the underrepresented groups more. Don’t forget that the primary purpose of the project is to lift the unpaid and exhausting burden from underrepresented groups and to delegate it to more privileged ones. Collect feedback, take notes, and try to create an initial heat map of issues to see whether there are quick wins and actions for your organization.

4. Collect Data and Explain the ‘Why’

Be serious about it. Talking to people is helpful and necessary, but you also need to find a more systematic way to make it easy to convince stakeholders and demonstrate the importance of this project. People can say ‘no’ to you quickly if you are purely stating your observation/opinion. By showing them data, you show them something that is not easy to challenge.

Create a considerate survey and don’t do it alone. Make sure that you design your survey not only with your consultants but also with a group of people who come from different backgrounds and experiences. Let them shape the study with you.

First of all, you have to create a solid comms strategy not only for this project but also for the survey you will run. Make sure people know why you’re launching this survey and what you’re planning to do with the data. They want to know that you will take action after the survey and not just collect data for the sake of it. People need safety and they’re more likely to be themselves if they know the details and the realities. If you want to make this a stronger case, ask your leadership team if they wish to share their perspective on why this project is essential and why they value the data from this survey. Your employees might feel more engaged afterward if they understand that this topic is vital to their leaders.

You need to ask about a range of things in your survey. What worked best for me is the following:

  • A section for demographics
  • A section for questions measuring inclusion, diversity, and belonging
  • A section for items measuring engagement of your employees with the company and business.

This set-up gives me a significant data set within which I can run various analyses later in the project. Make sure to keep the survey anonymous and confidential! If you fail at this stage, it will be extremely tough to make use of any data you collect. People often give their most honest opinions if they know their answers are respected and will not impact their safety. So, make this survey safe and sound.

Don’t forget: feelings are data points, too. To be able to have the full picture, you have to run qualitative research as well. This part needs to be done by your external consultants if you’d like your employees to give honest answers in an unpressurised way. In this case, my suggestion is to pick around 15 people from diverse backgrounds, seniority levels, and fields to have anonymized and confidential qualitative interviews with your consultant. Your consultant should later on give you a detailed, yet very sensitive, report on the discussions.

5. Decide on Your First KPI’s — Small Wins are Big!

Once you gather your data, inhale for a while. Breathe the data in and enjoy the moment. You accomplished so much that many companies are struggling to achieve. Congratulations on the very first realistic snapshot of your company! Now you know who is really in the frame.

The next step is to understand and embrace the data. Often, I see companies focusing on the descriptives, which are, in many cases, essential and the first step. Checking the demographics and average scores are very crucial. However, if you want to conduct Inclusion, Diversity, and Belonging research, you have to level up and look into other aspects, such as correlations or intersectionality.

Let’s say you end up with 50% male and 50% female employees. What does this mean? You’ll get more understanding if you investigate who holds power. Does every level from the female population have the same sense of belonging? What are the differences between different fields, backgrounds, and groups? This is not about what you have in your organization, but instead how you have it. Focus on the how, rather than on the what.

Once you have completed your data analysis, set up some focus areas, ideally between 2 and 3. My humble suggestion is that you shouldn’t have more than this, and should focus on each of these separately and carefully. Create a roadmap for how you might solve the problem or achieve a specific goal.

At this stage, you have to give up on being kind to everyone. Being kind doesn’t necessarily give underrepresented people a seat at the table — affirmative actions do. Focus on these affirmative actions.

6. Educate, Educate, Educate

We often assume people’s knowledge about topics like this, and in doing so, forget that we have all been born into a biased society. Educate your employees on the importance of this topic and why it’s necessary. Also, start your affirmative training on specific issues that would help to increase the level of belonging. As Vernā Myers said, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” “Belonging,” added Vessy Tasheva in 2019, “is being asked to vote on the party theme”.

It’s important that you don’t make this whole project about policing. The last thing you want is for your employees not to embrace this project. We especially don’t want the privileged people to alienate it as their involvement is essential. Hearing a story of oppression from one close friend, a colleague, or a team member is often more effective than reading an article about similar experiences. To be able to educate appropriately, create a safe space where people can share their personal stories.

7. Let Go

Know that having a dedicated project group in the beginning is very important. At the start, the responsible group will most likely be your HR team, and this team won’t be as diverse as you wish. Make sure that you are ready to let your project go to a group of people who come from different backgrounds and experiences—in other words, a diverse group. Facilitate them in setting up as an advisory board with veto rights on the strategy level, and make sure that there’s a system of rotation to maintain the diversity of this board. It should always be a collaborative project where all voices are given equal time with no one person “leading” the way. Create a platform where this project can continue evolving even after you leave the company.

And then just let it go.

At Blinkist, we came up with the following plan which I believe might be useful for many:

This 7-step IDB Kick-off plan is what we are currently using at Blinkist. I am interested in what you think and your feedback, so please feel free to get in touch. Also, if you find it useful, please give it a like and a share. Good luck!

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