How focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion can help a business pull through in adversity

When employers enter survival mode, they tend to shift matters such as DE&I down their list of priorities. But that’s the very opposite of what they should be doing, as our regular columnist, recruitment expert Dr Joanna Abeyie, explains


D&I helping in adversity illustration

UK plc seems to have put the worst of the Covid crisis behind it, but many industries are still facing tough and unstable times. They are trying their best to build back stronger, but problems ranging from staff shortages to spiralling fuel prices are affecting sectors as varied as travel, construction and car manufacturing.

I recently spoke at the annual conference of the Institute of Travel and Tourism – an industry that’s still reeling from the pandemic. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a pinprick, because the sector is contending with serious staff shortages. You need only look at media images of people sleeping on airport terminal floors surrounded by piles of luggage to see that, while the commitment may be there for business as usual, it’s coming at a cost.

Thinking about that cost gave me my inspiration for this month’s column.

I couldn’t help but think about the pause my own business faced when many organisations decided that diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) couldn’t remain a priority while they were in survival mode.

It underlined an unfortunate reality that’s familiar to experts in my field: many employers see DE&I as nice to have but inessential. In times of adversity, it’s no longer their priority to view people as the roots from which all good business grows. They treat DE&I as an unnecessary hassle when it should be the exact place from which to build back stronger.

Adversity should encourage employers to adopt more creative ways to attract a diversity of talent, build equitable processes and create an inclusive environment.

‘How can that be done?’ you might well ask. I’ll give some pointers, but I can’t tell you everything. A lot of this is down to you.

How do you get DE&I right when money is tight?

Initiative, resourcefulness and creativity are vital when you don’t have much cash to splash. Take it from a working-class woman raised in a low-income household: I couldn’t let a lack of money obstruct my ambitions. You must encourage this attitude among your people. 

Think back to a time when you wanted to buy something you couldn’t afford. Did you forget about it or find another way to have that item? If you were like me, you found another way. The resolve you drew on to get what you wanted can be used in the workplace. If you want to find the best people but don’t have the budget to instruct a high-powered recruitment agency or pay for a cool job board, what can you do?

You could set up ‘hybrid coffee mornings’, enabling employees to discuss subjects that matter to them, and use these forums as opportunities to learn about others’ life experiences. Or you could use film clubs to create a safe space for members to discuss wider cultural issues.

You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.

Create ways to facilitate conversations about, say, the videos of prominent YouTubers with strong views on subjects ranging from climate change to consent. Use a TED talk, say, to stimulate debate about issues in your workplace. Does your business exhibit some of the leadership styles being encouraged in the talk, for example?

Do you provide ways for employees to submit anonymous feedback? If so, ask people to say why they came to work for you – and what would make them leave.

You could invite potential recruits to visit your workplace for a ‘meet our company’ event where you tell them what you do and why. This will raise the profile of your business and help it to build relationships with potential employees.

All the above initiatives will require time and effort, rather than money.

How do you understand inequity when you lack expertise? 

Why not check out the social media accounts of HR experts and share the ideas they espouse with your teams? Several podcasts, YouTube channels and LinkedIn accounts offer educational content about inequity.

Borrow books on leadership, cultural transformation and identity from the library and discuss their themes with employees. This places less onus on people to open up about their own experiences and provides a much more psychologically safe space for discussing inequity.

If you’re thinking about inviting an expert to share their insights, don’t do so unless you can pay them. You aren’t going to work for nothing, so why should they?

How important is DE&I to a micro-business? 

Even if you’re a sole trader, you must educate yourself. How can you develop your business if you don’t understand the needs of all potential customers, whatever their backgrounds and however they identify?

There are webinars and there are free courses on websites such as udemy.com. There are live social media sessions with experts on race, disability and trans inclusion. Again, LinkedIn is packed with enlightening personal stories.

Read, watch and listen. Engage with people but remember, as a wise woman once told me, that you have “two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.” 

Gathering information about others’ experiences will help you and your business to stand out. So many small firms don’t do it, but there really is no excuse.

How do you prioritise DE&I when you’re pressed for time?

This is a challenge that overstretched employers often ask me about. I start by telling them something they probably don’t want to hear: you simply must make the time.

Say that you’re due to advertise for a vacancy and want to find a wide range of places to post the ad, so that it reaches the biggest possible pool of talent. Here are some things you could do:

  • Google organisations that specialise in supporting people who are interested in working in your sector. Find them on Twitter and ask them to retweet your advert.
  • Post the ad in LinkedIn and Facebook groups that are likely to contain people with the expertise you need.
  • Visit Eventbrite and seek out organisations running events related to the job, share the ad with them and consider building partnerships for future roles.
  • Ask influential people in your firm and/or sector to share the ad on their social channels.
  • Ask colleagues if they are a part of any organisation that may have access to potential candidates.
  • Ask your own contacts to share the ad in networks they know to have diverse memberships.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I hope it inspires employers to think more deeply about how to become more inclusive and attract the diverse talent that will give them the resilience they need.

Employers must realise that inclusion starts with ‘I’. Instead of identifying why you can’t do something to improve the situation, always ask yourself how you can.