Does your small business need a diversity program?


A diverse workforce benefits businesses of all sizes, including small operations that might not have considered “diversity” in a strategic way. Good news: it doesn’t have to mean a complicated program or formal training.

Beyond litigation avoidance

Many business owners start thinking about diversity and diversity training not because of what they want to do but, rather, what they don’t: which is to defend a lawsuit. Too often, managers and owners are motivated to move towards diversity by litigation avoidance or in response to a complaint. In other cases, they are only spurred to action by legal mandates, such as those in California and Connecticut that require sexual harassment training in all businesses over a certain size.

But viewing diversity through the lens of litigation avoidance or compliance misses both the underlying goal of anti-discrimination laws and the opportunities afforded by broadening a business’s perspective.

Inclusion and engagement

Diversity goes beyond merely providing opportunities and safe working environments for members of the protected classes. Diversity encompasses not only different types of people but also differences in working styles, problem-solving abilities, creativity, and learning aptitudes. In a worldwide survey of executives conducted by consulting firm Deloitte, leaders said that building a diverse workforce is not an HR issue, it is a CEO issue. In other words, building a climate where different ideas and perspectives are welcomed and validated is the boss’s job, whether you have two employees or 2,000. The survey also found that millennial workers seek out organizations where everyone is “heard and respected,” yet another reason why diversity is good business.

Things any business can do

Even though many people agree that diversity is essential to success, traditional programs often fail. Social scientists from Harvard University examined the usual approaches and concluded that most conventional programs are overly prescriptive. “Laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out,” Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

Dobbin and Kalev found that companies have been successful by applying three basic non-traditional principles: “engage managers in solving the problem, expose them to people from different groups, and encourage social accountability for change.” This is good news, particularly for smaller businesses, which can be more agile than larger enterprises.

Diversity goals can be achieved by implementing mentor programs or conducting cross-training, which can help the business in a variety of ways. And while they are not specifically targeted at promoting diversity, such actions often do so by exposing employees to folks who look, think, or act differently. Providing employees opportunities to get involved with the community has long been a place where small businesses excel. These community efforts can put the business in touch with diverse populations and open up workers to a wide range of ideas and situations.

That’s a win-win for everyone.