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How To Talk To Your Employees About Diversity

BEETLEJUICE, BEETLEJUICE, BEETLEJUICE. 


Just dropping that here for proof that saying something out loud, more than once, doesn’t actually make bad things happen. 


I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who want to take a more active approach to improving diversity and inclusivity in their organisations but are afraid to talk to their employees about what ‘needs’ need accommodating for fear of offending them. 


I get it, it’s a new approach and it’s tough to learn something new; just ask all those people with a monthly Coursera subscription that gathers dust alongside their fresh bullet journals somewhere near the home ‘gym’. When so much of our lexicon, both in and outside business, is rooted in cis-gendered, white capitalist, ableist language, saying something different can feel clunky and awkward in a way that feels like it’s ‘othering’ people even more. 


Unfortunately, wishful thinking and good intentions are so far batting a zero for actually fixing things, so, if we want to make an improvement to DEI, we need to find more effective ways to have conversations about diverse needs.


How To Talk To Your Employees About Diversity

Why is it important to talk to your employees about diversity?


Simply put, you can’t make space for what you don’t know needs space.


If you want to create an inclusive environment for your employees to thrive in, you need to know what they need in order to get to that point - and, trust me, making assumptions isn’t going to get you there. 


By actively asking about, listening to, and building for those needs, you can implement the sorts of policies and initiatives that accommodate not just a diverse range of perspectives and circumstances, but the specific range of perspectives and circumstances that you currently have within the business. All of which are great steps towards enhancing job satisfaction, retention, and overall productivity - without spending money building things that aren’t relevant to the people you’re trying to build for. 


Moreover, this kind of open-hearted, learning-first approach promotes a culture of openness and trust - the kind of culture that encourages your employees to bring their whole selves to work and is a great foundation for psychological safety. 


What’s the best framework for talking to your employees about diversity?


For early-stage companies, there really isn’t one. And, yes, this is coming from a Strategist who bloody loves a good framework. 


It’s really common for SME Founders to think that their company doesn’t need a policy on diversity because it’s too small. What’s really true is that their company doesn’t need a complex policy on diversity. 


Most companies in the UK are small - 98% of UK companies have fewer than 50 employees. If all small companies shied away from talking about diversity then pretty much no-one would be building the kinds of diverse and inclusive workspaces that my LinkedIn feed suggests we all care about. 


To talk to your employees about diversity and to start to build a set of processes and policies that can work for the specific needs of the people that are delivering your company’s growth, you don’t need fancy documents or long focus groups or anything that really takes any kind of complex investment. You only need to do a few simple things.


Let’s dig in. 


1. To talk to your employees more effectively about diversity, include a mix of different people in the conversations that you’re having.


Did you know that the first female crash-test dummy didn’t arrive until 2022


Male crash-test dummies arrived in the 1970s. Until the arrival of the female version, testing was often done on a smaller version of the male dummy - one about the size of an average 12 year old girl. Don’t get me wrong, I spent enough time reading magazines in the 1990s to still have my default programming set to ‘I wish I was the size of a 12 year old girl’, but probably not enough to want to die in a car crash for it… (who knew I’d grown so much as a person?!).


Including the actual reality of the female body in the designs for crash test dummies could have resulted in much better outcomes; women are even today still more likely than men to suffer whiplash injuries in low-severity crashes and are more likely to suffer very tough injuries in some higher-severity ones. 


And, to be absolutely clear, this isn’t due to some inherent fault in female bodies, it’s just that they’re different to male ones. For example - male bones are generally larger and more dense than female ones, female bodies have a different shape of pelvis to male ones, there are even differences in how our limbs bend. 


If two different types of bodies are having two different outcomes, one worse than the other, in an industry that rigorously applies and tests safety features, then that speaks volumes about how less relevant those safety features are to one half of the population.

If you want your organisation to have effective conversations about the needs of a variety of different people, you need to make sure that those people are present in the conversations and empowered to speak up for themselves.


2. To talk to your employees more effectively about diversity, try actually asking them what they need. 


If I say the phrase ‘BIC For Her’, what level of rage does it induce in you? 


If you somehow missed the furore that surrounded the launch, about ten years ago, pen-maker BIC released a line of ballpoint pens ‘especially designed for women’. There are a hell of a lot of pointlessly-gendered products out there (I’m looking at you anything that’s ever been made for a small child), but BIC for Women stands out for the huge amounts of attention it gained after it was spotted by feminist cultural commentators Jezebel


This led to the Amazon page (which, if you weren’t already mad enough about the world, I hate to tell you still contains to this day the line ‘it has a diamond engraved barrel for an elegant and unique feminine style’ in its product description, since all women obviously go weak at the knees at the mere shape of a diamond because all we truly want in life is for a man to validate our existence with a ring that’s only expensive because of an industry monopoly…) being inundated by reviews like:


“I must, from now on, only purchase pens made for women as I am not good enough to use regular pens”, “Who wants to be burdened with carrying around a bulky, high-quality pen… Why not free up some space in your purse since you'll be carrying around unmentionables to deal with private lady business?”, and my personal favourite “After all these years the answer to the glass ceiling is FINALLY resolved.”


I can only assume that deep in the bowels of the BIC office someone read a report that showed some kind of extrapolated data about purchasers of pens being predominantly male and tried to do some good for customers and the company by assuming that women were simply incapable of wielding a regular pen and thus the pastel-coloured, diamond-engraved monstrosity was born. 


How To Talk To Your Employees About Diversity

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume whoever came up with this idea was really trying to solve a problem, but was just spectacularly misguided in their approach. If BIC genuinely wanted more female customers, I’m sure they could have saved themselves a lot of time and effort by asking “Do you want a special pen for your tiny lady hands?” (No, we want equal pay, autonomy over our reproductive health, and some bloody pockets in our clothing).


Asking your employees what they need is really no different to asking your customers what they need - i.e. doing market research. Think of your starting point for conversations about diverse needs as purpose-driven employee research. As with good customer research, you need to truly understand the problem from all angles to build the best solution.

It really is that simple - if you want to have better conversations about diversity, include the people whose lives you’re purporting to want to improve and then ask them what they actually need. 


If you’re struggling to get started on having more productive conversations with your employees about their diverse needs so that you can build a more engaged and effective workforce, why not book a free Discovery Call with me below:



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