April 24, 2023
Joseph J. Lebel III
As business continues to be reshaped by economic challenges, new technologies, shifting customer demands, and many other factors, it is more essential than ever to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. Many others have made the case that fostering diversity is the right thing to do; I would also like to emphasize that it is the smart thing to do for businesses that hope to thrive in a changing marketplace.
It’s no secret that businesses reap major benefits from a diverse, inclusive workplace. At a time when many employers are bemoaning a talent gap, proactive DEI efforts can open up access to an expanded pool of quality candidates. When team members embody a range of life experiences and perspectives, they tend to see things in different ways and be quicker to recognize new opportunities or unconventional solutions. And, in a marketplace where customer engagement is an important competitive advantage, there is great value in hiring employees who are reflective of the people and communities they serve.
In fact, studies have shown that the most diverse businesses are among the most innovative and financially successful. Companies with above-average rates of diversity had 19% higher “innovation revenues” (that is, revenues from new sources) and 9% higher EBIT margins, on average.
Achieving diversity can be difficult, particularly for middle market businesses that lack the resources to retain consultants, develop specialized DEI programs, or launch aggressive recruitment efforts. A 2020 study partly sponsored by the National Center for the Middle Market found that 53% of middle market companies said that they include DEI as part of their company values – which means 47% have plenty of room for improvement.
Listen and Learn
Fortunately, middle-market businesses that want to strengthen their DEI efforts have an alternative to consultants and other outside resources: listening to individuals and organizations who have already taken action to expand diversity in the workplace. You can learn a lot from those who have blazed a path to diversity before you, including local organizations dedicated to DEI, academic institutions, peers, and most importantly, your own employees.
Here at OceanFirst Bank, for example, we have reached out to organizations like the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey to better understand how to structure more inclusive recruitment programs. We also have learned a lot from our membership in the NJ Bankers Association, which has a dedicated Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, a successful Emerging Leaders Network career development program, and partnerships with local institutions of higher learning. Businesses in virtually every industry can listen to and learn from the DEI programs created by their own trade organizations and peers.
It’s also important to engage in actively listening to all employees. That means taking the time to survey employees and listen to their feedback, conduct roundtable meetings to gain further clarity, and engage with people at all levels of your organization. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can be very helpful in this regard. ERGs are employee-led and provide forums for team members who share a characteristic, such as gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, etc. In addition to a supportive environment, ERGs can provide feedback to management on improving the inclusivity of the workplace.
For example, the OceanFirst Diversity & Inclusion Council and the Women LEAD Resource group both actively seek employee feedback. We also conduct roundtables and smaller employee meetings, which can offer additional forums to discuss diversity issues and provide feedback. As a result of employee feedback, a DEI calendar was added to the Company’s intranet, listing various religious and important dates to celebrate diversity for awareness when scheduling meetings.
For active listening to be successful, managers must create an environment of trust in which team members feel comfortable speaking up, where they believe their concerns will be heard and will receive a constructive response. Listening is the first step on your DEI journey — using what you’ve learned to make strides in your diversity policies and programs is the ultimate destination.