By Haj Carr, president and CEO at Trueline, a full-service marketing firm in Portland, Maine.
The rise of diversity and inclusion has been one of the most transformative cultural trends of the last 10 years. Search “diversity and inclusion” on Google, and you’ll get 335 million results — more than “Drake,” “Subway” or “Hulu.” News articles, white papers, internal corporate documents — you could spend decades combing through the literature and still never scratch the surface.
Of all the things I’ve read about D&I, one thing, in particular, stands out. In 2015, global consulting firm McKinsey & Company released a study showing a direct correlation between staff diversity and financial performance. Specifically, companies in the top quarter for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to generate higher returns.
Even if you’re skeptical about the long-term financial benefits of diversity and inclusion, these numbers are hard to ignore. D&I is no longer just a moral or cultural imperative — it’s a business imperative. And organizations that ignore it do so at their own peril.
But even if your company believes in the importance of D&I, turning that belief into tangible, lasting change isn’t always easy, particularly for small businesses like ours. We’re based in Portland, Maine, in one of the least diverse states in the country. There have been times when we posted a job and literally every applicant was white. And while we’ve had a few off-site team members over the years, our business and culture only worked when everyone (or nearly everyone) was in the same space. Or so we thought.
Then Covid-19 happened. In a matter of days, we had to shift our entire operation to accommodate remote work. That first month was one of the most challenging times our company has endured. But we figured it out. By summer, we were breaking sales records left and right. Despite the new reality, we’ve managed to keep our business and our culture intact.
More than that, our journey has helped bring D&I firmly to the fore. Once we realized that a remote model could work, we were able to cast a wider geographic net for prospective employees and prioritize diversity in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a year ago. The number of applications was so high, we had to hire a full-time recruiter just to sort through them. And we’ve found some incredibly talented people as a result.
Today, our staff is more diverse than ever. We’re also coming off a record sales month. Coincidence? Not if you know the data.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about diversity and inclusion, it’s that unless you have buy-in throughout the organization (and from leadership especially), your blind spots will be exposed.
I’ll give you an example. Last May, when business really started picking up, we realized we needed another professional development manager to help our newly hired salespeople acclimate to their roles. I knew the perfect person for the job: someone who knew our company playbook inside and out. He was also a 20-something male — a demographic that makes up nearly half of our team.
That’s when one of our senior leaders stepped up. “If we’re serious about diversity,” he said, “this role needs to reflect that.” He was absolutely right.
The first person I interviewed was Sarah, a recent hire who all of us agreed would be a great fit for the role. During the interview, I asked her straight up: “Can you handle this job?”
“I think so,” she said. “I’ve never done anything like this before. But I’m willing to try.”
This wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. But then I thought about it. Instead of seeing her response for what it was, an honest self-assessment, I was viewing it through a masculine lens. Had I asked a man that same question, there’s a good chance the response would have been a lot different. Studies have shown that men tend to display more confidence and overvalue their perceived experience when applying for jobs. But that doesn’t mean they actually have what it takes.
That’s when it hit me: Embracing D&I isn’t just about checking certain boxes. It’s also about being willing to have your biases exposed, acknowledging them and doing the work necessary to eliminate them.
In the end, we promoted Sarah to fill that role. And it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
What that process has made me realize is that, if you really believe in D&I, pursuing it requires more than just hiring more diverse people. It also requires diversity of thought. And that diversity of thought can only happen when everyone is on the same page — when people feel empowered to identify the hidden biases that all of us have.
Put another way: If you want to embrace D&I, you must also let it embrace you. That’s what we did when we went remote, leveraging our new reality to broaden and diversify the hiring process. Now it’s about giving that diversity space to not only take hold but to grow and evolve and spark the kinds of conversations that can push our D&I efforts forward.
For far too long, small-to-medium-sized companies — those with modest earnings and a limited geographical footprint — have seen D&I as a kind of Platonic ideal: an admirable and worthwhile goal that’s practically difficult to achieve.
No longer. If there’s one silver lining to the Covid-19 crisis, it’s the ways in which remote operations have leveled the playing field for companies like ours. Not just in terms of overhead costs and communications capabilities, but who they hire and how.
D&I is the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. It produces a tangible return on investment. At a time when our culture and politics have never been more divided, it’s a way for companies of all sizes to do the good and necessary work of fostering a more diverse, inclusive and equitable society.
It’s a moment we’re proud to embrace. Are you?
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