Diversity is an important issue for any modern business. But it's not enough to hire people of different nationalities, races, genders and sexual orientations – everyone needs to feel like they are truly welcome, safe and free to be themselves in the workplace.
"[A sense of] belonging … and inclusion should be a big focus for employers because it ensures that all employees, regardless of their background and experiences, can be connected with equal opportunity and create a healthier, more successful future together with their employers," said Alexandre Ullmann, head of human resources at LinkedIn, LATAM.
"When people are comfortable and can express themselves in an authentic way, they are more likely to perform better, which increases engagement and contributes to the organization as a whole," added Miguel Castro, senior director and lead for the Culture & Identity, Global Diversity & Inclusion Office at SAP.
This is especially true of workplaces with an LGBT-inclusive environment. Castro noted that inclusivity has a significant impact on an organization's bottom line and is linked to an average individual productivity increase of 24 percent, according to Out Now Global. Similarly, a 2016 study by The Economist found that the majority of its survey respondents believe diversity and inclusion promote better talent management (71 percent), employee satisfaction (64 percent), collaboration (57 percent) and corporate reputation (57 percent).
Yet, there is still much progress to be made. Just over one-third of The Economist's survey respondents reported strong progress on advancing LGBT inclusion in their companies, and 63 percent say the onus rests on the C-suite and senior management to improve the situation. Here are some simple steps you can take as a leader to promote an inclusive company culture. [Communication and involvement matter when promoting diversity.]
1. Start from the top
As with any facet of company culture, creating and encouraging a sense of belonging in your workplace begins at the leadership level. The company's founders and executive team need to have a desire to build a diverse culture and hire people who are open to working with people of all different nationalities, skin colors, genders and sexual orientations, said Eloise Bune, CEO of ScribbleChat.
"If diversity is not a company goal … it just won't happen," she said. "People tend to hire people like them so they are comfortable and rarely challenged. It is human nature."
"A healthy business begins with a healthy company culture," added Jason Beckerman, CEO of Unified. "We strive to provide all of our employees with the tools and skills necessary to shine, and that starts with letting your employees know that yes, you can be exactly who you are here."
Once your company's leadership sets the tone, it's easy to extend that attitude throughout the organization.
"What is great about creating a culture of belonging is that it can be fostered peer-to-peer, bottom-up and top-down," said Ullmann.
Ullmann also recommends taking a close look at your company's recruiting tactics to make sure you're approaching hiring with the goal of fostering diversity and inclusion.
"Make inclusive recruitment an integral part of your company's DNA to amplify your company's future, cultivate your workforce and invest in the community as a whole," he said.
2. Provide safe spaces for employees
Inclusive workplaces go the extra mile to consider the safety and comfortability of all employees, especially those from marginalized groups. For example, gendered bathrooms have the potential to make transgender and gender non-conforming employees uncomfortable, especially in light of controversial bathroom bills in multiple states that could or already do impact transgender rights. One easy way to signal a progressive, inclusive workplace is to offer unisex bathrooms in your office, said Bune.
On a broader level, inclusive spaces can be created simply by spending time with one another. Bune said the ScribbleChat team makes a point to all eat lunch together. This "leads to really interesting conversations," and creates a "safe place to share and be heard," she added.
If your company is bigger, creating an in-office support group or network for diverse employees can help them connect with others who share their experiences.
"Employee networks can provide a safe, open environment to spark conversations and discuss the topics that are important to the community," said Castro.
3. Connect with employees (but be sensitive)
One of the best ways to signal to your employees that it's OK to be themselves is to connect with them on a personal level. Be transparent with them about your own life: "If you are real with them chances are you will get the same in return," said Bune.
Simple gestures like asking about "spouses" or "partners" (rather than assuming someone's sexual orientation and using gendered terms) can encourage LGBT employees to open up about their personal lives and feel included in non-work discussions. However, it's important not to be insensitive about their identity.
"Be sure to treat LGBTQ employees like everyone else in the office and do not ask inappropriate questions like, 'How did you come out?' unless you have a close relationship with the person," she said. "This is a very personal question."
Ullmann advised giving employees an outlet for connecting with others and sharing their stories.
"Whether it's an employee survey, company all-hands discussions or campaigns, giving your employees multiple ways to share their feedback, their perspective and their stories will create an open dialogue that can lead to more positive outcomes," he said.
Real-life examples of successful diversity programs
Our sources shared a few of the efforts their companies are making to make diverse groups of employees feel safe, supported and celebrated in the workplace:
LinkedIn: LinkedIn has a global employee resource group called "out@in," which offers executive sponsors and a strong ally community for LGBT employees, said Ullmann. The company's recent #ProudAtWork campaign encouraged employees, executives and LinkedIn Influencers to share their stories about belonging in the workplace.
SAP: Inclusion is a top priority at SAP, which offers a companywide virtual training program called Focus on Insight, which educates employees about diversity and inclusion. According to Castro, the company also encourages participation in employee-driven events like SAP's "We Are One" initiatives (focused on sharing diverse life experiences), and it sponsors/participates in annual Pride parades across the globe.
Unified: Unified aims to foster "great people from all walks of life with impactful, inclusive cultural programs including mentorship, executive town halls and peer awards," said Beckerman. For Pride Month, the company put together a few celebratory initiatives, including an employee viewing of HBO's documentary "The Trans List," an informational session hosted by the Ali Forney Center (a community center supporting LGBT homeless youth), and treats from NYC's famous Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. Unified also offers its Leadership Empowerment And Development (LEAD) Program, an initiative to support and educate strong female leaders in the workplace.
An inclusive culture is a work in progress, said Ullmann, and you should constantly be revisiting your policies and programs to create a more tolerant, diverse environment.
"There is always something that can be improved upon," he told Business News Daily. "Make it your company's priority to take action to close any gaps so that all employees feel like they belong and are supported to thrive."