Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Moral Imperative, Smart Business

By: Meet in Place content team

Nicole Smart is the founder and principal of Smart EDI Solutions LLC. As a champion for change, Nicole supports organizations by providing strategic guidance, best practice recommendations and data-driven solutions to optimize diversity, equity and inclusion programs and initiatives to achieve optimal business results.

Over her 15+ year career Nicole has worked with the likes of the NFL and the Actors’ Equity Association. She is currently on the advisory board for Cornell University’s Sports and Entertainment Executives, an executive committee member for NYU Alumni in Arts and Entertainment Network, and a board member and professional development chair for the WISE (Women in Sports and Events) NYC Metro Chapter.

Nicole spoke to us about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, social justice, the business case for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and more.

You founded your business with a desire to "elevate the human experience in the workplace where all people can thrive". Can you talk about why the human experience needs to be elevated, and what organizations need to do in order to achieve this?

Great question. Let’s look at our current climate in light of COVID-19 and the increase of people working remotely –  some for the first time. It’s important more than ever for organizations to elevate the employee experience at work, through supportive structures that optimizes their engagement in the virtual space to be efficient within their roles and can thrive. Taking a human centered approach is really at the core of fostering diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace by cultivating an environment where people feel valued, can be their authentic selves and have that sense of belonging.  One of the things that this pandemic has taught us is that people value empathy and that business leaders need to prioritize the well-being of their employees, and see them as people over employees as workers.  Being mindful and empathetic of the employee experience is a critical skill for business leaders to have in today’s climate where there are so many things happening simultaneously between the pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, a historical election year, and economic downturn.  Just recently, I came across a Harvard study that found that empathetic companies consistently outperform their counterparts in a variety of industries, and that there’s also a stronger correlation of the ability to manage stress, have an increase in morale, and the ability to have a work environment that produces employees that are most resilient.

So in essence fostering a culture with empathy and taking that human centered approach are some of the keys to success in moving the ball forward for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace.  It’s an amazing thing actually when you think about it, where people can have the support from their employers and be happy and productive employees, particularly during a time where we are faced with a lot of uncertainty within our society.

Taking a human centered approach – especially in today's climate – is more critical than ever, especially given disruptions, WFH and other challenges posed by COVID-19.

Diversity is so critical as both a societal and business goal. This has gathered increased urgency after the tragic death of George Floyd and the outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. From a business perspective, is there a business case for diversity, in terms of ROI? And what KPI's should businesses set to assess Diversity and Inclusion goals?

Well let’s start with the murder of Mr. George Floyd.  His murder certainly was not an anomaly when it comes to this country’s history of police brutality and racial injustice.  Mr. Floyd’s murder followed other high profile cases where Black people were unjustifiably murdered at the hands of law enforcement, and watching his death unfold in the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of this man’s life being taken away in such a cruel manner, in front of onlookers who pleaded for this man’s life is something I wish I could unsee. It’s a reminder of the harsh reality of the historical context for race relations within this country that sparked the nationwide outcry against systemic racism, and I am hopeful that the responses that we are seeing between the protests and organizations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, will serve as an impetus for sustainable change.

As Corporate America faces the reckoning of racial injustice, this historical moment in time serves as an incredible alarm clock to seize the opportunity for change and put DEI at the forefront. This movement is constructive in putting the spotlight on the Black worker’s experience, along with the demand for organizations to be proactive in breaking down the pervasive systemic structures that continue to impede, for example, the progression of qualified Black people from being in positions of leadership.  So many painful stories of workplace racism, bullying, and microaggressions, and how it causes psychological trauma, where pre COVID-19 many were not as forthcoming about these issues.  So yes, organizations have to assess DEI goals, business leaders need to be visible champions, and be intentional towards creating sustainable change.

As far as the ROI, the benefits are endless when it comes to leveraging DEI as a competitive advantage in the workplace, keeping in mind that there isn’t a one size fits all approach and that transformational change takes time and effort. Research has shown that creating sustainable structures to foster DEI are clearly linked to performance, effectiveness, productivity, and profitability.  It’s a business solution that provides so many benefits, there’s no turning away from it.  I get asked this question all of the time and revert back to one of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “The time is always right to do what is right”. It’s so critical when you look at it in terms of societal and business goals that advancing the agenda for DEI is not only a moral imperative, but it simply just makes better business sense.

The McKinsey Global Institute issued a report where gender diverse organizations’ financial performance is 15% better, ethnically diverse organizational financial performance is 35% better, and for every 10% increase in diversity on executive teams they saw an 8% increase in profitability.  There’s no refuting the data and generally speaking when you think of diversity in terms of having have a mix of people from different walks of life – whether it’s through primary dimensions such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, and secondary  – socioeconomic status, professional experience, education status – you have the potential to build a collaborative and high performing base for your employees to achieve your overall business’ objectives.   Essentially, a win-win situation.

It’s important for business leaders to understand where they are as an organization, to where they want to be. What that means simply is how do you measure the unknown? One of the approaches that I use with my clients is to recommend that they conduct a “temperature check” of their workplace culture, and get some anonymous feedback through a survey. I found that for a client aiming to start or enhance a DEI initiative, it’s important to make it an inclusive process, and utilize the responses to build on their structures and initiatives moving forward.  When you give people a voice within the workplace, there’s a sense of empowerment and belonging that it evokes, which also demonstrates the intent for fostering an inclusive environment in taking this approach. KPIs can be measured through the average length of stay of an employee after instituting a DEI initiative in comparison to the average length of stay prior to actually having one, and to really look at how these programs and initiatives are helping your organization move forward.  Another indicator would be a review of turnover rates across women and minorities, if these rates are high it’s important to assess what is happening within your workplace culture and what procedures, programs or initiatives can be put in place to improve on retention for these demographics – turnover can be quite costly and serve as a disruptor for teams within the workplace.

Empathetic companies consistently outperform their counterparts in a variety of industries and there's also a stronger correlation when it comes to being more able to manage stress, an increase in morale, and employees that are most resilient.

Your company, Smart EDI Solutions, has the tagline "Advancing the future of work today". Let's talk a bit about the future of work. How are we going to communicate? What will the meeting of the future look like? And with the pandemic forcing WFH routines and essentially a remote workforce – without geographical restrictions – are we expecting to see an increase in organizations’ adoption of diversity and inclusion?

Who would have thought 2020 would be what it is on so many levels.  My tagline simply is in support of organizations getting ahead of the game by fostering DEI in the workplace, and leveraging that competitive advantage of the shifting demographics within this country.  For instance, how are employers being strategic about the recruitment and retention of millennials being the largest adult population, as well as the fact that there are five generations in the workplace, and ensuring that there are supportive structures in place for a collaborative work environment where people from different generations and multiple perspectives can thrive.

This pandemic has put us all at the forefront of technology and how to be resilient during these unprecedented times. It presents an incredible opportunity when it comes to productivity and innovation.  Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends Report presents some insights about the social enterprise and remaining human in a technology driven work world.  The report also goes in about embodying a new social contract that we should all take up that proposes a more human-centered approach – as I previously mentioned –  when it comes to the relationship between individuals and organizations and society. Therefore supporting the notion that this crisis presents an opportunity for organizations to treat people and technology on parallel paths to nurture future growth and take on a human-centered approach.

Also in terms of the future of work, a recent Gartner poll provides another piece of data where 40% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19. No surprise there, but as you may have seen there’s been resistance in not having that social experience at work such as the water cooler talk, so how do organizations reinvent the in-person experience, so that staff can be efficient in these roles – take on a human-centered approach.

In early 2019, I attended the ILO Global Commission (International Labour Organization) on the release of their Future of Work report. Their main area of focus was on a human centered agenda, which is why I am so passionate about this. The ILO recommends that there be a focus on increased investment in people’s capabilities, recognizing a universal entitlement to lifelong learning, stepping up investments in the institutions, policies and strategies that support people for the future of work transition, and implementing a transformative, measurable full agenda for gender equality.  In this forum through one of their in-person breakout sessions, I was asked about the requirements for the future of work. I emphasized that one of the approaches is taking a closer look at increased employment for people with disabilities. People with some type of disability make up 26% of the US population, yet despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, there’s a stigma that leads to a barrier for employment. As a society, we need to become better allies and do more about equality, such as my alma mater Cornell University’s Yang Tan Institute, who is helping to connect employers with neurodiverse workers, leading by example for society to really take a closer look at this pool of talent to advance opportunities for people with disabilities, so that we can level the playing field for people of all areas of life.

The NFL has been in a sense the catalyst for much of the debate around Black Lives Matter and issues of diversity and inclusion. The taking of the knee during the anthem really launched the debate into the national conversation. You were Management Council Legal Coordinator for the NFL, with exposure throughout the organization. What were some of your learnings from your time there? What kind of measures did you implement in terms of Diversity and Inclusion?

So many lessons learned during my time at the NFL such as the importance of mentorship, sponsors and allies who were instructive in helping me achieve some of my professional and academic goals.  While on assignment for key events such as the Pro Bowl and Super Bowls, I learned the value of teamwork, communication and agility from high profile executives who managed these events.  In terms of the law clerk program, I was intentional about building networks with local, regional and national law schools to ensure that the goals of the department were being met and that we were hitting the marks in casting a wider net through recruitment efforts for diverse candidates.  One of the measures in place was assessing the experience post clerkship to ensure that the goals of an inclusive learning environment were achieved.

As far as the movement and DEI, It’s incredible to see the enormous response from various pro sports leagues in support of inspiring real change. So many positions on the debate on taking the knee to raise awareness for racial injustice that is not a gesture intended to disrespect the flag or veterans. When former San Francisco 49ers QB Colin kaepernick took this approach to raise awareness for injustice, he was advised by a veteran – Nate Boyer – to use the gesture of kneeling instead of sitting during the anthem.  Taking a knee has often been a sign of reverence not disrespect; if you are a spiritual person you may kneel to pray, if you are proposing marriage – kneeling is part of that romantic gesture, and in the military kneeling is a sign of respect. It’s something to think about when we compare the gesture to the overall message that these protests are aiming to drive the message about equality and social justice.

Finally, you’ve obviously dealt with crises before, as well as working with many successful organizations. During this current pandemic-induced time of business challenge and WFH routines, what things should organizations avoid over this period to achieve business success?

Organizations should avoid the resistance for sustainable change beyond the pandemic, particularly when it comes to pushing the agenda forward for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace, put employees as people first and invest in them, ensure that there are proper adjustments to processes as the need arises for employees to be efficient in their new workspaces working from home, avoid not providing more flexibility for workers to match specific employee needs such as workers with younger children who need to balance the widespread school closures and completing their work tasks, and being resourceful in helping them stay connected and motivated during this time, which  will help them achieve business success. 

About the Author:

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