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Mary Lou Makepeace
Advancing equality: From the Lobby to the Legal Ease, Your Work Environment Says a Lot
By: Mary Lou Makepeace
Oct 15th, 2007

While most organizations would agree it’s important to promote diversity and create a work environment that is welcoming to all people, many may not realize that they may be doing very subtle things that in fact do not feel welcoming to everyone. From the warmth of the reception area to the accessibility of the parking lot, an organization’s approach to inclusiveness is plainly evident to those who walk in the front door. Creating a workplace that feels good to everyone is no small task, but is critical to every organization’s success. It is also critical to what I call “advancing equality” for all people.

Diversity and inclusion

Diversity in the workplace is the representation of people from different backgrounds. Most organizations recognize diversity as essential to their ability to increase creativity and productivity, improve problem solving and inspire top-quality teamwork. But an organization that is also inclusive will proactively seek, accept and use input and ideas from all people—placing a high value on human differences. Organizations that put into action their values regarding diversity and inclusion are helping to advance equality.

Advancing equality must start with an organizational desire and readiness to make change. Some may be inspired by a desire to improve customer service. For instance, making a decision to hire staff and volunteers who have had similar life experiences to the organization’s clientele may help improve client relations. Other groups may be driven by a need to boost program memberships by expanding their reach to wider audiences and populations they might not have considered before. Whatever the scenario, change takes work. The rewards of advancing equality will be felt when the transformation is viewed as integral and necessary to the vitality of the business.

Determining whether a workplace is inclusive

There are many tools an organization can use to both determine whether it offers an inclusive environment and identify the steps necessary to become more inclusive. This is a process that takes time. The key is to maintain a clear idea of the end goal and prioritize change practices accordingly.

1. Policies, procedures and value statements

Every organization has an employee handbook or reference manual describing its policies and procedures regarding employee conduct, vacation and sick leave, benefits and other human resource matters. This is the ideal place to also state values and position on issues the organization cares about.

For instance, while we at the Gay & Lesbian Fund believe that all organizations have a moral obligation to include “sexual orientation and gender expression” in their nondiscrimination policies, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act now makes it a legal imperative in the state of Colorado to treat all people equally with respect to sexual orientation and gender expression, and these terms must be included in all of our grantees’ nondiscrimination policies. Human resources policies and benefits packages can be easily altered to include these terms, as well as a specific statement indicating that any time “spouse” is referred to, same-sex partners are also covered.

There are additional statements organizations can publish to communicate values regarding equality, inclusion and fairness. Many groups publish “inclusiveness” or “diversity” statements expressing the importance they place on proactively welcoming thoughts, input and contributions from people of all backgrounds. Organizations are encouraged to make all value statements readily available in front lobbies, on Web sites and in company newsletters to ensure that all employees, clients, vendors and the general public are aware of their stance on these issues.

2. Cultural competency facilities checklist

Determining whether a workplace is inclusive is an important step in identifying the effectiveness, friendliness and sustainability of an organization’s relationships with employees, clients, vendors, partners and other individuals who walk in the front door.

The development of a facilities checklist will help an organization determine whether it has created an inclusive environment and, hopefully, offer guidance for areas that need improvement. Categorical areas to consider in a checklist include:

 

  • Organization is accessible to people and the community to be served: Consider your organization’s closeness to public transportation, child care facilities, convenient hours and location in an appropriate neighborhood.
  • Systems/structures allow ease of access for physically challenged individuals: Check bathrooms, parking lots, wheelchair ramps, drinking fountains and escape routes.
  • Systems/structures allow ease of access for linguistically diverse individuals: Make signs and materials available in Braille and in languages spoken/read by populations served. Make interpreters and bilingual front desk staff available for effective communications.
  • Facility appearance is safe, welcoming and inviting for people from different backgrounds: Consider lighting, security, gender-neutral bathrooms, culturally-diverse interior design, availability of private and community space, and reading materials and videos that embrace cultural diversity and reflect the cultures served.

3. Diverse staff and board

When an organization is composed of a diverse staff and board members, it sets an example for other organizations with which it does business and communicates the message, “We believe in inclusion, and we value individuality.” Putting into action its organizational values also becomes an effective way of attracting diverse staff and board members on a continual basis—thereby ensuring that the organization always has access to a supply of fresh, innovative ideas that appropriately meet the needs of its clients.

Ensuring a diverse staff and board composition has as much to do with the way in which an organization internally operates and communicates as it does with the way it attracts, recruits and hires people. The strategies below outline a few tips to consider when working to create and retain diverse assets over the long term.

 

  • Hiring and recruitment. Actively seek applications from a wide range of candidates and recruit from diverse groups, addressing underrepresented or marginalized populations. Outreach avenues to consider include advertising, local Chamber of Commerce groups and business partners. Offer job applicants a copy of your organization’s nondiscrimination policy, and assess the candidate’s application based upon experience, knowledge and competencies rather than personal characteristics and background.

 

  • Training. Invest in a training program that incorporates concepts of diversity and inclusion. Offer leadership program training for staff and board members, as well as other trainings that address non-traditional diversity topics, such as learning styles, behavioral styles, work styles and generational issues.

 

  • Employee representation. Evaluate whether members of your staff and board represent multiple ethnic populations; members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community; a variety of religious/faith-based practices; a wide range of age groups and experience levels; people with physical disabilities; and people with varied socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

 

  • Communication. Evaluate whether your management group demonstrates patience and sensitivity when working with diverse individuals, helps employees learn to express themselves effectively, refrains from talking negatively about people, and makes an effort to provide bilingual services.

 

  • External relationships. Actively reach out to a multicultural consumer base, forge relationships and partnerships with minority-owned businesses, offer innovative promotional programs, practice diversity and inclusion within all levels of the organization, expand the diversity of your supplier/vendor base, and encourage partners, vendors and clients to have a nondiscrimination policy inclusive of sexual orientation.

 

  • Organizational leadership. Constantly reflect on the ways in which management and leadership demonstrate an understanding of the principles of equality, diversity, fairness and justice; pursue ongoing personal development; commit to eradicating any structural discriminatory practices; and support all employees in the workplace and in the community.

Once again, adopting these approaches takes time. But more than anything, advancing equality is about engendering a frame of mind that has to do with putting into action one’s values about treating people equally. When the focus is on this conceptual bottom line, the work it takes to get there will feel natural—not just because it makes business sense, but because it’s the right thing to do.

by Mary Lou Makepeace, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado (http://www.gayandlesbianfund.org/). Contact her at maryloum@gayandlesbianfund.org or 719-473-4455.

 

 


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