The key to building a high-performance team with expansive outlooks? Consider diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) right from the beginning. Research has repeatedly shown that diverse teams are more successful. The most recent report from McKinsey and Company, which has been tracking the business case for diversity over the past seven years, found that “The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.”

But it’s not enough to hire a diverse staff. To retain that top talent, business leaders need to ensure that their workplaces are also equitable (with equal opportunities for all employees) and inclusive (where everyone feels supported).

“Creating a more diverse workforce is meaningless — and arguably harmful and unethical — if hiring and recruitment, promotion and evaluation, and HR practices aren’t equitable,” says Vinciane de Pape, DEI Advisor at Bloom, a workplace design consultancy here in Toronto. “Similarly, inviting folks from historically marginalized groups into your organization without fostering an inclusive environment that respects and values people of all identities completely misses the mark.”

So, how do you include DEI in your startup’s DNA?

Overcome bias

When hiring, one of the first hurdles you need to clear is your own implicit bias. It can be uncomfortable to delve into, but there are two things to remember: we all have them and ignoring them will always be worse.

“The biggest mistake you can make is not being intentional with diversity and ignoring inclusive hiring practices from the start,” says Maaz Rana, chief operating officer and co-founder of Toronto-based software company Knockri. Its A.I.-powered assessment tool works to remove bias during hiring practices. Interviewees are judged based on their transcripts, not appearance, voice or gender. “Our A.I. models are trained to objectively read each interview transcript and identify the behaviours that are relevant to the skills or competencies that employers are looking to hire for,” he explains. Due to their tool’s success, Knockri co-founder and CEO Jahanzaib Ansari was appointed a seat on the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Council on Equality and Inclusion.

For Toronto-based education software company, Prodigy, hiring without bias was essential for founders Alex Peters and Rohan Mahimker. “We used simple tactics like scorecards, having objective criteria and focusing on objective measures when assessing candidates,” says Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen, vice president of people. “It felt a little process-heavy for such a small company. But the process really made sense.” Lehtinen joined the team in June 2016, when Prodigy had roughly 40 employees. The team went on a “hiring spree” and today, Prodigy has 500 employees. A recent survey revealed that 81 percent of its staff feel included, an impressive number that doesn’t diminish the fact that 19 per cent did not, she acknowledges.

Talk — and listen! — to your employees

Transparency and a genuine sense of freedom to speak up are critical factors in building an inclusive environment. It’s important to speak to your employees, listen to their criticisms and recognize that what works for one individual based on their identity will not work for another, de Pape says. This can require time, trial and error, which is easier said than done. Understand that diversity requires compassion and evolution.

“One of our core values is radical candour around the premise of feedback and really trying to feed into that growth mindset, recognizing the fact that none of us are perfect, and we’re all on this journey to be the best version of ourselves,” says Lehtinen. Speaking up doesn’t come naturally for everyone, she recognizes, and as the company grows, it has become more difficult to handle all the feedback. To that end, Prodigy has outsourced some of this work. “It’s an external service where you can be strictly confidential by reporting something anonymously, and then we have a means through the service to follow up and investigate what’s going on.”

Get outside help

No one expects founders to be experts in DEI, regardless of their identity or how they identify. In fact, it can be considered a microaggression to expect racialized founders and employees to automatically know about DEI. They have lived experiences that will colour how they act and react in the work environment, but that doesn’t mean they have all the answers.

“While it’s true that the people most affected and impacted by oppressive and exclusionary systems have more to lose or gain, it’s allies and accomplices who usually have more power to effect change,” says de Pape.

Prodigy brought in an advisor to help run staff surveys and be the outside objective voice. It can be difficult to examine your business in a way that is going to uncover all the different perceptions and perspectives across the company, Lehtinen explains. The data from the surveys is owned by the advisory company, not Prodigy, to ensure total removal from any bias internally.

Be accountable

In the end, we are all going to make mistakes. What happens afterward is what matters. “Genuine accountability means acknowledging harm or wrongdoing, making amends or reparations, and committing to changed behaviour in the future,” says de Pape. “As Maya Angelou once said, ‘When you know better, do better.’”

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