Aug. 17 2020 06:00 AM

Build your business by promoting diversity in the workplace.

You’ve undoubtedly been hearing about inclusion and diversity a lot lately, and with all of the other challenges this year has brought, you might be getting to a point where you just want to gloss over the issue.

But now is the right time to focus on inclusion and diversity in your business. After all, they’re more than just the latest hot topics. They are an opportunity that can be seized in an effort to make your company better.

But what can you do? The idea of even getting started in making actionable changes can feel overwhelming. It’s an important issue that is worth more than some quick tips, but we all have to start somewhere. One of the best places to start just may be a closer look at your business, including not only your hiring process but what you do to nurture an inclusive environment.

Words can make a difference

According to Sharon Jones, a lawyer by training and a diversity consultant who specializes in providing diversity and inclusion consulting, sometimes exclusion happens unintentionally. It’s not like business owners set out to only hire certain individuals, but even something as seemingly innocuous as a job ad may inadvertently exclude people from the hiring pool due to language used.

“For instance, you might say that no women ever apply for the jobs you advertise, but have you somehow implied you need to be a ‘strong man’ to get the job?” questions Jones, founder and CEO of Jones Diversity with offices in Chicago and New York. “The language used in your job ads should be able to be perceived neutrally.”

Photos: Kingstowne Lawn & Landscape

Kelly Dowell, a green industry consultant and marketing expert who grew up working at her dad’s lawn and landscaping company, Dowco in St. Louis, agrees and says that it goes beyond just your job ads, but your company’s culture — or what she calls its “backbone.” In other words, even if you make improvements to your hiring process and make job ads more neutral, if your website paints a different picture, it’s not going to matter.

“You want to hire people who have researched your company and know what you’re all about,” she says. “But if they’re doing that and they don’t see people that look like them — such as having minorities or women in leadership roles — are they really going to want to apply?”

Dowell says one of the landscaping industry’s greatest complaints is a lack of labor. But what if you’re doing something to unintentionally limit your potential labor pool? Whether business owners intend to or not, it’s not uncommon for them to hire people “like them,” Dowell says, and that even extends to people who “look like them.” But diverse representation on your leadership team and across your company can be such a strength. When you hire people who aren’t just like you, you can expand your company’s horizons in so many ways, including your customer base.

Diversity at the leadership level

Thinking about fostering diversity amongst your leadership team is so important. Jones says that when “measuring the diversity of your company you must do it at all levels.”

“It’s not enough to look at your laborers and say that you encourage diversity,” she says. “In order to build a truly inclusive workplace, you need to look at diversity in your leadership roles too. This is so important to business operations as a diverse leadership team is going to bring a broader lens at which to look at things. As a whole, it will ultimately improve your business by encouraging a more diverse perspective.”

Dowell points out that you should still look at qualifications and skills. Nobody is saying you should hire someone just to be able to say you’re a diverse company. But you should broaden your view of the pool from which you hire.

It may also mean setting your own team members up for success. Hiring from within brings many benefits. You’re choosing someone who already knows your company and is committed to it. But if you’re looking to promote field staff and help them rise through the ranks into leadership positions, you may need to put the structure in place to allow them to do so. Only looking at individuals with a degree automatically shuts the door on a lot of individuals who never had the opportunity to attend school.

“My advice is to always look from within when you can,” Dowell says. “Can you offer some management or leadership coaching that might make one of your field staff members a great fit for an opening you have now or in the future? There might be someone on your team who has great skills to offer — they’re hardworking, loyal and work great with other people. But where else would they have had the opportunity to learn the leadership skills if not given the chance? How can we allow minorities to climb the ladder if we’re not giving them the tools they need to be successful?”

That’s something that Krisjan Berzins, president and CEO of Kingstowne Lawn & Landscape in Alexandria, Virginia, has taken to heart. Berzins says that his leadership team, which has far more women than men and includes a Latina woman, became more diverse organically and by promoting from within.

“I think diversity has to come from a place that is authentic and genuine, which happens when you’re not just out to check a box but to make sure you’re including all candidates in the search and hiring process,” Berzins says. “Diversity is what makes our country great and unique — it is a melting pot of so many people of different walks of lives and cultures, and I think diversity can be a great strength of your business too. It allows you to consider so many more perspectives and ways of doing things that you may never have thought about.”

Bettering your business, now

As you reflect upon improving your hiring process and being more inclusive, you should also spend some time thinking about your company culture. Do you have a workplace where your current employees feel comfortable? Are you taking steps to foster an inclusive environment? Jones says it’s important to approach this seriously if you want to make changes that will move you forward as a company. She adds that it has to be more than just “watching a 30-
minute video and feeling like you’ve done your part.”

One thing that Jones recommends is unconscious bias training (also referred to as implicit bias training), which can help people to identify certain thought patterns that they have which may make them biased without even realizing it.

“Most people don’t have conscious discriminatory thoughts,” she adds. “But there are unconscious patterns that have an impact on the way that we think, regardless of our intentions. Unconscious bias training allows us to start to unpack this and disrupts our thought patterns.”

Jones recommends Harvard’s Implicit Association Test at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit, which measures attitudes and beliefs that people maintain. It’s free and has been used by millions. Jones says that from a “self-awareness standpoint,” this test can be a powerful place to start, though it may be uncomfortable to confront. But it’s what you do next that really matters.

“After taking a test like that and walking away acknowledging that you have some bias, the next thing you need to ask is, what can I do to make sure I disrupt those patterns at work?” Jones says. “The first step is self-awareness, but the second step is what you do about it. This is where education is so important.”

Being open to new ideas and different ways of thinking is such a big piece of this. But in doing that, it helps to try and look at your company from a different lens. Are you truly supporting your team with resources that will help them succeed? For the landscape and irrigation industry, it can’t be ignored that a large percentage of the labor force is made up of Latinx individuals. If you’re not looking closely at what those individuals need to succeed at your company and ultimately rise through the ranks if that’s something they want, then you may need to reevaluate your processes. Do you offer resources in both English and Spanish? Do you have someone who is bilingual on the leadership team?

Berzins says that he has spent a lot of time thinking about how his company can continue to cultivate a climate of inclusivity, and that has meant looking at the way in which his leadership staff can reflect the values, language and culture of the company as a whole.

On top of that, Berzins says that continuing to make hiring choices that are not just about landscaping skills but also about finding people who have integrity and character must be intentional.

“We can teach the landscaping skills, but if we want to have people who are inclusive and welcoming and who are supportive, it does mean that you’re bringing in the right people in the first place,” Berzins says. “We can say we don’t tolerate racism or that we want to be inclusive of all people, but we also need to hire people who help support that positive culture we want to create.”

“I think that for a lot of people, these issues do require stepping out of their comfort zone,” Dowell says. “But we have to do that. This shouldn’t just be an initiative for 2020 because it’s a so-called hot topic. Business owners and leadership teams need to start thinking outside of the box and contemplating solutions that are sustainable for their company for the long run. It might be rough, and it might be uncomfortable. But it’s a must if you’re someone who truly wants to move forward.”

Lindsey Getz is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at lindsey.getz@yahoo.com.