More than 80 years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that opened national defense jobs and other government jobs to all Americans regardless of race, creed, color or national origin, we are STILL talking about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

But why?

“I think it’s cultural development in the country,” says John Balitis, chair of the Labor & Employment Practice Group at Jennings Strouss. “If you look at the most recent census data, it tells us the Caucasian group, as a racial set, is shrinking as a component of our overall population in the United States. And in some states, it’s no longer the predominant racial group. So, as our population on the whole becomes more diverse, I think workforces and businesses need to try harder to focus on diversity, to make them a true reflection of what our overall population is like.”

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But that doesn’t happen organically, Balitis says. If you want to diversify your workplace, it needs to be a deliberate effort and you need to be passionate about it.

“That’s the only way you’re going to succeed at achieving diversity in your workplace,” Balitis says.

Az Business sat down with two of the most acclaimed employment law attorneys in Arizona — Balitis and Julia S. Acken, member at Jennings Strouss — to talk about diversity in the workplace and what can be done to improve DEI efforts in Arizona’s business community.

Az Business: The most recent Census showed that Hispanics are the majority-minority in Phoenix for the first time with 42.6% of the population. Yet, we are still talking about the need for DEI initiatives. Why is it more important than ever for businesses to pay attention to this issue?

John Balitis: It’s because you can’t think you are going to achieve diversity just naturally. I think some business leaders will step back and look at that data and think, “Well, you know what? We don’t really need to devote a lot of energy or effort to a diversity program because, theoretically, our workforce eventually should mirror our population in the state.” And so I think the potential for complacency is a real problem, because if you think you don’t need to put effort into it because it’s going to happen organically, you won’t succeed or sustain it.

AB: What are some of the major mistakes or missteps business leaders are making when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace?

JB: The biggest mistake is complacency, thinking that you can achieve diversity without being systematic and passionate about it, just because our population is becoming more diverse. The second biggest mistake, which follows from complacency, is not devoting resources to a diversity program. You’ve got to create a program, you have to staff it the right way, and you have to give it the freedom to do what it needs to do so that you can achieve diversity in your workplace. At our firm, we’ve had a diversity and inclusion committee for years. They meet regularly and they’re visible.

AB: Julia, you chair that committee at Jennings Strouss. What are you seeing as the committee’s biggest impact?

Julia Acken: First and foremost, it’s showing the employees this is something that management and leadership at the firm is really dedicated to. Obviously, the programs themselves are the most important. But a lot of times those types of programs, if we’re doing things in the community, if we’re supporting our fellow bar associations, that sort of thing, our actual employees may not see that. And so, I think it’s really important, especially as the inclusion part of diversity, equity, and inclusion, that people realize this is something that we’re dedicated to and that in turn makes them feel more comfortable at the firm. And they’re more likely to stay.

AB: How has the pandemic impacted the initiatives that some companies have taken in terms of diversity and inclusion?

JA: It’s been a big setback for sure. You must devote resources to something like this and you have to be present and in front of your employees. We haven’t been present and in front of our employees in the same way we were before. But at the same time, I think there’s a real opportunity here. A lot of the diverse groups, whether it’s women or people of color, those individuals typically need more flexibility in order to remain in the workplace or in order for diversity to begin occurring. Now, people have exercised more diverse workplace practices like remote work and part-time schedules. Now, those things seem more possible to management. They realize we can get our job done and continue to make money and be a thriving business, and still have people working remotely from home, or sometimes let people work part time. So, it’s been a setback, but I think in the future, this could actually be a positive for diversity in the workplace.

AB: Are there any best practices business leaders should be incorporating into their workplace in order to make diversity, equity, and inclusion part of that company’s culture?

JB: Fundamentally, I don’t think best practices in relation to diversity are that much different than best practices in connection with a different program that you might want to champion at your business. You need to create a platform for it. You need to create a program or a committee or a group. You need to provide resources to it. It needs to be visible. And you need to create metrics and accountability for what it’s supposed to do and whether that group or committee or program achieves those goals.

And then, as those achievements are made and the rest of your workforce sees that, like I said before, I think it just becomes exciting for the rest of the people in the organization who may not be formally a part of that committee or program. But they see this happening, they see it sustaining. And then they want to become involved because they see it being successful. So, from a best practices standpoint, I think it’s really just treating it like a systematic goal or objective, like you would something else in business. But obviously, it’s a different animal. But I think you approach it the same way. That’s the way we approached it at our firm.

AB: This is a question that challenges many business leaders. Should you hire a lesser qualified candidate just to improve diversity in the workforce?

JA: The short answer is “no.” However, you really need to ask, “Is this person qualified or not?” First, you have to ask, “Is your current recruiting and hiring practice really just? Is it equitable?” Because when we look at whether this person is qualified, we may look at whether they went to the same schools as individuals you already have or if they get along socially with the people you already have in the firm. Is that really equitable? Is that even really a requirement of the position? So, you need to look at actual job descriptions. What is this person really going to be doing? And are you, with your current practices, looking for that? Or do you have a sort of skewed metric you’re using?

And in addition to looking at your current practice, and recognizing that perhaps it’s not as just as it should be, you need to look at these candidates and fully appreciate what being part of certain diverse groups can bring to the table for your business. Having a female perspective, having people of color brings different ideas. Businesses are all about coming up with creative solutions, that’s what they do. And the more ideas and viewpoints you have in the room, the better decisions you’re going to make.

AB: How can businesses know whether or not they are doing the right things?

JA: First, I think we need to be upfront and honest about the fact that this is an uncomfortable process. People don’t like to admit that maybe what they’re doing right now isn’t completely equitable. But because of that, we also need to recognize that we’re all inherently biased in how we look at ourselves. So, you need to outsource this to a third party.

No. 1 is training and implicit bias training. It’s become popularized, but that’s because it’s so important. It shows you these underlying systemic issues that are impacting the way you make decisions.

Second, there are some really great employee engagement surveys out there that can ask questions in a way that will automatically elicit honest answers. And then, those individuals that provide those surveys can analyze those and tell you, “This is what I’m seeing here. This is where you seem to be having trouble. These are individuals that are feeling uncomfortable in your workplace.” So, I really think that’s something you need to trust to a third party and to the professionals.

AB: How do companies get buy-in? How can business leaders get management and labor to buy into DEI initiatives?

JB: You need to approach the goal and the objective the right way, meaning creating a program, staffing it correctly, giving it resources, and holding it accountable. That is the recipe for it succeeding. Buy-in is just a function of leadership by example. As a leader or a group of leaders at a business, you show everybody else in your organization that you’re committed to this. It’s a priority. And they see that. But the second step in the buy-in process is once that program succeeds, once the efforts become sustainable, people stay. You’re recruiting more diverse people and they’re coming into your business. Once the rest of the workforce sees that, it becomes exciting for everyone in the business. And then more people want to participate in it.

AB: How important is it to bring in an outside set of eyes to help you create these DEI initiatives?

JA: That’s crucial. People don’t want to believe that they have inequitable ideas. A lot of people look at that as, “Oh, I must be terribly biased,” or, “I’m a bad person if I have these ideas that are not completely objective.” Someone that is a third-party can take that stigma out of it and say, “Look, we all have inequitable ideas or implicit bias.” And that third party can work with you on how to recognize those and deal with those in a way that makes it more palatable, a little bit more comfortable.

AB: A lot of companies hire diverse candidates and then see them leave fairly quickly. What can they do to retain those employees so they can maintain that diverse workforce?

JA: If an employer thinks that diversity ends with the hiring process, they’re going to be in trouble. In fact, it is worse to bring in a diverse candidate and then have a hostile work environment or an unpleasant work environment, which they subsequently leave from, than it is to not have hired that individual in the first place. If you are going to really diversify your workplace, you need to take a look from an objective perspective. What is the job that I need to have done? How do I best service my clients? And how can I help each and every employee do that?

It’s not about having rigid rules or rigid schedules that everyone has to abide by equally. It’s about meeting everyone where they are and helping them achieve the best for their clients. If you have never experienced difficulty with transportation or with internet connection, you may not realize there are individuals in your workplace that do have that issue, but it’s something you can easily solve. So, talk to your employees. And if you feel like they’re not comfortable responding, have a third-party do it. Do it anonymously. But find out what those issues are and address them head on, instead of pretending they’re
not there.