Celebrating your differences

Features - Business Focus

Understanding the diversity in your workforce could do more than boost your team morale.

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February 12, 2021

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Richard Lehr believes refocusing your efforts on diversity and inclusion is a slow burn – it’s not easy and it won’t come quickly.

“It’s wading from the shallow end to the deep end,” says Lehr, the legal and human resources adviser with the National Association of Landscape Professionals. “It’s not diving into the deep end.”

Lehr presented during a session called “Focus on Diversity and Inclusion: Implementing Meaningful Initiatives in your Organization” at LANDSCAPES 2020, which was held virtually in October due to the pandemic. Pam Dooley from Plants Creative Landscapes in Georgia hosted the panel, which also included Lehr; Brigitte Orrick, the director of recruiting and employee development from the Davey Tree Expert Company; and Mari Medrano, the human resources director from CoCal Landscapes.

The panelists acknowledged that efforts to celebrate workforce diversity are often well-intentioned, but they can lose steam unless the company undergoes a significant culture change.

“We need to change our mindset,” Medrano says. “Not only as owners, but we need to change the mindset with our employees out in the field as well.”

Looking for the right thing.

Lehr specifies that a focus on diversity should not be company owners seeking to make their employees conform to one specific cultural identity. Avoid assimilation – it’s not the end goal, nor is simply tolerating everyone’s differences.

“What we’re really focusing on is to appreciate the various backgrounds and beliefs that individuals have,” Lehr says. “What we really want to do is understand, respect and celebrate the differences that individuals bring to the workplace.”

Lehr says that when we hear the words “diversity and inclusion,” the focus tends to be on race, sexual orientation and gender identity. But really, he says company owners should be thinking in a broader view of what makes each member of their companies unique.

Yes, this viewpoint includes a look at race or sexual orientation or gender identity, but it should also include language skills, geographic background and work experience. It can include preferences like learning style, favorite foods, social style or hobbies, too.

“One of the mistakes we make is we look at it too narrowly,” Lehr says. “There’s a richness within our own workforce that we can learn about.”

It’s not just about the employees: Lehr says a “thorough, wall-to-wall” focus on diversity and inclusion is an effort to bid jobs to female-owned or minority-owned companies at a higher frequency. The outreach to do work with these companies needs to be strong, and Lehr challenges landscapers to consider how they’re doing this in their own communities.

But Lehr says one of the reasons the process of truly embracing diversity and inclusion can be so difficult is because there are plenty of people who come from areas that truly were not that diverse. In other words, some folks were raised in spots where people didn’t think too differently from one another, and diversity in race, ethnicity, or even sexual orientation may come as a culture shock.

Even still, Lehr says it’s important to go through the meticulous growing pains of this process should they exist. That’s because the benefit of a company that embraces each other’s differences is one that has a strong culture overall.

“Individuals are not spectators, they’re participants,” he says. “Organizations that have less of a focus on inclusion and diversity tend to be cultures that are more siloed.”

How to get rolling.

Orrick says Davey Tree launched their initiative in a four-stage process, of which they’re only midway through.

First, she recommends collecting data and analyzing it thoroughly. Examining the existing workforce and determining ways to break it down into categorical data is helpful. And if company owners find that they can’t break it down into some types of categories, that means there’s not even visibility at the company.

For example, Orrick says Davey Tree found they didn’t offer many ways for employees to select themselves as military veterans or share their sexual orientation preferences in company surveys. Obviously, employees should have the option to opt out of answering any of these questions, but Orrick says they should be able to opt in to addressing their status, too.

This type of research helps companies evaluate spots where they’re succeeding in their efforts on hiring or recruiting with diversity in mind, and it highlights areas where the company can improve.

“What we did learn is that just by examining our workforces, we found some pockets of success and some pockets we needed to pay attention to,” she says. In particular, she found that at Davey, there was decent representation from women and minorities in the consulting part of the business but significant underrepresentation in other areas.

So, after companies evaluate where they stand with their current workforce, Orrick says employers should then transition into the strategy development phase. She says they noticed some trends that stood out – again, some positive, some negative. They saw minorities at the company tended to actually stay longer before leaving Davey Tree than their majority counterparts, which felt like a victory.

That said, Orrick says they also learned some surprising things as they started asking employees questions about the data they collected.

“What we really want to do is understand...the differences that individuals bring to the workplace.”Richard Lehr, legal and human resources adviser, NALP

For example, women who work in the field at the company told employers that they needed better fitting uniforms and equipment to help them do the job comfortably and safely.

“We also learned that women don’t always have access to regular bathrooms in our field crews. That was another really big learning moment,” Orrick says, adding that some of the men also felt the company needed to better provide this to their employees. “Some of these initiatives were just good common sense.”

Orrick says one key element to their strategy development phase was also looking at the company’s marketing materials. To successfully recruit minority employees, Orrick says the materials should show people who look and talk like them. She also says building a strong mentorship program will help retain the employees a company recruits.

Orrick says the company’s still in the strategy phase, but the implementation phase will take place over the next year. This includes creating accountability to not only celebrate these individuals, but also establish strong protections for them and clear pathways to promotions down the track.

Eventually, Orrick says they’ll enter an evaluation period. What did they learn? What do they want to implement further? She says any initiative like this requires a pilot phase. There will be some wins – some areas where the company clearly progressed – but there will also be spots where the company must continue to improve.

A final focus.

The LANDSCAPES 2020 presentation concluded with a segment from Medrano, the president of the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance, which joined forces with NALP in April.

As the human resources director at CoCal in Colorado, Medrano says she’s seen her company become predominately Latinx employees over time. She says they’ve been solely Latino-owned since 2011 and they’ve got a diverse set of executives, plus a middle management team that’s 100% Latinx.

She also says that a focus on diversity really comes to understanding the views and values of all employees. This leads to better flexibility, such as granting women employees who work in the field the time to drop off their kids at school should that be an issue.

But to understand those viewpoints, it first comes down to understanding.

“Often we don’t look the same in gender, color and economic status,” Medrano says. “We as business owners and leaders need to do a better job of inviting minorities to the table.”