Photograph by Fairfax Media via Getty Images
By Cliff Johnson
February 2, 2017

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you play a role in advancing workplace equality?” is written by Cliff Johnson, cofounder and chief development officer of Vacasa.

I’ve always believed that businesses are strongest when they foster diversity and equality. Working with people of different ages, races, genders, and backgrounds gives you valuable insights and often leads to unique, disruptive solutions. This ultimately benefits your bottom line and helps you attract the best talent from all walks of life, but creating this type of environment is not easy. As the co founder and chief development officer of a global company, I have learned a few important lessons:

Ask the hard questions.

First, understand that equality and diversity aren’t the same thing. Plenty of businesses pride themselves on having diverse junior and entry-level teams, but this diversity isn’t reflected at the higher levels of the company. Even the most well-intentioned companies can improve when it comes to equality.

It’s also important to consider socioeconomic status, educational opportunities, and whether your employees come from blue- or white-collar backgrounds. For business leaders, recruiting and operating in economically disadvantaged communities is a powerful way to foster equality.

You know that when you’re recruiting, it’s essential to meet with a wide range of candidates. But you also have to dismantle your own expectations of who your ideal candidate might be — expectations that are deeply rooted and sometimes painful to confront. We all have assumptions about how people in different roles are supposed to look, talk, dress, and behave, and these assumptions absolutely influence who we hire.

Have you ever assumed that the young woman with the Spanish accent was the administrative assistant, rather than the attorney? Or that an engineer wouldn’t also be a great writer? Or that a woman at a tech company worked in marketing or HR, rather than finance or product development? These often-subconscious assumptions can keep even the most well-meaning business leaders from building a truly equal work environment.

Create a work environment that fosters success equally.

In general, to achieve equality, businesses should strive to neutralize differences between employees. For example, there’s a perception that women who want to have families will leave the workforce before they get to the top. There are complex, nuanced reasons why women are more likely than their male peers to become stay-at-home parents. From my perspective, though, the work environment plays an important role. If we don’t create a workplace that’s conducive to parenting and supportive of both men and women with families, we’ll lose amazing people.

At Vacasa, we do our best to cultivate a family-friendly environment that encourages all parents to prioritize the things that matter, both at work and at home. Wherever possible, we offer employees flexible work schedules, whether they’re in the field or in the office. Employees don’t need special permission to take their child to the doctor, see a school play, or work from home if childcare plans fall through.

Another way we try to neutralize differences among team members is by giving our employees floating holidays or unlimited paid time off, rather than giving everybody time off around Christmas. This way, people with different beliefs can celebrate and unwind on their own schedules, without asking for special permission.

Be an advocate — even if it sometimes makes you uncomfortable.

It’s not enough to not discriminate against your employees. (That’s the very least you can do.) Businesses invested in creating an equal workplace must advocate for people who are marginalized — whether that means women, people of color, employees with disabilities, or LGBT employees. Including a myriad of different perspectives helps you tailor solutions to a wider and more lucrative market, and it helps you attract bright, motivated employees from different backgrounds.

People at every level of a company can and should be advocates. If you’re not in charge of hiring, you can advocate for others by making professional introductions, referring them to new opportunities, or serving as a mentor. It’s the responsibility of the leadership team to set an example for equality and advocacy throughout an organization.

Being a good ally sometimes means asking yourself uncomfortable questions. Interrogate your assumptions. Ask yourself, “Would I notice how my colleague dresses if she were a man?” You can’t advocate effectively for other people without being honest — at least with yourself — about how these subconscious prejudices impede equality.

It’s not easy to create an equal workplace. It requires critical thinking, continual adjustments, expert advice, and — hardest of all — the humility to admit when you’re wrong. It’s not easy, but it’s essential, and these tips will point you in the right direction.

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