The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Suzie Elliott, head of human resources at Farmers Insurance, has answered the question: How do you encourage diversity in the workplace?
From the film industry to the White House, diversity is a hot topic across the country. Although attention rightly remains focused on the big social, political, and legal discussions of race, gender, and religion, I’d like to add another angle to the conversation: diversity of perspective.
By this, I mean welcoming a variety of views, approaches, and even temperaments in the workplace. Companies that, knowingly or not, hire people with uniform perspectives often end up with the kind of conformity that stifles innovation. In order to gain all of the benefits of diversity, people have to be able to bring their unique experiences to the table. This type of inclusiveness extends beyond our external, visible qualities to the wealth of differences that lie within each of us.
When I first started in the insurance industry in Australia as an entry-level human resources administrator, I looked at who was successful and then did everything I could to blend in with them. The HR department predominantly comprised polished, quiet, and stoic professionals. So I shut down my normally outgoing personality, and for a while, it worked.
But one day, I got a new boss. After a few months of working together, she told me, “You really need to sort yourself out. At times, I’ve seen the real you and it’s far more effective than who you are role-playing.” She pointed out that if I wanted to become an HR executive, fostering trust with my clients was essential, and this would only happen if they experienced the real me.
Bit by bit, I started to get back to being myself. There were certainly bumps along the way, but a new dynamic emerged. People began requesting to work with me more often. They saw me as honest, open, challenging, and fun. Twelve months later, our global head of human resources heard about me, which opened the door to a four-year assignment in Switzerland and then on to a position with Farmers Insurance.
This, to me, is the key to promoting diversity at work: Create the space for people to be themselves. Diversity can bring new ways of thinking to a company, preventing stagnation and encouraging growth. It can kick-start innovation. But we fail to realize these benefits if the culture stifles even just some people, some of the time.
Little acts from company leadership can make a big difference when it comes to fostering inclusion. I am the same person speaking with our CEO as I am with the front desk concierge. I make a point of sitting in a different seat at meetings so I can talk to someone I don’t know well. I watch for those who have not contributed during a meeting and give them a chance to engage.
Creating truly inclusive workplaces requires making employees uncomfortable. Companies must raise awareness of the unconscious associations their employees may carry. In a diverse environment, we need to catch the quick assumptions we make about those who seem different and ask ourselves: Why am I negatively reacting to that person, that idea, or those words? Can I consider another interpretation of what’s going on? In other words, can I be open to another perspective?
Conflict is inherent in diverse workplaces. When you increase diversity of thought, you may reduce groupthink but also increase the chance for disagreement. People won’t see things through the same lens, and decisions can take longer. Whether through employee resource groups or open and constructive meetings with management, companies need to equip employees with the channels necessary to have more difficult and complex, but productive conversations.
There are many other things companies can do to promote diversity, from making sure your brand image is inclusive to engaging in a wider variety of communities. But when you create an environment that makes it possible for employees at all levels to bring their whole selves to work, you will attract, retain, and maximize diverse talent for the best results.