A Decade of Diversity, Inclusion: Finding the Value of Difference

A smart business strategy in 2018 also relies on principles such as diversity and inclusion. NMHC General Counsel Betsy Feigin Befus reflects on why it takes more than just lining up policies to be successful.

Ten years ago, the National Multifamily Housing Council created a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) committee because we believe D&I are important drivers of success, and no company can afford to ignore the costs of failing to create inclusive workplaces where diverse talent thrives. The key lessons we’ve learned over the years include:

  • Firms need to take an intentional approach to D&I;
  • It has to start at the top of the organizational chart and scale across the business;
  • There are no quick fixes.

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The business case for D&I has never been clearer. Importantly, it’s not about “doing good,” which implies a charitable exercise. Rather, it’s a smart business strategy. A recent study published by the Harvard Business Review shows a statistically significant relationship between D&I and performance. The finding is backed by McKinsey & Co.’s Delivering Through Diversity report. According to the research, firms in the top quartile for gender-diverse executive teams were 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability compared to those in the bottom quartile. They also found that companies with the most ethnically and culturally diverse executives were 33 percent more likely to outperform companies at the bottom.  

Practice what you preach

Betsy Feigin Befus leads NMHC’s Diversity & Inclusion initiative, an effort meant to advance the two principles in the multifamily housing industry

A sincere desire for change is important, but not enough to produce results. Like other priorities, D&I goals need organizational policies and practices with accountability for movement. D&I require a demonstrated commitment by top executives, but responsibility for designing, implementing and accounting for the effort shouldn’t reside with just one person or department. Instead, D&I should be core business goals. Executives and managers should function as role models, be given necessary resources and held responsible for outcomes.

It’s also important to define specific objectives and strategies. When it comes to hiring and retention, practices that create objectivity, account for bias and reduce barriers that may otherwise prevent tapping and promoting people from diverse backgrounds are key. Increasing diversity often requires a willingness to expand beyond the familiar networks or recruitment routines companies typically rely on to identify more diverse candidates. Firms should also review job descriptions and evaluation criteria for factors that are unnecessarily limiting and ensure that their employment policies and benefits aim to include the employees they aspire to have.

Furthermore, organizations should acknowledge the difference between a policy and a practice. Most professional firms have policies to address illegal and inappropriate workplace conduct, but not all organizational cultures actually reflect those policies through their practices. Now is an opportunity for companies to take meaningful steps toward a more inclusive environment to which all team members can fully contribute.   

Monitoring, measuring for success

Debate abounds about measuring organizational D&I. But as with other key company priorities, businesses that measure their progress create accountability that encourages results. Part of assessing where we stand is figuring out what we’re counting—”inherent” qualities like race, ethnicity, gender identification, sexual orientation and physical ability, as well as “acquired” characteristics like educational background, industry experience and military status. 

To start, companies can merely count the presence, as distinct from prevalence, of certain attributes—race and gender, for example—at the leadership, management and staff levels. Firms can also measure how many people identify as Latino, black and white; or female, male, trans; and so on. Further, degree of integration between people can also be measured. Progress on each of those fronts is important.

Room for growth

Real estate, like many industries, has room to grow when it comes to D&I. A tightening job market and developments like #MeToo, as well as ongoing reports about the disparate everyday experiences for people of color are highlighting the power imbalance in the workplace. But this can be seen as an opportunity for companies to assess where they are and where they want to be when it comes to the prospect of future success.

It’s simple to say that organizations that prioritize diversity recruit, develop and promote people regardless of their backgrounds. However, it’s also true that companies making real progress toward their diversity goals do those things because of a candidate’s or employee’s individual attributes. This is a subtle but incredibly important point. Fully leveraging talent involves both ensuring opportunities for all and embracing the value of difference.

Explore this topic further with industry peers and D&I experts at NMHC’s next Leadership Forum on D&I on May 15, 2019, in Chicago.

Betsy Feigin Befus is general counsel for the NMHC in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at bbefus@nmhc.org.

You’ll find more on this topic in the September 2018 issue of MHN.