Between several recent social movements and increased access to social media platforms, both consumers and employees are demanding changes in the places they shop, frequent, and work. Overall, consumers and employees are seeking a more socially conscious, diverse and inclusive world.

While companies are increasingly considering implementing changes in light of these demands, sometimes our best efforts to make meaningful, positive change backfire (think, for example, of the movement to ban plastic straws due to their impact on the environment and the attention some disability advocate groups have brought to the fact that straws, for some, are the only way they are able to drink). While gender discrimination and harassment claims by employees have dominated the recent headlines, consumers are also bringing discrimination claims against companies, whether it be for alleged racial profiling of their customers or their roles in providing services that permit others to discriminate. Companies can stay ahead of the curve by fostering a diverse and inclusive environment, implementing effective training, and by understanding where their policies may need to be reviewed and improved.

1. Make Policy Change

In 2018 alone, several local and state laws were passed with active enforcement agencies seeking to make change toward inclusivity. While some of these changes are geographically and jurisdictionally limited, companies need to decide whether a company-wide change is appropriate. One benefit to a company-wide change is consistency across locations for enforcement and training. Sometimes, however, a local law will be prohibitively burdensome to implement in all localities.

That said, legislation is not the only driver of policy change. With more and more parents seeking additional leave times, companies, such as Netflix, that have extended long parental leaves to their employees have received positive feedback and accolades for the decision. Other times, companies will review and update their policies after seeing others lambasted by the media for poor treatment of a customer.

Regardless of the motivator behind change, some areas where policy change may be appropriate include:

  • Anti-harassment and reporting procedure policies
  • EEO policies
  • Dress code and uniform policies
  • Parental leave policies
  • Disability and accommodation policies
  • Customer anti-bias policies

These policies set the tone for how the Company will handle issues of harassment, discrimination, internal investigations, transgender rights and parental rights, disability and accommodation requests, and set the standard for the Company's priorities in the treatment of its employees.

2. Examine Business Decisions From An Inclusive Perspective

Often, a business's focus is on its offerings—goods, merchandise, services for the public—and not on how the decisions that increase its bottom line, or that may implement one positive social change, may create a factor of exclusion for a particular protected class.

Examples of this are sometimes simple: if we sell this book about Donald Trump by a politically conservative writer, will we be signaling to our customers that we agree politically? Could we also sell this book by a politically liberal writer to show a lack of bias?

Another example mentioned above is the removal of straws for environmental impact. While great in theory, no one thought about the subset of the population that needs straws to drink due to disability. Are we inadvertently excluding members of society by this decision, and how do we remedy it? A simple solution: making straws available upon request.

Transgender rights is another example. If we have our employees wear a uniform, is that uniform different for different genders? How will we accommodate requests from transgender staff members to dress in accordance with their gender identity?

Being ahead of the curve means considering how one business decision impacts the rights of your diverse workforce and customer base and covering the gaps in between.

3. Set A Culture Of Inclusion Through Leadership

Senior leadership's commitment to these efforts is vital. Leadership that demands thoughtful approaches to internal policies and practices as well as a culture of inclusion sets the tone and expectation for employees—both with respect to fellow workers as well as to treatment of customers. Leadership efforts should include regular communications with employees and consumers to reinforce the values and expectations of the company. Leadership should also work directly with the various departments responsible for ensuring that diversity and inclusion efforts are effectuated, such as human resources, hiring committees, business development and marketing. The "trickle-down" effect from leadership's participation will ensure that employees at all levels recognize the company's commitment and will inspire employees to participate in these efforts. However, verbal support is not enough. Leadership should also be sure to allocate sufficient resources, in the form of both time and money, to support these efforts.

4. Engage Employees From the Bottom to the Top:

The next step is engaging your entire workforce to meet these goals. This requires that all employees are aware of the company's policies and are trained properly in anti-discrimination, retaliation and harassment efforts. Creating organized and consistent training programs implemented in all locations is a positive step forward. But it also requires that employees have a voice and a safe space to share their experiences and ideas about how the company can improve. Remember, particularly with respect to retail where stores are often spread out, your employees are your direct line to customers and can provide valuable feedback about customer experiences. Moreover, when changes are made based on employee feedback, employees realize what they say matters and that their feedback is valued.

5. Engage Your Customer Base

Soliciting and listening to feedback from your customer base is also key. If your customers are upset by a particular product, you won't know unless you listen. If a customer feels less welcome in your store or less able to use your merchandise due to physical limitations, consider what can be done to remedy those concerns.

At the end of the day, companies cannot acquiesce to every single employee or customer demand. Nor is there a one size fits all way to support diversity and inclusion efforts. However, ensuring that everyone's voice is heard and valued is an important first step to creating a culture of inclusion and preventing missteps that may result in serious financial and reputational harm.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.