DEI in hiring: How small businesses can put diversity, equity, and inclusion first

Cory Shrecengost
January 5, 2023
minute read
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At this point, it’s not controversial for companies to want to prioritize diversity and inclusion in the workplace. But with multiple plates to spin and fewer resources than industry giants to help spread the workload, it’s all too easy for other, more quantifiable, priorities to creep in—like marketing or sales.

As a result, efforts to build a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy can end up on the back-burner.  

This, to put it bluntly, is a big problem.

Ignoring diversity in hiring can risk alienating existing staff, potential interview candidates, and customers alike.

So, how can growing companies like you—perhaps without a dedicated team of HR professionals—ensure you’re doing everything possible to create a positive, inclusive DEI hiring strategy that won’t get you in hot water later now or down the line?

Vijay Pendakur, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Dropbox, is here to help. We recently talked with Vijay to find out what small businesses should know about DEI and how they can get started—regardless of their status, size, or resources.

What the D, the E, and the I really mean

To practice diversity, equity, and inclusion in your business requires a foundational understanding of its principles, so we asked Vijay to break it down for us:

“Diversity shows up when people show up. At Dropbox, …we define diversity with three dimensions: physical diversity, our physical characteristics; cultural diversity, our non-physical core characteristics like thinking style, ethics, and values; and systems diversity, which is how different groups work together,”

“Then equity is about equalizing for opportunity. We know that people and groups have different starting conditions, due to past and present circumstances outside of their control. Equity calls for us to invest in nuanced ways so that we can maximize their opportunity, thereby empowering them to unlock equal outcomes.”

“Finally, inclusion is about harnessing the power of diversity. Diversity is always there, inclusion is one of the catalysts that turns meaningful difference into individual belonging and organizational advantage”

The advantages of a DEI strategy for small businesses

There’s also a significant business case behind why small businesses should prioritize diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As Vijay puts it, “Diverse teams have always had a better ability to come up with creative solutions than teams that are homogenous—that’s been proven over and over again.”

“Think about your customer base,” Vijay he continues. “Typically, they’ll be diverse. So isn't it going to be more important for your organization to be equally as diverse to understand their perspectives and experiences?”  That way, they can better resolve customer problems.

What’s more, DEI is helping small business owners battle the ongoing talent crisis. Research shows competing with other companies is SMBs’ main barrier to hiring in 2022. So, organizations should be doing everything possible to stand out from the crowd, or risk falling victim to a shortage of talent—one way to do this is to ensure your social practices are honest, authentic, and diverse.  

Candidates are becoming increasingly more concerned with the social practices of prospective employers. So those that want to stay competitive when hiring need to ensure that they’re doing it with diversity in mind.

“In today’s job market, people are a lot more selective about their roles, and about the companies they go to. I can tell you that there are a lot of candidates within Dropbox who ultimately picked us specifically because of our diversity report.”

How to incorporate DEI in hiring and create diversity in small business

Understanding the need for DEI is one thing, but actually implementing diverse, equitable, and inclusive hiring practices, while running the rest of your business and keeping costs down, is another. So much so, that it can be difficult to know where to get started. So Vijay shared some practical tips for small businesses looking to get started.

Start with education

For Vijay, the first step is education—for yourself and your teams. “I always encourage businesses, if they have the funds, to bring in an expert of some type. Even if it's just for a 1- or 2-hour course at first. There are dimensions and nuances that are difficult to learn on your own.”

However, for smaller businesses without the resources to hire external speakers, there are a wealth of free online courses that can provide more context and knowledge around diversity, such as LinkedIn Learning and free diversity sessions.  

Fight groupthink

“The challenge for organizations that are beginning their inclusion journey is that many of the fundamental tools we use for hiring have bias baked into them.”

For example, you may think you’ve done everything in your power to make sure a job advert encourages a diverse range of applicants, but it’s likely that you’ve overlooked something—and others within your organization may well have, too.

“There are certain keywords that people use, particularly in job descriptions, that are actually microaggressions, and can discourage certain candidates while encouraging others. So it’s important to sense-check these things to avoid this.”

“An easy, inexpensive way to avoid this, is to actually have your job materials or copy reviewed by a diverse range of people outside of your company.” This applies to job descriptions, recruitment materials, interview feedback, and more.

Rethink your interview criteria

To truly get DEI in hiring right, Vijay explains that small businesses should think about the way they interview potential new employees by taking a more thoughtful approach to assessing candidates.

“Am I searching narrowly for someone who has done the exact job I’m trying to fill already? Or, am I assessing for learning agility, general competencies, and transferrable experiences so that I can consider the broadest range of talent?”

Diversity for good, not for tokenism: How to avoid tokenism

Without a single, one-size-fits-all template for small businesses implementing DEI policies, it can be difficult to know what to avoid. When dealing with such an important subject, it’s easy to let the fear of doing something wrong keep you from doing anything at all.

For small businesses that want to adopt Vijay’s advice, it’s best to start simple—do your very best to appeal to a large, diverse candidate pool, while avoiding tokenism.

“At core, the principle of hiring a diverse workforce has to be enacted through the lens of hiring the most effective workforce. We can’t hire someone simply because of a specific identity they hold. But, what we can do is eliminate bias and noise from our hiring processes, so that everyone’s true talent shines through in our searches.”

Diversity in small business: DEI at the hiring stage and beyond

A solid hiring strategy is a great first step for small businesses looking to take their diversity, equity, and inclusion practices to the next level. But the journey doesn’t stop there.

“DEI is something that should be integrated throughout the entire business, and the entire employee lifecycle. It’s very much an ongoing thing.”

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