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Diversity, inclusion & culture building in landscaping

Creating welcoming space equals success


March 18, 2022
By Mike Jiggens


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Many companies have taken it upon themselves in recent years to build their businesses with diversity and inclusion in mind as a means of constructing a culture that has employees engaged and working toward improving the bottom line.

It’s no different in the landscaping profession. A business that creates a welcoming space for its employees, where they can feel whole and accepted, is one that is apt to succeed, says Dr. Jeanette (Danielle) Barber, a U.S.-based consultant and author who works with the Looking Forward with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program aimed at students in grades 6 through 8.

Barber, speaking in January at the virtually delivered Landscape Congress conference, said diversity and inclusion are the key components in formulating a solid company culture.

Diversity is differences, she said, and not just those that people bring with them to the workplace. It’s the concept in which those differences can be used in an organization as a positive contributing factor to enhance its culture and innovation. Diversity tends to be discussed in two dimensions – primary and secondary.

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Primary dimensions of diversity include a person’s race, gender and age. If a company hires different types of people, it will produce a diverse workforce.

“But, if you don’t create an environment where your employees don’t feel welcome or they don’t feel compelled to do their best work, then they won’t stay and you won’t be able to retain this population,” Barber said.

A company can check off the diversity box and claim to have good representation, but it must take a further step to understand how to retain a diverse workforce, she added.

“This is where inclusion comes in.”

Inclusion is the extent to which each person in an organization feels welcomed, respected, supported and valued as a team member. In such an environment, each employee feels more engaged and is more apt to contribute to the business of the organization. Barber said this means a company strives to create a space where its employees can go to work and feel accepted and whole and can use their energy to be productive as opposed to using that energy to merely co-exist or navigate toward a culture in which they don’t feel truly accepted.

Engagement is when employees share the values or mission of the company. They are invested and highly motivated, yet the conversation must move toward creating a more inclusive workforce, she said.

Diversity’s secondary dimension
Diversity has other layers, often referred to as the secondary dimension, and they aren’t as apparent. Using herself as an example, Barber noted her upbringing in the U.S. South can have a large impact on the way in which she conducts herself. Admitting to being somewhat conservative, she often may say, “Yes, ma’am” or “No, ma’am” in conversation. Such behaviour may differ from that of a co-worker who grew up elsewhere.

“If we’re talking about diversity in the workplace, we don’t want to stop at that first dimension because, if we do, we can miss out on an entire conversation on what diversity can mean.”

The primary dimension of diversity is what is apparent while the secondary dimension represents the layers of an individual. Barber likened the creation of an inclusive work culture to that of farming. It begins with the need to “cultivate” diversity and prepare the organization’s foundation. A company’s mission, vision and values are necessary in the cultivation process, she said.

From there, the focus turns to “growing” the culture by recruiting diversity before moving on to inclusivity. If done correctly, the company “reaps” the benefits of inclusion. 

Barber warned that diversity and inclusion are not “one and done,” enabling the box to be checked off.

“It’s all about constant refinement. You have to refine and evaluate and recultivate in order to continuously develop your people.”

To meet the needs of a newer generation, companies must constantly revisit to ensure current practices are relevant. 

Recruitment of diverse individuals can be accomplished by attending career fairs and organizational conferences or by visiting colleges and universities to find available talent. Barber said company leaders must ask themselves some basic questions:

Are the policies and benefits we have in place attracting diverse candidates?

Do we have flexible hours, and are our benefits in line with something that might attract a diverse candidate?

Are we broadening the view of family?

Do our job descriptions and current performance standards eliminate any potential bias?

If a job description suggests a company is trying to recruit male employees, it creates a bias which eliminates an entire demographic, she said. She added the establishment of employee resource groups helps in the onboarding process by providing guidance.

Planting the seed
The “seed” is planted once a diverse individual has been hired. If a company’s goal is to increase diversity, it may wish to implement a program that ensures the right people are in place to oversee and lead, Barber said. 

“You must ensure that diversity and inclusivity are part of everything you do. With onboarding, are you allowing new hires to be exposed to a variety of individuals within your organization who look like them?”

People tend to gravitate toward sameness, she said, and they should be able to select a mentor on their own and not simply be placed with someone the employer feels is a good fit.

If a lack of awareness in diversity and inclusion becomes an issue, it should become a learning opportunity and not a means to punish someone, Barber said. 

“You want to make sure managers are being rewarded when they do try to put those diverse teams together because you want that to be the culture in your organization.”

When offboarding, it is equally important to ask departing employees if they felt accepted and welcomed, she said.

“You don’t want to go with the assumption that they left because their talents didn’t meet the requirements of the job.”

Barber said employers must ensure their employees benefit from existing diversity and inclusion measures and look for ways the organization can improve or expand its focus on inclusion. Key decision makers often tend to be white males about 45 or more years old.

“It’s important that top leadership understands and buys into why inclusion is important.”

To achieve that buy-in, she said companies must be able to sell leaders about how it’s good for business morale and profit, and how having such a program in place is apt to lessen the likelihood for liability from diversity missteps. It’s an easier sell today than it was 10 or 20 years ago, she added.

“The global demographic has increased to diversity,” Barber noted, adding top leadership must model the way the culture is going to be for the organization.

Inclusion is the extent to which each person in an organization feels welcomed, respected, supported and valued as a team member.
Photo credit: auremar/Adobe Stock

Leadership training
For smaller organizations without a diversity officer, allies can be found to help champion the cause, she said, adding leadership training is important because leaders can’t always be expected to know every detail about inclusion and diversity. Companies can be aided by human resources managers or a diversity and inclusion division to help structure training, or it can be outsourced to a consultant.

“In the end, everyone in the organization needs to be trained, but it’s vital you start with top leadership so they can embrace and model the culture and then work down the organizational chart.”

Barber encouraged candid conversations to take place that leave preconceived notions and biases behind and allows for dialogue to come from places without judgment.

“This can provide a great opportunity to learn from one another, but not often do these conversations occur because a lot of times leaders might be afraid to dig deeper and see that the system is flawed.”

Effective follow-up and evaluation can help keep leaders to be held accountable for creating an inclusive environment. She said this can be accomplished through employee surveys, evaluations and incentive programs, and provides checks and balances to ensure everyone is engaged from the top down.

“If you want to improve your younger age demographic, go to those employee resource groups to try to have them help you reach those strategic goals.”

Goals aimed at keeping a company competitive must match the business’ inclusion and diversity goals, Barber said.

She cautioned companies not to rely solely on quantitative metrics, but to include qualitative measures as well, such as engagement, employee development and which demographic is being promoted most and to which positions.

The most important aspect of diversity and inclusion, Barber said, is employee retention. Employers don’t wish to recruit someone, only to see that employee leave the company after a year or two.

“Sometimes turnover can be costly and disruptive to the chemistry and culture of the organization.”

As more baby boomers continue to retire, the workforce has become dominated by millennials and Generation Z employees. Millennials and Generation Zs and different from baby boomers and tend to jump from organization to organization, she said, making it challenging to retain them.

“We need to know what they are looking for.”

Research suggests that millennials and Generation Zs seek a positive and healthy culture and something that is bigger than themselves, such as an organization’s mission and purpose. They also seek development and learning opportunities.

Job security, opportunities for growth and respect are among the things most sought after by employees. If employees are underutilized by a company, they may feel disrespected if they’re not doing work that is commensurate with their academic achievement.