Recognized as a top DE&I Practitioner by Hartford Business Journal

By Linda Keslar

For nearly two years, the push to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and the pandemic have been dominant issues in the workplace.

In the wake of the social unrest after the murder of George Floyd, followed by aggressions against Asians and other minority communities, many of the state’s largest employers have typically been in the headlines for spearheading new DEI efforts.

But some small businesses, despite much fewer resources, are making concerted efforts to do their part.

Yvonne Alston, founder of Newington-based Indelible Impressions Consulting, which helps organizations large and small implement DEI strategies, said she’s seen an exponential growth in small businesses eager to receive guidance on what they should do differently.

“We’re regularly contacted by small businesses, both for-profit and nonprofits, that are taking a look at their culture and employee base,” she said. “DEI is a big national conversation right now.”

The majority of employers in the state are small businesses, defined by those with fewer than 1,500 employees and $41.5 million in annual revenues, according to the Small Business Administration. For these companies, the pandemic has also highlighted social disparities and upended every aspect of work life, including record numbers leaving their jobs. That’s also placed more value on putting DEI in practice for their long-term success, Alston said.

“For any size company there is both the business case and human case for DEI,” she said.

For example, remote and hybrid work arrangements are on the rise, leaving smaller firms competing against bigger companies for talent.

More than three out of four job seekers and employees (76%) report that a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers, according to the career site Glassdoor.

“With the Great Resignation, or whatever you want to call the trend that has been partially born out of the pandemic, people are no longer willing to come into an organization or stay tethered to one that doesn’t align with their own values,” Alston said. “You can’t just offer people more money and think that’s going to be sufficient.”

DEI framework

Alston and other DEI practitioners create frameworks and strategies for small businesses to measure, implement and evaluate their DEI efforts. The goals extend far beyond diversifying a workforce in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability, among other factors, but also embedding equity and inclusion throughout the organization to create fair and sustainable opportunities for every employee.

Substantial research shows that a strong DEI foundation is a win-win for businesses, not only in hiring and retaining talent but also fueling higher revenues and profitability, better decision making and innovation, among other advantages.

When done right, DEI initiatives result in systematic changes across an organization’s ecosystem, impacting partners, suppliers and customers, said Andrea Hawkins, founder of Glastonbury-based Leading Culture Solutions, a consulting firm that’s been guiding many small business clients through DEI efforts.

“Spring 2020 was a turning point and interest has really accelerated since then,” Hawkins said.

While small businesses may lack the resources of Fortune 500s, their nimbleness can be an advantage in building an inclusive and agile culture.

“They’re small enough to be able to pivot and make the changes, where for larger organizations, culture transformation can be like trying to turn the Titanic,” Hawkins said.

However, she cautioned, “You’re not going to change your culture in a week.”

Long-term commitment

While surveys show more companies have improving DEI as an objective, two out of three are in the first steps of implementing strategies, according to a study by the HR Research Institute of hundreds of companies, both large and small.

“DEI is a long-term commitment,” said Alicia Washington, director of marketing at HRP Associates, a Farmington-based architecture, environmental and engineering consulting firm, with 120 employees at 11 locations, including out of state.

Two years ago, Washington, also a principal at the firm, approached C-suite leaders with the imperative to launch a DEI initiative, in part so they could realize their goal to double the company’s size over the next decade.

Like many firms in the architecture, construction and engineering sector, HRP’s workforce is predominantly white and male, she said, and the lack of diversity affects potential growth.

“If you don’t have a DEI environment in your workplace, you will stay exactly where you are,” Washington said.

She took on the role of leading its “JEDI” initiative, an acronym that’s become increasingly popular with organizations looking to expand their DEI efforts to include “J” for justice.

The firm hired Indelible Impressions to help set priorities and goals, reshape policies and implement meaningful practices.

A first step was the company determining its own cultural competency, with all employees participating in a confidential online survey.

From that data, new training was rolled out last year through virtual interactive sessions led by Alston and Washington together with groups of 20 to 30 employees. They engaged in four months of conversation around topics like bias and microaggressions.

Then all employees participated in online training modules and activities related to JEDI awareness, Washington said.

This year, JEDI training for company leadership is the focus; the next step in the years-long process is forming specific employee resource groups to further engagement, with one group devoted to women already underway, Washington said.

Launching the initiative has already paid off. HRP recently signed on a new international client, whose due diligence required checking the DEI box for new partnerships.

“If we hadn’t had JEDI in place, we wouldn’t have won that contract,” she said.

Outside help

In the summer of 2020, Community Health Resources — a Windsor-based behavioral health nonprofit with over two dozen locations throughout the state and 800 employees, including therapists, clinicians and administrative staff — rolled out a systemwide DEI initiative.

Turkessa Antrum, CHR senior vice president for human resources and its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, teamed with Leading Culture Solutions, which helped CHR strengthen some existing DEI strategies — such as celebrating diversity events — and implement a larger, more coordinated effort, including a revitalized DEI committee with more than 30 employees.

Hiring and retaining a diverse workforce has always been a priority, Antrum said. But in reality, the organization falls short of mirroring its diverse patient population, she said.

Its DEI goals include making new hires from underrepresented groups and adding more people of color to senior leadership positions.

So far, the organization is on the second “L” of a four-phase “4L” model implemented by Hawkins and her team as a DEI framework.

The first phase, “listen,” included an online survey completed by all employees to assess the organization’s readiness to move the initiative forward. The second phase, “learn,” is now underway, and includes monthly virtual community conversations with all employees invited to participate and unpack issues related to DEI, said Antrum.

Employees are also splitting into separate focus groups depending on their interest, with men’s, women’s and LBGTQ groups, among others, now established and working on DEI issues.

In future years, CHR intends to progress to the last two L’s, “lean-in” and “live,” as final stages of the initial implementation.

“One of our major goals is to really embed DEI in all of our practices and processes, that includes hiring, promotions, diverse perspectives from all our staff in our decision making,” Antrum said.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Penn Globe, a North Branford manufacturer with 15 employees, is an example of a small employer working on DEI efforts without an outside consultant, said company President Marcia LaFemina.

As a result of sitting on several workforce and manufacturing industry boards and committees, LaFemina said she’s gleaned knowledge about DEI topics and has integrated practices into her company’s overall business strategies. The hiring policy has always been pro-diversity, she said, and she’s reviewing ways to promote an inclusive work environment as well.

“We work to incubate little ideas to see if we can make a difference,” LaFemina said, including a current project, creating a shorter work week for a working mother and collecting data around its impact on productivity. With so many women leaving the workforce during the pandemic, particularly due to child-care conflicts, she said, “we want to see if we can make inroads to bring women back.”

LaFemina said she sees small businesses as a catalyst for lasting changes around DEI, given the number of people this sector collectively employs.