A seat at the table
An introduction to diversity, equity, and inclusion
Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 will be remembered for the microscope that was put on the deep racial and social tensions in the U.S. Widespread social unrest prompted difficult conversations and led many organizations and businesses to ramp up their efforts to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion—also known as DE&I.
While an important goal—and one many organizations have had set for years—true DE&I cannot be achieved overnight. It requires rethinking, research, and difficult work. “From the top down, you really have to take ownership if diversity, equity, and inclusion is what you want,” says Shaniece Sanford, CPM, a property manager in the Washington D.C. metro area and a member of the IREM Executive Committee.
And DE&I is something you should consider. The positive environment that DE&I creates reverberates throughout an organization. Diversity can contribute to increased innovation, lift entrenched ways of thinking, and increase financial performance, research from McKinsey & Co. shows. But the benefits are only gained if the diverse workforce feels a true sense of inclusion.
Before you can effectively implement the principles of DE&I, the three components need to be understood individually and collectively. One important distinction when it comes to understanding DE&I is recognizing that the terms are not interchangeable. Here is a DE&I breakdown:
“The most straightforward way to define diversity is, ‘an assortment of individuals from various backgrounds at the table,’” Sanford says.
Kimberly Parker, ARM, CPM candidate, is the 2021 chair of the IREM Diversity Advisory Board and a Boston-based property manager. She says a diverse group encompasses different races, sexes, religions, ages, and sexual orientations.
To begin to assess the diversity in your organization, Sanford suggests taking a look at data. “You could go to your human resources department, tell them that you are evaluating diversity, and you need them to do an audit of employees,” Sanford says. Of the employees who are willing to disclose, find out how they self-identify along the lines of race, gender, age cohort, etc.
Once you have established the diverse makeup of your organization, you need to look at equity: Is there justice and fairness throughout your organization? Are equal opportunities given to everyone, and are barriers to those opportunities reduced?
“Equity means you have diversity in the C-suite as well as the entry-level positions. You want this so that one linear point of view isn’t making decisions for the masses,” Sanford says. “You need representation at all levels of the organization to make sure the treatment is fair.”
Adds Parker, “Equity requires an investment, so that everyone has these equal opportunities. In the larger picture, that could be everyone receiving the same opportunity to go to good schools or everyone receiving the same standard of healthcare. When IREM invested in me by giving me a scholarship, that’s an example of equity.”
In an inclusive environment, everyone feels welcome, included, and invited to participate and contribute.
“You may have allowed them to come to the table, but did they feel welcome at the table? When you work in any environment—especially one where many of the other people don’t look like you—this is so important,” Parker says.
Evaluating the inclusivity of your organization is impossible without open, honest dialogue.
“You have to have uncomfortable conversations to see what kind of atmosphere [employees] are experiencing,” Sanford says. “You have to have the dialogue, so people feel comfortable to question you about it. You don’t have the mindfulness to know you have excluded me, even if it was unintentional.”
This means being humble and vulnerable enough to say, “I was wrong, and I’m sorry you felt that way.” “It requires that you have a sense of ownership. It requires you to do the nitty gritty,” she says.
Sanford oversees a team of eight, and she says she goes above and beyond to ask them how she can make them feel included. “Because I actually don’t know how I can make them feel included— it’s different for everyone.” For some, it’s being recognized for an achievement, for example, or asking an employee who doesn’t observe Christmas if they would prefer to have a different day off instead of Christmas Day. “It’s small, but it’s a gesture,” she says, adding that, because of legal or other limitations, you may not be able to accommodate every request, “but the dialogue in and of itself is key.”
A win for all
Along with the benefits found in the McKinsey & Co. research, Sanford says having DE&I written into your company’s framework is becoming a requirement for job seekers—especially millennials and Gen Z candidates.
“DE&I is important because people are important,” Sanford says. “Your company is nothing without the blood, sweat, and tears of your people who make it great. It requires all of the diverse individuals there to feel like when they come to work, the environment is fair and welcomes them.”
Sanford says the concepts are especially crucial in property management because clients, occupants, tenants, and their guests, staff, and customers represent great diversity. “The end users are diverse, so when they come to your asset, you don’t want them to feel excluded.”
Parker agrees. “When we talk about property management, we’re taking about people’s lives, the way they live, and their livelihood. When everyone feels included and welcomed, it creates a great atmosphere, and everybody benefits.”
For the past 35 years, Parker has worked in affordable housing. “This is the area of property management where you experience the most diversity,” she says. “Other areas of property management, such as retail and commercial, are rarely as diverse and typically have higher income standards.”
For Parker, both her work experience and her experiences on IREM’s Diversity Advisory Board have proven how important and impactful open dialogue can be.
“Sometimes it’s just about getting the conversation started,” Parker says. “If we could just talk about it, we could solve it.”