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Nic Hammarling

Pearn Kandola

Head of Diversity

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How HR can champion diversity and inclusion within a small business


SMEs have more opportunity than their larger competitors to lead diverse and inclusive organisations, because every employee focused decision that they make has a huge impact on their organisation right away.

Indeed, a vibrant workforce is actually very important for small businesses, who can struggle to attract staff. They have the ability, therefore, to broaden their talent pool and choose and develop staff from the widest range of potential employees. They must lead a business where everyone can feel comfortable joining and be successful in.

How can SMEs be more diverse?

SMEs need to keep things practical and identify the key people processes for their business.

They need to know how to attract and retain potential employees and collect data across the entire business’ hierarchy, in order to identify any glaring differences between different demographics. They should also frequently review these processes, exercises and criteria, to ensure bias is not built into the system and spot any potential for discrimination.

Organisational culture is also very important in an SME, as more often than not you will end up working with a variety of people across the whole business. As a result, leaders must be able to lead inclusive cultures in which people feel safe to be themselves.

When we feel pressured, we are more likely to let our biases influence us, so when it comes to recruitment or promotion, decision-makers should be given enough time to reach a conclusion.

An organisation with even a single employee is big enough to check in regularly for employee feedback. HR representatives should seek opinions, record their findings and – critically – share the actions they are going to take.  

It’s not enough, therefore, to make broad statements about good intentions about diversity and inclusion (D&I) to sway a candidate in an interview. SMEs need to think about diversity in all aspects of their business.

For a team to truly achieve its potential, they must foster a diverse and inclusive culture. To make this ideal a reality, there are four key actions that must be taken by HR.

1. Be diligent

Usually, when bias creeps into HR systems, it’s not because of the process itself, but because people are failing to use it properly or diligently. Colleagues must therefore be properly briefed and aware of HR processes, especially when it comes to potentially biased decision-making.

For example, line managers should collect – and use – information about how employees are performing throughout the year, rather than in the last few weeks before appraisal season.  

Additionally, when we feel pressured, we are more likely to let our biases influence us, so when it comes to recruitment or promotion, decision-makers should be given enough time to reach a conclusion.

Managers must also be held to account and helped to recognise when they are just looking for clones of themselves. This can be uncomfortable, but if you are genuinely championing diversity, it needs to be done.

2. Be watchful

For small businesses, having fewer employees means it can be easier to spot and tackle exclusion or inappropriate behaviour. As you sit in meetings, take time to observe how decisions – such as recruitment, promotions or appraisals – are being made.

Being diverse and inclusive is absolutely an area where SMEs are able to be more nimble, innovative and impactful than their monolithic counterparts.

For example, gut instinct in decision-making is often seeped in unconscious bias and disguises a preference for people who do things the same way as the manager making the decision. Instead, encourage your colleagues to use evidence and data to reach a decision, reducing the impact of bias.

You can find out more about some of the common forms of unconscious bias that affect business decisions here.  

3. Be ready to challenge

Be ready to challenge instances where you think people may not be making fair decisions or might be acting on bias.

The challenge doesn’t always have to be a serious conversation. It can be a quick, 10-20 second interjection and is often more easily received by the other person if you are able to identify the bias that they are demonstrating.  

Challenges are also made much easier if the business’ diversity objectives are shared amongst the team.

Ahead of key decision-making meetings, set the expectation that you will be flagging potential examples of unconscious bias throughout the discussion. Maybe even find words and phrases that you feel comfortable with to challenge other people. Rehearsing these in your mind beforehand means you are much more likely in reality to verbalise a challenge.  

4. Be curious

HR professionals should take responsibility for reviewing how bias-free their business is. Look at your data and identify whether there are any groups being disproportionately affected by decisions, outcomes or approaches.

This will allow you to identify any processes that are in favour of or against particular groups and then do something about it. Bias, whether introduced by people or processes, can almost always be remedied, but only if through action.  

Quite often, however, small businesses will have less data to analyse for trends. In this case, investing time in conducting qualitative surveys, interviews and focus groups to explore employee perceptions can provide much more insight and invaluable information.

All organisations should be diverse and larger organisations can be stymied by decades of protocol, tradition and exclusive cultures.

Being diverse and inclusive is absolutely an area where SMEs are able to be more nimble, innovative and impactful than their monolithic counterparts, but it does take someone with a genuine interest and passion to step up and make a difference.

Interested in this topic? Read Why workplace diversity is everyone’s business.

Author Profile Picture
Nic Hammarling

Head of Diversity

Read more from Nic Hammarling

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