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Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in Canadian SMEs

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace is a broad umbrella that captures efforts to bring together people of various ages, genders, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities and abilities and create an inclusive culture in which everyone has access to opportunities and can equally thrive. The benefits of DEI are many — diverse and inclusive organizations consistently perform better in innovation, revenue and employee engagement and retention according to Sandra Odendahl, SVP & Head of Sustainability and Diversity, BDC.

With many people turning to businesses to find solutions for DEI, SME leaders are in a unique position to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the workplace, and the Canadian economy by extension. For SME leaders looking to advance DEI in their organizations, here are seven ways to get started.

Develop a DEI Strategy

The first step in developing a DEI strategy is to take a critical look at where you are and what you are doing now. Who are your employees? Who are your customers? What language do you use in your job postings to attract talent? Is your physical workplace accessible? Is your website?

Then you can think about the full spectrum of opportunities to advance DEI in the workplace — from talent recruitment to development and training to helping with networking, mentorship and sponsorship programs. Build a strategy that reflects your organization’s mission, vision and values, and begin incorporating tangible and measurable actions as a core part of your business strategy. Ensure that actions have responsibility assigned and timelines included to keep your team on track and accountable. As you craft your DEI strategy, remember that diversity needs inclusion — diversity is a fact of today’s world, but inclusion requires intentional action to foster workplaces cultures where everyone feels valued.

If developing a DEI strategy sounds intimidating or too resource intensive, know that you don’t need a perfect DEI plan to get started on making meaningful change in your workplace. Often it is better to just begin and continue to develop and refine the plan as you learn and grow than to try to do it all at once.

Shift the Mindset from the Top Down

As important as it is to encourage employee-led initiatives (our next point), the mindset shift around DEI must begin at the top. Senior management should communicate regularly with employees about what they’re doing to forward DEI in the workplace, why, and what any changes in policies may mean. If education and training are needed to help address stereotypes and discrimination, educate yourself first or alongside your employees. And check in with your employees on a regular basis as feedback is essential.  

Encourage Employee-Led Initiatives

While there is a lot that leaders can do to build and promote DEI, there is also a significant role for employees to play in driving change. Fostering an environment where employee-led initiatives are encouraged rather than only taking a top-down approach will help expedite change and increase engagement. Let your employees know that their participation is encouraged (and perhaps expected) and ask for their ideas on how to evolve the status quo.

Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in Canadian SMEs

Keep the Momentum Going 

One-off initiatives will not drive meaningful and lasting change. Increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in your business operations is always a work in progress. Spend time understanding why it’s imperative to forward DEI for your business, establish clear goals and measure constantly as you would with other areas of your business, like sales and marketing. Small- and medium-sized enterprises have the advantage of being more agile to implement changes, but the commitment and energy need to be there for the long run.

Create an Accessible Workplace

DEI efforts in the workplace often focus on race, gender, and ethnicity, but it’s critical to expand these discussions to also include accessibility and people with visible and invisible disabilities, including neurodivergence. One step towards normalizing the presence of people with disabilities in the workplace is making accommodations the norm rather than the exception. Many people wrongly assume that the cost of accommodations is too high, yet simple changes like desk heights or lighting can go a long way.

Participate in Activities and Events Organized by Underrepresented Communities

Forwarding DEI isn’t just about what you do in your own business, but also about supporting the efforts of your industry and the communities in which you operate. Actively participate in events organized by underrepresented individuals and entrepreneurs, whether through volunteering, sponsorship, attendance or spreading the word on your social media or owned channels. It doesn’t take much time or effort to help amplify the voices and groups that are already doing amazing work supporting underrepresented communities.

Look to Your Local Chambers of Commerce

If developing a DEI strategy and taking the steps to advance it in your workplace still feels too overwhelming, reach out to your local chamber of commerce. They likely already have DEI-related resources to help you get started building your own strategy.

Meaningful change does not have to be resource intensive, neither does it have to happen all at once. As an SME leader, you can demonstrate your commitment to DEI through continued conversation, education, and action.

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