Copy of First steps for DEI plan in the workplace

Sandra Beckett, left, Dr. Ron Milon and Cheryl Kern

HIGH POINT — Willingness to face uncomfortable truths and conversations, top-down leadership and asking critical questions are essential for companies getting started on addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Those were key points emerging from the panel discussion “Creating a more diverse home furnishings workforce,” during BridgeTower Media’s recent Empowered online seminar moderated by Furniture Today Executive Editor Sheila Long O’Mara.

Panelists discussed how to recruit, hire and support a more diverse workforce; how small or family-owned businesses approach that; ensuring that sourcing and supplier partners match a company’s values; and what steps to take after creating a more diverse workforce to make sure everyone’s needs are met.

Sandra Beckett, chief human resources officer for Tamarac, Fla.-based City Furniture suggested “starting small” when developing a DEI program.

“Acknowledge the diverse work force you have in place, and start educating your organization,” she said. That helps create more comfort about conversations on diversity and gets companies started on leveraging diversity as a competitive advantage in bringing and retaining talent.

“We’re focusing (at City) on leaning in to those unsupported folks in the workplace (with) open, honest, sometimes uncomfortable conversations, and measuring our diversity against our cultural values.”

Communication is the key to getting started on DEI, agreed Dr. Ron Milon, chief diversity officer at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“You have to have a critical conversation in your organization,” he said, one that includes not only employees, but also the people the company serves. Questions about cultural bias “help you start questioning your values and beliefs.”

“DEI requires us to unlearn what we’ve learned and ask critical questions,” Milon continued. “Being uncomfortable helps us grow” the way pain from a physical workout shows strength is building, and like going to the gym, DEI training “is ongoing.”

The first question to ask is, “Who are we, and what do we stand for?” said Miller Knoll Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Cheryl Kern. She said keep it simple at first.

“Pick one thing to focus on and do that well,” Kern said of initial steps toward DEI. “As (DEI) practitioners, it’s our responsibility to make this accessible” to decision makers and employees alike at the company versus getting bogged down in jargon.

The wide-ranging discussion also noted obstacles to building a DEI program.

First is “fear of the unknown and tilting the scale too far,” Kern said. “Second, there’s ignorance that’s still out there; then there’s flat-out resistance from people who just don’t want it. Our responsibility is to manage that.”

Beckett pointed out that customers could be resistant to DEI initiatives.

“It goes back to the value system of the company and taking a stand,” she said. “It goes back to education, and this has to include the customer. ‘Here are our values when it comes to how our employees are treated.’”

Milon said DEI demands a strategic plan that everyone buys into; if it’s an edict, expect more pushback.

“Have that conversation,” he said. “DEI starts from the top, but DEI is everyone’s (in the company) responsibility.”

Berry said it’s a good idea to create a “safe space” for employee groups who might be hesitant about speaking up.

“At City, LGBTQ tends to be underrepresented or have a quieter voice,” she said. “We tend to think about diversity being about how someone looks,” but it’s more than ethnic differences.

I'm Powell Slaughter, senior editor at Furniture/Today. I returned to the publication in January 2015 after nine years of writing about furniture retail strategies and best practices at a monthly magazine focusing on home furnishings retail operations. Prior to that, I spent 10 years with F/T covering wood furniture, the last five of those as case goods editor. Upon my return to F/T, I developed coverage of the logistical and service aspects of the furniture industry as well as following the occasional, home office and home entertainment categories. In April 2018 I took over the upholstery category, with responsibility for coverage of the fabric and leather stationary and motion upholstery, recliners and massage chair categories.