Smart Inclusion: Where Do We Go From Here?

In 2022, I led a research project on how SmartSearch technology can help advocate diversity outreach in recruiting, and hiring. I began recording the Smart Inclusion series of interviews on the many aspects of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.  

Here are the highlights of this year’s conversations with SmartSearch clients, vendor partners, and thought-leaders on trends, challenges, and solutions that employers can use to promote DEI in the workplace.  

What unique challenges do women face to find work-life balance? 

It was natural for me to begin the series by going back to Margarete Hester, having worked with her on DEISubscribe to SmartInclusion by SmartSearch programs for SHRM Hawaii. We talked about Women In The Workplace and she noted that during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, employer saw a dramatic decrease in women’s representation in the workplace. In 2020, 59% of workers were women; that dropped to 57% in 2021.  

“For HR, the challenge is creating an environment for everyone to have a seat at the table and speak.”  

In addition, when looking at women in executive-level positions at Fortune 500 companies, only 8% percent of CEOs are women. Even though the concept of juggling work and home life is not new for working women, it is evident that women struggle more to balance the two in the wake of changes in working conditions created by COVID-19. Many women choose to work part-time or not at all, making it harder to progress in their careers.  

How much has gender equity advanced over the past few decades? 

For another perspective on women in the workplace, I spoke with Lynne Marie Finn, President & CEO of Broadleaf Results, an Aleron Company with a WBENC, about how women are overcoming challenges in leadership. 

A fierce advocate for advancing women in business, Lynne has served on the Boards of WBENC, WPEO, and WIPP, and WBENC honored her as a Business Star and Woman of Distinction.  

“When I started as a lawyer in a large law firm with very few female lawyers, I quickly realized that I had to grab a seat at the table—no one would give it to me. I didn’t dwell on any inequities in the law firm or focus on things that may have felt unfair or uncomfortable; I just focused on work and standing out from my peers—which is probably not the most enlightened way to do it now. When I became my own boss, I developed a better understanding of what gender disparity is and what it must feel like not to be entirely accepted into an organization. Even though there’s still so much disparity in the opportunities between men and women, I can now have much more impact on closing the gap.”  

Lynne noted that there’s an expanded focus on DEI, sometimes called DIB — Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. This recognizes that the journey doesn’t end after hiring someone, especially a diverse candidate. To retain employees and make them successful, companies must ensure that the work environment is inclusive and fosters a sense of belonging. 

A lot of people ask, “What’s the difference between belonging, diversity, and inclusion?” Diversity is a simple fact; it refers to characteristics that make people unique. Inclusion is the behaviors and cultural norms that make people feel welcome. But belonging is the emotional outcome people want in their organization; it’s a unique sense of acceptance. 

What are specific ways employers can demonstrate genuine inclusion? 

In one of the most popular interviews of the Smart Inclusion series, Omari Jahi Aarons, Managing Partner of the Aarons Group, a workplace diversity & inclusion consulting firm, we explored modeling a culture of inclusion and the importance of authenticity.  

We are calling more attention to the lack of representation in the workplace. Candidates now notice the different dimensions of diversity by looking at race, gender, age, and holidays celebrated as indicators of the type of culture they will be joining.”  

The first step in modeling a culture of inclusion is to identify what is true across the company that helps bring people together, helps people feel included, and embrace their whole selves fully within the organization. Identify all the dimensions of diversity you can demonstrate in an authentic way, and use that throughout the recruiting, hiring and onboarding process. 

How can coaching make a difference? 

For a look at how employers can walk the talk in DEI, Shelly Orr Priebe, Principal at i3 Coaching, shared ideas on how employers can activate leadership potential across a more diverse spectrum of talent in an organization. 

“Bringing in an external coach can bring a neutral and fresh view to your organization that can help employees feel safe.”   

She notes how the horrific events surrounding George Floyd’s death in May 2020 were a wake-up call. Since then, HR has emphasized new and existing programs around DEI, and how employers can utilize Coaching to go beyond awareness and training to develop a more diverse, inclusive, and belonging culture.  

How can employers create a healthy and safe workplace culture? 

Building on the idea of helping employees feel safe, employment attorney Heather Bussing talked about how organizations would be well advised to regard DEI as a Health & Safety Issue. 

The type of culture that every employer should foster is one where employees feel safe when they come to work, be comfortable being their natural selves, and feel like they belong. 


“When employers see discrimination and harassment as trauma instead of risk management, the focus shifts from handling claims to preventing the trauma in the first place. We have both a legal and a human obligation to provide discrimination and harassment-free workplace and not expose workers to harmful or toxic work environments.” 

Employers can take steps to prevent and solve problems before they become claims by  being proactive in knowing how people are doing, and creating a culture of understanding, compassion, and communication.