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Creating a More Diverse and Inclusive Apartment Industry: Laying the Groundwork

The first in a two-part series helping operators create more diverse—and successful—organizations.  

By Girish Gehani, COO, Trilogy

There are none among us who would deny that 2020 will be remembered as one of our country's most tumultuous years.

However, one expected long-term positive impact stemming from the pandemic and its related challenges is a heightened awareness of the critical importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in all aspects of American life.

Prospective and current residents are likely to frequently encounter diverse onsite leasing teams. However, apartment operators still have work to do to ensure that diversity and equity is present in all levels of a company. This initiative also includes having employees from all backgrounds are represented and have equal access to opportunities for advancement.

For example, women occupy only 9% of C-suite positions in commercial real estate, according to the "2020 CREW Network Benchmark Study: Gender and Diversity in Commercial Real Estate." Unfortunately, the percentage was the same in 2010, the study notes. Furthermore, 60% of those surveyed for the CREW report said their workplace is "not very" or "not at all" diverse.

To top it all off, a lack of diversity can have serious repercussions for the performance of your business. A report by The Boston Consulting Group says that companies with leadership teams of above-average diversity have earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) margins that are roughly 10 percentage points higher than those of companies whose management ranks feature below-average diversity.

To help apartment operators create more diverse - and more successful - companies, this two-part series will detail ways in which operators can build more inclusive and more equitable environments.

The Groundwork

This article examines three ways companies can work to understand where they currently stand in terms of Diversity, Equality & Inclusion (DE&I):

Establish a Benchmark. The first step in becoming a more diverse organization is to develop a crystal-clear understanding of where your organization is lagging. Before diving into a diversity initiative, collect data on your company and identify the specific areas for improvement.

Charlotte Flores, Vice President of Human Resources at Des Moines, Iowa-based BH Management Services, points out that this benchmarking doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

“Survey your employees first to get an idea of their perception of where your company really sits in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion,” she says. “This can be as simple as asking them to agree or disagree with a few statements: ‘Am I treated with respect at work?’ ‘Do I feel my employer values my opinions, views and feedback?’ ‘Am I confident my organization is committed to doing the right thing?’”

Understand the Differing Definitions of Diversity. A major study by Deloitte and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative showed that Millennials, who in five years will make up nearly 75% of the workforce, have a different notion of what diversity in the workplace means than preceding generations.

"Our research found that in defining diversity, Millennials move well beyond the integration of demographic differences," the study says. "They more commonly cite diversity as the blending of unique perspectives within a team, known as cognitive diversity. The Millennial definition of diversity also encompasses the ability to combine different ideas and approaches to better overcome challenges and achieve business goals.”

By contrast, the "Generation X and Baby Boomer generations most commonly define diversity as representation of and fairness to all individuals and their various identifiers of gender, race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation," the study adds. "While older generations aim to ensure that the mix of people on a team accounts for all of the above identifiers, Millennials look past these identifiers to focus on the knowledge, experience and unique insights individuals bring forth."

Form a Committee to Advocate for Diversity. In the aftermath of George Floyd's death and the resulting nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, it was heartening to see so many apartment owners and operators issue statements condemning systemic racism and supporting racial justice. We cannot afford to have these sentiments regarded as lip service. Creating a more inclusive and equitable business landscape requires a deep, ongoing commitment.

One way for a company to make that commitment is to form a permanent committee or council to discuss diversity-related issues and to advocate for inclusionary practices. This committee should include team members from all walks of life and from all levels of operations.

Flores, whose company has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, says it’s critical that operators devote real resources to these groups. “Have a budget,” she says. “Not everything will require dollars, but employees will want to see that your organization has allocated financial resources toward influencing positive change.”

Atlanta-based CF Real Estate Services formed its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee this year, and COO Sharon Hatfield says the company will undoubtedly benefit from it.

"Diversity and inclusion is an initiative that we have been focused on, and with this committee, we're ramping up our efforts even more," she says. "Every human views the world from a different vantage point and when you are purposeful in including perspectives outside of the majority, you enable your teams to have unique problem-solving potentials, ideas and solutions. This naturally results in higher-quality productivity. Employees are far less likely to leave when they feel that they are valued, that their ideas are heard and that yours is a culture for everyone. Employee turnover can be one of the highest expenses in our industry."

The above recommendations are great ways for apartment companies to lay the groundwork for more inclusive environments and develop a clear understanding of where they stand in terms of diversity and the work they need to do. Part 2 of this series outlines several specific ways in which operators can make more equitable companies a reality. 

Girish Gehani is COO for Chicago-based Trilogy Residential Management.

For further resources, please visit NAA's Diversity & Inclusion page