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Creating a More Diverse & Inclusive Apartment Industry

June 2021

Building inclusive and equitable environments helps operators create more diverse—and successful—organizations. Gehani outlines how to lay the groundwork and offers diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that can be immediately implemented.

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 effort also includes having employees from all backgrounds represented and ensuring 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.

The Groundwork

Following are 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 needs improvement. Before diving into a diversity initiative, collect data on your company and identify the specific areas for needed development.

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 in 2020, and Chief Operating Officer 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.”

Creating more diverse environments is not simply the right thing to do, it’s a way to drive financial performance. Industry experts also note that inclusive companies are likely to experience higher employee retention.

Actions Speak Louder

There exist several specific ways in which operators can make more equitable companies a reality:

Actively Recruit and Mentor Diverse Talent. Don’t just wait for team members of different backgrounds to apply. Require your recruiters to bring you a certain percentage of candidates from diverse backgrounds. Require that they reach out to historically black colleges and universities.

After team members from diverse backgrounds arrive at your company, mentorships can prove a tremendous help.

Jack Jones, Vice President of Training and Development at Gaithersburg, Md.-based Edgewood Management, has seen the benefits of mentors. “Mentorships work best when they develop organically,” he says. “Not surprisingly, that organic development is borne out of commonality, whether it be gender, race, hobbies or some other shared characteristic or experience. One can easily imagine the challenges that are created in providing these organic opportunities when an organization’s leadership is overwhelmingly of one group.”

Take Aim at the Gender Pay Gap to Build Powerful There’s been a lot of talk about the gender wage gap in the U.S. over the years. Unfortunately, it’s still with us.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2018, full-time, working women earned a median of 81.6 cents to every dollar that full-time, working men earned. The National Committee on Pay Equity projects that the wage gap won’t close until 2059. In commercial real estate specifically, women make, on average, 90 cents for every dollar that men make in fixed salaries, according to CREW’s 2020 benchmark study. Breaking it down further, Asian women make 86 cents, Black women make 85 cents and Hispanic/Latinx women make 80 cents for every dollar that men earn.

The time has come for apartment operators to commit to equal pay for Likewise, apartment operators need to understand that creating a workplace truly equitable for all women involves more than equal pay. Women are often the ones who step away from their careers to raise their children and are often the ones providing care for kids who are remote learning at home during the pandemic, which is forcing some to leave their
jobs altogether.

Research by the Census Bureau and Federal Reserve indicates nearly 20% of working-age adults are unemployed because the pandemic has disrupted their childcare arrangements. Further, among those unemployed, women ages 25 to 44 are nearly three times as likely as men to not be working because of childcare demands.

Operators need to first ensure they’re doing all they can to accommodate female team members who are facing work disruptions because of demands at home and secondly, consider the fact that a female job applicant’s résumé may reflect the career sacrifices she’s had to make to raise her children and care for her family. Operators should also consider offering paid parental leave, which helps new fathers share the child-rearing load, to both biological and adoptive parents.

Focus on Inclusion Training to Create More Community. Regular guidance and instruction from experts can be an effective way to create a more welcoming, nurturing workplace for everyone.

According to HR Daily Advisor, inclusion training “refers to training employees to better work with others of differing abilities, backgrounds, nationalities, genders, etc.” As the site notes, employers often view these classes as ways to reduce the chances of workplace harassment and discrimination, but the sessions also can greatly enhance employee morale and boost productivity.

This type of training also better positions onsite teams to create truly inclusive communities. Without training of this sort, well-intentioned team members can organize activities that inadvertently leave their co-workers and residents feeling left out or even insulted.

“Inclusion is more than diversifying by including people of different skin colors or heritages,” says Bevan White, Vice President of Marketing at Alpharetta, Ga.-based Pegasus Residential. “Inclusion is also considering what people’s interests are, their dietary restrictions at events, their comfort level with certain activities. Inclusion can be considering what music is played in your office – or at events – or what time of day events are held. We try to consider who is in our workspace on a daily basis and what may or may not promote a more comfortable and welcoming work environment.”

Looking ahead, the apartment industry, like so many other industries in this country, has some work to do when it comes to diversity, equality and inclusion. But this is a challenge
the industry can and must meet. The results will benefit everyone, from those in the C-Suite to onsite teams and the residents themselves.

The time for a more inclusive and equitable multifamily industry is now. Let’s get to work.

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

For further resources, please visit NAA’s Diversity & Inclusion page at naahq.org/diversity-inclusion.