Small vs. Large Business Needs for Inclusivity

If a large company is committed to having a diverse workforce, supply chain, or customer base, it can more easily find the necessary resources to achieve them, compared with smaller businesses.  

When it comes to inclusive workforces or client bases, however, the playing field levels. A sense of inclusion can be a difficult process for any large institution. The entire employee base essentially never interacts with one another, and siloed departments and levels of bureaucracy can create a structure that makes it difficult to foster the necessary informal and authentic communications required for inclusive workplaces. Small businesses do not have any of these challenges. Communications are swift; an entire employee base can meet in a single room and everyone can be literally heard. A flattened bureaucracy also means that customer and client interactions involve fewer layers of “review” that can remove an inclusive tone from external-focused communications. 

It was under these hypotheses, that small businesses both needed and were capable of strong inclusive workplaces, that we kicked off our small-business focused LGBT inclusionary efforts with a Washington, D.C.-based event on March 3, 2020. We covered important topics to small businesses at that forum, including conversations about the LGBT community in Washington, how large trade associations played a role in inclusivity, and how small employers in different types of industries approached LGBT inclusive practices. This was a strong start to our plans to host similar events in Florida, North Carolina, and Texas throughout the spring and early summer, all of it working towards the creation of a short research report and toolkit to help small businesses be more LGBT inclusive. 

Within two weeks, we have experienced one of the most severe public health crises of our time. COVID-19 spread quickly around the world, and nowhere more quickly than the United States in the second and third quarters of 2020. The impact on human lives from a personal and community health standpoint will be staggering by the time it is over.  

Many small businesses were not resilient enough to remain open for an extended period and had to close their doors. It will be years before we know just how many businesses closed permanently, but one estimate put small business closures at 21%, which is exactly the same rate of business closure in New Orleans after Katrina.

Businesses also play a much deeper role in society now than they did before, and they cannot afford to sit on the sidelines like they may have before. Compared to their parents or grandparents, today’s consumers and employees have stronger opinions about the actions and reputation of companies, and silence or missteps by businesses in these areas can be costly. Engaging in authentic solutions to these inclusionary challenges, like we argued in our previous research on LGBT inclusion, will involve coordinated internal and external efforts by businesses of all sizes.  

The U.S. Chamber Foundation and our Incorporating Inclusion initiative are still committed to helping businesses answer some of those questions through research, virtual convenings that will shift to in-person convenings once it is safe to do so, and tools for companies. 

While our research questions have become much more difficult to answer in our current environment, our partnership with the Gill Foundation was uniquely situated to continue these efforts. First, we had never predicated the success of LGBT inclusion on economic growth. Our argument is that the positive economic benefits of being LGBT inclusive are externalities—the real benefits in LGBT inclusion are a stronger and more resilient organization. This resiliency is what brings the economic benefits. 

Second, we are able to locate LGBT inclusion in its broader context of all multi-social inclusionary efforts. One of the most powerful quotes we heard from a small business owner throughout our research process was “LGBT inclusion is never the fire I need to put out any given day,” and that is even more true now than it was when we first started hearing it in early 2020. But, if we can help companies make their LGBT, and overall, inclusionary efforts stronger and more resilient, we know we can help them keep that fire from ever occurring—inclusionary efforts need to be treated as fire retardants, not just extinguishers.  

Third, we know that more small businesses are going to be created. Small businesses tend to be created at a much faster pace than usual immediately following a disaster.3 In some cases, mid-sized companies shrink drastically and have to refocus their efforts. In others, people who lose their jobs, or new graduates who are crowded out of a massively crowded labor market, decide to start their own business when in more normal conditions they would not. Making sure these small businesses can be progressive in their inclusionary work from the start and understand the resources available to them to do so is critical. Being able to leverage already existing structures and understanding around inclusivity will be much more powerful when economic recovery occurs instead of having to create them during the recovery.