Diversity, equity, and inclusiveness (DEI) have taken on renewed importance in the workplace during the “Not Normal” of 2020.
This is partly because the pandemic has amplified racial divisions and the gender gap. A recent US Bureau of Labor Statistics report, for example, showed four times more women than men left the workforce in September. Minorities have also been disproportionately hard-hit health-wise. To address the current challenges, many businesses recognize the importance of DEI and its contribution to employee engagement and motivation, innovation, and sustainability.
Many high-performing businesses already have strong DEI programs. Consider the fact that companies with diverse leadership teams have been found to generate greater revenues from innovation, crucial for sustained success. Employees are also more likely to go the extra mile when they trust their employer, and DEI creates an inclusive environment that generates higher trust. Workers, and especially the younger talent that will drive the organization’s future success, are clearly concerned about diversity and inclusion and want to be with companies that are working to embed them. At leaders and laggards alike, DEI is recognized as a top talent management priority for boards and CEOs, with both action plans and clear communications around these issues. After all, while words certainly matter, actions matter even more. DEI is also simply the right thing to do and companies are increasingly being measured on what they’re doing to achieve it.
Organizations are shifting their focus to inclusion and equity in order to advance beyond the state in which the workforce is demographically diverse, but opportunities remain unequal and voices go unheard. In an inclusive work environment, employees feel included and valued as their authentic selves, actively engaged in the organization, and recognized without judgment for their contributions. Equity means that systemic barriers and unfair advantages in the organization are proactively addressed in order to create equal opportunities for all employees. A genuinely diverse organization demonstrates commitment, backed by investment, to build diversity in a comprehensive multitude of forms and foster an environment that enables everyone to thrive.
Human resources leaders (CHROs) have a crucial role to play in preparing the CEO, the leadership team, and the board to act and communicate honestly and believably about DEI to drive the right change. Our experience with leading firms worldwide has brought forth a number of positive practices that have helped CHROs as they wrestle with these challenges, including:
Engaging, supporting, and educating leaders on how to use the DEI agenda to drive change
Being authentic and honest in the approach to and communications about DEI
Using DEI conversations to embed a common language and to amplify core values
Embedding DEI broadly across and even beyond the organization
Communicating about issues where the organization is and is not taking a stand
Leaders are vital to driving the DEI agenda, but they need to be engaged, supported, and educated on it for change to happen. A firm’s board and executives can signal commitment clearly with actions such as hosting leadership listening sessions, setting targets on diverse talent progression, and developing succession plans that make an impactful difference. As the workforce looks to leadership for guidance on what to say and how to say it, expert coaching will help executives take the right actions and begin the cascade of learning and change throughout the organization. Some companies have succeeded through a special emphasis on the board; getting board members engaged and supporting the DEI movement has started the ball rolling for them. DEI puts everyone in a constant state of learning. Reverse mentoring can help executives and board members better understand the perspectives of junior-level employees around DEI.
Communication and trust are imperative, so leaders must be authentic and honest in their approach. Perhaps the single biggest way for leaders to demonstrate their authenticity is by engaging directly on the topic, answering workforce questions, and having the courage to admit that they may not yet have all the answers. Employees want to see business leaders take political stances and action around the roots of social unrest; some are more open to doing so than others. Silence from corporate leadership on DEI topics speaks volumes and breeds discontent among employees.
DEI conversations succeed best when there is a common language that is embedded in the organization and that amplifies the core values. Employees are living authentic experiences in their communities every day and need a safe space to talk at work. Safe spaces promote dialogue (including uncomfortable discussions), build trust, and establish positive emotional connections. A common language around DEI facilitates conversations and greater understanding and trust. Companies are increasingly linking their DEI objectives to their core values and making progress toward their DEI goals through this robust commitment. As part of this effort, DEI goals are clearly communicated and progress against them is shared with the workforce to promote transparency, enabling employees to hold the leaders and the company to the commitments made.
Embedding DEI throughout and beyond the organization helps to set the right actions. Investments in preliminary work such as global inclusion surveys help to bring data to bear in the cultural change effort. Formalized employee resource groups and less formal grassroots-type discussions both have their place; the latter can enable DEI to be “owned” at the proper level. Of course, DEI is about much more than talk; actions such as introducing flexible holiday schedules that recognize different faiths and cultures and implementing policies to assist working mothers can go a long way in reaching beyond the immediate business.
Communicate about topics where the organization is taking a stand—and where it’s standing neutral to remain inclusive. Employees need to know where the company stands in regard to DEI topics. But DEI stands at the cross-section of a range of other issues on which corporations may or may not choose to take a stance, such as party politics and debates over issues such as gun control, community development, and access to education. Leaders should state where they will not take a position and—importantly—why not.
DEI is a crucial topic, and every organization is in its own unique place on the journey toward embedding true diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s a business imperative; without meaningful and deliberate commitment, companies will be left behind—not just in the competition to attract the best talent, but also in the marketplace should customers feel a misalignment with a brand’s values. More fundamentally, DEI is vital to the betterment of society, and thus requires a strong commitment and action from all organizations and leaders.