Authenticity. It’s defined as something we can believe is real or true. And it’s a quality that’s essential to creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment. That’s because for DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) to be effective, it must be credible—as demonstrated through genuine commitments, concrete actions, meaningful education and transparent communication.
Let’s look at what it means to create authentic diversity, equity and inclusion for your organization, specific steps you can take, and pitfalls to avoid. But first, let’s look at the latest data outlining why, particularly during this time of volatility and uncertainty, DEI has never been more important than it is today.
DEI is more than an investment. It’s an expectation.
DEI is more than just an investment in bettering your organization, it’s also a growing expectation from customers, employees and investors. If leaders of your organization still doubt that statement, you might consider sharing this compelling research on each of these stakeholder groups.
- Employees: SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) highlighted an ADP report showing that “76 percent of employees would consider seeking new employment if they discovered an unfair gender pay gap or the lack of a diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) policy within their company.”
- Customers: According to a survey from Deloitte, “Increasingly, consumers want to know whether a brand supports diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workforce and society. More than half (57%) of consumers surveyed say they are more loyal to brands that demonstrate commitment to addressing social inequities in all their actions.”
- Investors: And a recent study showed that, “Given the link between DEIB [diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging] and improved business outcomes, investors are more interested than ever in DEIB metrics. For example, 65% of investment professionals in the Americas region cited client / investor demands as the second biggest motivator for considering environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) factors in their investment analysis…”
- would consider seeking new employment if they discovered an unfair gender pay gap or lack of DEI76%
- say they are more loyal to brands that demonstrate commitment to addressing social inequities57%
What is (and is not) authentic DEI?
Before we talk about the specifics of authentic DEI, it might help to talk about what it is not. Authentic DEI is not performative (only for show) and filled with meaningless token activities. It’s not focused exclusively on the “business case” for diversity while ignoring the human aspect and moral element. It’s not about checking a box and it’s never relegated to being a single effort or a one-off program. And finally, it’s definitely not about offering sympathetic lip service and empty promises.
But here’s what it is. Authentic DEI is tied to understanding the dynamic between your organization’s mission/goals and the individual needs of your employees—knowing that there’s a close correlation between the two. It’s about respect, empathy, sincerity and transparency. And perhaps most importantly, it is about accountability for delivering on the promises related to creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. Moreover, authentic DEI makes up the very fabric of the organization, affecting every decision, action and choice.
But despite many organizations working hard to advance DEI, there’s evidence that we are not there yet. The latest research from Lever, a talent acquisition site, shows that while organizations have made progress on DEI, there is still room for improvement. Their topline findings indicate that while four in five (80%) employers think they’re doing enough to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, only 50% of employees think their organization cares about DEI. And nearly two in five (39%) of employees think their organization views DEI as merely a checkbox item.
5 ways to demonstrate DEI authenticity
While there’s never a one-size-fits all solution for making DEI authentic for your organization, there are some basic actions and principles that you can put into place. Each of the following can play a part in helping to make your DEI efforts more authentic and effective, now and for the long term.
- Tie DEI to your mission and vision, through your actions, not just your words–It’s easy to drop a point related to DEI into your mission/vision statement, but the key is in putting specific promises and actions behind those words. Authenticity means that with every word and deed, DEI not only tethers back to the mission and vision but becomes a definable aspect of organizational identity and an integrated part of workplace culture.
- Create a realistic plan with concrete changes, built-in transparency and clear accountability–Every organization will have a unique starting point with DEI, depending on its history and culture. Determine what you can do immediately, in the near term and define your aspirations for the future, being transparent (both internally and externally) about your opportunities and challenges. Focus on those changes that are most meaningful to your employees. Those might be things like flexibility, equitable career opportunities and salary parity—or other priorities that you have identified.
- Make DEI a business priority (not just a function of HR)–If DEI is to be authentic and effective, it can’t be pinned on one department, like HR. Everyone is part of making DEI work and that message must be communicated clearly and frequently, particularly by those people who are in a position of power.
- Provide actionable education and training–It’s unfair to expect people to know how to behave without providing them with the quality education and training they need to get there. The best training will be relatable, interactive and include real-life stories that reach employees at a deeper level. It will also be practical and actionable, providing guidance on how to react when faced with sensitive and difficult situations.
- Prioritize leadership and manager engagement–DEI simply cannot happen effectively without a deep level of engagement from leaders and managers. That’s because leaders must be the voices that carry the commitment forward and managers are the critical influencers who can make it happen. But to get there, they need specific tools and strategies that will enable them to have the knowledge they need to understand and implement inclusive management practices.
5 traps to avoid
The list below is not definitive, but there are some aspects to DEI that are not authentic. To be clear, there is a good chance that all organizations have fallen into one of these traps at one point or another. It’s particularly easy to do when DEI is not given the priority that is needed to make it a success.
- Trying to placate with token activities: Most token activities are not a conscious effort to be inauthentic. But rather, they are an attempt to quickly do something in response to some sort of pressure point. Examples include overblown promotion of small efforts, decorative logos that don’t represent any actual commitment and vacuous statements. Instead: Tie all activities to a larger effort that links back to your DEI plan in a meaningful way.
- Misrepresenting through “counterfeit” diversity: The idea of counterfeit diversity is when organizations paint themselves as valuing diversity, but it’s not rooted in reality. This could be something like seeing brochures for an organization that indicates a diverse workforce when this is far from the truth. According to one recent study, “these strategies can backfire-decreasing interest in the organization, fomenting threat, and perpetuating underrepresentation.” Instead: Be honest about your challenges and transparent about how you are working to resolve them.
- Shaming and blaming: This point may speak to the very heart of resistance to DEI. That’s because shaming and blaming people can be felt like an attack on the value and identity of an individual. It puts their very existence into question, triggering pushback that Gartner defines as denial: “This is not a problem,” disengagement: “This is not my problem,” or derailment: “What about other problems?” Instead: Take an educational approach that considers everyone as a potential bystander, rather than a victim or harasser.
- Training to check a box, doing more harm than good: Recent research shows that nearly half (48%) of employees who took required diversity training said that it felt like a checkbox on their company’s diversity goals. Worse yet, some training can actually create a backlash, inadvertently perpetuating harassment and misconduct. Instead: Choose training that you know is authentic, with meaningful interactive exercises, real-life stories and relatable scenarios.
- Not looking beyond the numbers: Statistics are an important way to measure DEI, but they aren’t the only way to show your progress. That’s because statistics can inspire behavior that business coach, Chris Westfall calls the “rejection premise” where the essence of your analysis falls into question because it is doubted from the very beginning. The solution, he suggests, is to weave in real stories to make the data relevant and form a complete picture. Instead: In addition to your data, create a feedback loop where you listen and take into account the opinions, stories and reflections of your employees.
The lists above are meant to give you a sense of what it means to create authentic DEI, but there’s another overarching point to consider—focusing your efforts around each of the three areas that DEI represents: diversity, equity and inclusion. Many would add to that a fourth area, that of having a sense of belonging. By paying attention to each of these principles in a separate but related way, you’ll be underscoring the importance you place on each. And in doing so, you’ll be more likely to garner the appreciation and support of all your key stakeholder groups.