If you are struggling to demonstrate the effectiveness of your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), you are not alone. Research backs up your concerns, but there is an answer.
According to a study by HR Research Institute only 41%s of HR professionals surveyed indicate that DEI initiatives in their organizations have reached the “expert” or advanced” stages. And only 30% rate their organization’s DEI initiatives as highly effective.
And perspectives on DEI programs diverge between workers and employers. A survey from nonprofit JUST Capital shows that 49% of workers believe their DEI program has clearly defined goals (compared to 69% of employers). Moreover, one in four workers say they are “not sure” how much progress the organization has made.
At the same time, demonstrating the effectiveness of DEI is more important than ever. Not only is DEI central to employee well-being, it is essential to creating a thriving organization. DEI is increasingly used as part of demonstrating the “social” aspect of your ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) goals—which investors consider in identifying a company’s risks and growth opportunities. DEI also has implications for greater revenue potential. Consider research from the Boston Consulting Group showing that more inclusive companies achieve 19 percent higher revenue than their less inclusive counterparts.
So, what is the answer to successfully achieving DEI? It’s embodied in treating DEI as a journey that is unique to every company—with multiple paths that require ongoing reinforcement and consistency along the way. That means creating a program of year-round efforts that will culminate in a mix of touchpoints, producing the power to make real change.
But what’s the right bundle of activities to produce the best result? Speaking at an MIT Sloan Management Review symposium earlier this year, Wharton researcher, Stephanie Creary, co-author of a large-scale DEI research study, revealed that certain bundles of practices are more influential in driving specific outcomes. For instance, practices like managerial involvement, mentoring and sponsorship are particularly effective for fostering a sense of belonging. And “if the goal is to get more people to speak out against bias, the practice of education and training is critical.”
The most essential aspect of this idea is to create a set of initiatives that are tailored to your company’s particular needs. Let’s explore some options that will help you find your way through your own DEI journey, and we’ll start with what you need to have in place to lay the groundwork.
Three must-haves for an effective DEI program
As you build or maintain your DEI program, remember that this journey will take time, patience and commitment. Through the process, there will be steps forward and some steps back. Many in your audience of managers and employees will embrace your efforts, but some will be resistant.
Every organization is unique and so you must tailor expectations to fit with what is reasonable to accomplish, now and into the future. The most effective DEI programs will include steps like these.
Set your ambition and assess where you stand on the DEI continuum
The first step is often the hardest and asking some critical questions can lead to helpful discoveries. Consider: How committed is your organization to starting on this journey? What are you trying to accomplish and why? What is a reasonable starting point? Have you already taken steps? What worked or didn’t work? Don’t be discouraged if you are behind other organizations. Be patient and remember that incremental progress is often the best way to create lasting change.
Develop and implement a plan that creates ongoing engagement
The right kind of plan is essential. The key here is to have a plan that leans into ongoing engagement, not a one-time effort. Consider a multi-year plan that is annually refreshed and refined. Start your plan with what is easiest to accomplish and prepare to tackle more complex challenges in an incremental way. A must-do priority: create ongoing engagement with managers, as they are essential to DEI success. That includes prioritizing their education and training. And as you look at the organization broadly, determine how you can adjust workplace policies for bias and what else you can accomplish, such as mentorship and sponsorship, now and into the future.
Create a safe environment for self-discovery and reflection
Change can be difficult, and people need a safe environment to enable self-discovery and reflection. Research from HBR indicates that team psychological safety may hold the key to unlocking the benefits of diversity. Create psychological safety for employees by being clear that there will be no shaming and blaming—and that everyone benefits from inclusivity. Feeling safe is the antidote to fear, which is often at the heart of resistance to change. Be clear that no one will be forgotten or left behind. Inclusivity means that everyone is understood, appreciated and valued.
For more details on these and other key steps, see Kantola’s DEI Leadership Framework.
Why DEI must evolve with the changing needs of the employees and the organization
DEI and the needs that surround it are not static and continue to evolve with the organization and its employees. The plan you start with may not be the same one you need down the line. That’s why it needs to be flexible and resilient. The evolution of your DEI program must be part of the plan.
So, why does DEI keep changing and how can you stay current? Because DEI is driven by larger societal priorities, and we are working in an environment that is shifting rapidly, expectations for DEI are constantly changing. A couple of years ago, it was enough for an organization simply to say that DEI is important. Today, the expectation is to apply concrete efforts that achieve demonstrable results.
What is the best way to keep up? Your DEI efforts must have the underpinning of a solid learning foundation and the process should include a feedback loop with managers and employees. And your unique bundle of activities must be complimentary and evenly distributed for greater learning and discovery. Let’s unwrap this a bit more to dig into the details.
How to create an effective DEI process
Set a solid learning foundation
Deploy an annual training program to set a solid foundation for learning. This will enable you to create an even platform from which to share knowledge in a consistent way. Engage employees with relatable concepts and ideas that can bring everyone on board. One of the most effective ways to do this is to create connections through storytelling and examining everyday scenarios. Because managers are in a pivotal position to affect DEI efforts, ensure they receive special attention, arming them with the knowledge and skills they will need to be your strongest champions. Throughout your communications with managers and employees, reinforce that a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture is a success driver for both the company and everyone in it.
Reinforce training with complimentary initiatives
Education and training are a critical piece of the DEI puzzle, but they are far more powerful when ensconced in a variety of other year-round activities. The Wharton study mentioned above looks at two powerful DEI practices, 1) Prohibitive voice: speaking out against bias and calling out DEI issues, and 2) Promotive voice: speaking up to improve DEI in hiring processes and practices. In both cases, education and training features prominently in accomplishing these practices. However, so does managerial involvement, internal diversity partnerships (ie., employee resource groups, DEI councils) and mentoring and sponsorship. Enhancing annual training with additional activities like these will enable consistent follow-ups and will further reinforce learning and behavior change.
Take steps to remove bias from workplace processes and policies
The initiatives above need one more critical component: removing bias from existing workplace policies and processes. That includes adjusting recruitment, hiring and promotion practices, setting key performance indicators that support DEI, reconsidering superfluous policies that create unnecessary barriers, as well as promoting, standardizing and codifying new practices that reinforce behavior change. All of these adjustments will help to tackle the “equity” part of the DEI equation, which is critical to creating real, lasting and transformative change.
Create a feedback loop for managers and employees
By creating regular touchpoints between annual training and other DEI activities, you will open the door to supporting ongoing reflection and learning. You will also be in a position to enable peer-to-peer interactions that advance new ways of thinking and behaving. Feedback loops are best when they are a combination of formal touchpoints, such as surveys and pulse-checks, as well as informal and ongoing discussions, like manager and employee connections. For the latter to be effective, managers must be armed with the tools and strategies they need to address delicate and difficult questions.
The ideas above offer a balance between innovative thinking and proven strategies—and their effectiveness will be largely based on how you choose to apply them to serve the specific needs of your organization. Be ready to allow for a bit of trial and error until you find just that right mix that helps you on your way. And always, remember to widely celebrate the milestones along your journey. It will feed a true sense that everyone is working toward the same shared success.