Workplaces have historically been dominated by people with societal privilege (white, cisgender, able-bodied heterosexual men, in particular). “Office jobs” were reserved for the favored few while minorities such as women, POC, LGBT+ and disabled people have fought for decades to earn the right to work in these spaces and not be relegated to only domestic and manual labor.
Despite the enactment of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many people still face discrimination and barriers to entry. For example, according to the World Economic Forum, even as recently as 2021, women were earning only 82 cents to every dollar a man earned in the same position. In 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the unemployment rate of disabled people is over 10%, twice that of the unemployment rate for able-bodied people. And, no legislation has been passed that makes it illegal for employers to fire people of color for wearing natural hairstyles.
Consequently, employers must recognize that systemic workplace discrimination is still a reality and strive to create non-discriminatory and equitable working environments. A commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace (DEI) is going to become non-negotiable for organizations wanting to stay competitive in their industry and relevant in society.
An overview of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.
As Built In explains, DEI is the philosophy of recognizing the value and humanity of people of diverse backgrounds and demographics and actively working to embrace marginalized peoples in the workplace in a meaningful way. DEI extends beyond just designing and implementing workplace anti-discrimination policies. As per Great Place to Work, it is also about acknowledging and respecting that the perspectives and needs of all employees are different. DEI is critical for keeping an organization dynamic and fruitful. Without DEI, organizations become stagnant, outdated, irrelevant and, ultimately, poor-performing.
While diversity, equity, and inclusion overlap, they are somewhat distinct from one another:
Diversity refers to a mixture of identities that can include different races, sexes, gender identities and religious affiliations. It can also include factors such as having dependents, being a war veteran or having a chronic illness or medical condition.
Equity refers to ensuring that all processes, programs, and policies are fair and free of unconscious bias. However, it’s critical to remember that equity isn’t the same as equality. “Equal opportunity” is predicated on the notion that everyone is at the same starting point and assumes that as long as each person is given the same opportunities, they will have the same chance of success.
By contrast, equity acknowledges that the playing field isn’t level for everyone. An equitable organization takes this into consideration and makes necessary adjustments to account for these differences. Inequity is inevitable and human resources (HR) and employee relations (ER) professionals need to stay vigilant in spotting inequity and addressing it effectively.
You can consider inclusion as a sense of belonging. Creating an inclusive workplace means ensuring people feel accepted at work. This process is two-fold. Firstly, organizations need to help employees feel safe and supported at their workplace while being their true selves.
Secondly, organizations must prioritize employee engagement. They need to acknowledge all employees’ contributions and integrate all of their perspectives – and it needs to show. It’s going to be significantly apparent if an organization consists of diverse employees but takes into account the opinions and work of only some groups. While an organization might objectively be diverse, it might not necessarily be inclusive.
Evaluate your organization’s current DEI position
If you want your organization to keep up with current standards and expectations, you need to assess and revisit its stance on DEI and what it’s actively doing to achieve it. It’s vital to remember that DEI is a long-term process; you won’t be able to implement a one-size-fits-all solution that works instantly. So, it’s important to reassess your DEI strategy regularly.
Senior Executive suggests the following steps to measure the current success of your initiatives designed to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace:
- Benchmarks and baselines:As Academy to Innovate HR explains, measuring the success of your organization’s DEI initiatives is crucial for helping to identify workplace bias or unfairness. You need to decide on your DEI goals and the corresponding metrics and programs you’ll use to analyze collected data (both quantitative and qualitative).
- DEI financial investments:Take stock of the amount of money you’ve spent on DEI initiatives. While dollars don’t automatically equal success, measuring your investments in DEI against other organizational costs can help determine whether you’re investing enough money into these programs.
- Employee demographics:Count the amount of your organization’s employees from underrepresented groups (such as women and people who are African American) and compare them to overall employee numbers. Aim for workforce diversity ratios that reflect the demographic composition of the country or countries in which your organization operates. These ratios include both current and prospective employees. Vitally, also look at the remuneration rates and benefits offered to employees of different demographics to see if there are any unfair or discriminatory discrepancies based on factors like race or gender.
- Senior positions:Determine the percentage of underrepresented employees in leadership and management positions. You may have a seemingly diverse workforce, but if most or all of these employees are in entry or mid-level positions, your DEI initiatives likely aren’t working. Also, examine how long it takes these employees to be promoted through the employee lifecycle to more senior positions compared to employees from privileged groups.
- Employee retention:Analyze how long employees from historically disadvantaged backgrounds remain at your company. If the turnover rate of these employees is high compared to that of non-disadvantaged employees, you need to re-examine your DEI initiatives.
- Mentorship programs:Calculate the number of mentorship programs in your organization as well as how much time (i.e. how many hours) is spent on them. Such programs help previously disadvantaged employees develop skills and advance more quickly within an organization.
- Incident reports:Tally the number of your organization’s discrimination reports. This is one of the clearest ways to determine whether DEI initiatives are working. However, bear in mind that many people don’t report incidents as a result of fear of retaliation or further stigmatization.
- Employee participation:Compute the rates of employee participation in DEI training initiatives. This is most easily done by looking at the number of employees who participate in these programs and their responses.
- Employee feedback:Conduct surveys to receive input from employees. This type of qualitative data will tell you how staff (both from marginalized and privileged groups) feel about the workplace and whether DEI initiatives are working.
- Senior leadership buy-in:Investigate how people in executive positions feel about your organization’s DEI initiatives. Having this support is crucial to its success. Leaders need to be aligned with HR and ER’s goals and understand their role in being accountable for the advancement of DEI.
It’s important to realize that not everyone is necessarily going to be on board with your organization’s commitment to workplace diversity. People in positions of privilege might get upset and think their rights are being minimized when you begin focusing on the rights of employees from disadvantaged groups to achieve equity. Unfortunately, some employees might be outright homophobic, transphobic, sexist or racist and you will need to have disciplinary policies in place to deal with such situations.
Opening up the conversation of diversity, equity and inclusion with employees
One of the first steps in improving your organization’s DEI is to encourage honest discourse about the topic. You must make certain that employees feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and opinions, but it’s also your responsibility to ensure that this dialog is civil, polite and not antagonistic.
Once you understand how your employees feel and have conducted thorough academic research, you can begin designing or adjusting your DEI initiatives. The Society for Human Resources Management outlines four primary phases of developing your DEI strategy:
1. Data collection and analysis
You can analyze how your DEI initiatives need to be structured only once you have the information you need to inform the initiatives. You need to know your organization’s demographic data and how it compares to that of the general labor market. The collected data will help you determine areas of concern and whether your hiring and/or promotion practices need to change.
Demographic data is typically collected through self-identification. Remember that a lot of this information is sensitive and some employees may not want to offer it – you need to respect that. That said, some demographics to consider include:
- Age or generation.
- Family status.
- Gender identity or expression.
- Religious or spiritual beliefs.
- Sexual orientation.
2. Strategy design
Once you’ve got the necessary data, you can identify problem areas. Some questions that can help you in this identification process include:
- Is management dominated by older white men?
- Do women of color earn less than white women?
- Are certain departments skewed towards male or female employees?
Knowing your problem areas will help build your DEI strategy. For example, if you can see that your accounting department is dominated by white men, you can design a policy aimed at hiring more women and/or people of color in that area.
As Human Resources Director describes, DEI initiatives include:
- Fair hiring practices.
- Mentorship and skills development programs.
- Benefits policies for people with special needs.
- DEI training workshops.
- Inclusive language promotion.
- Improved complaints systems.
- Redesigning physical office environments.
- Regular employee surveys.
3. Organizational objectives review
DEI initiatives must align with your organization’s strategic goals. This is the stage in which the buy-in of people in senior positions becomes especially important. Those in executive leadership roles must understand how DEI fits into the organization’s bigger picture and must be on board with the initiatives before you begin to implement them. It’s helpful to find an organization leader who will champion your DEI causes in order to inspire the rest of the company.
You also need to decide how you’re going to hold management accountable for delegating the DEI initiatives. You can do this by setting up a diversity committee or employee resource group consisting of employees from all organizational levels and having managers report on DEI actions directly to these groups.
Lastly, make sure your DEI initiative goals are realistic. Whatever they are, you’re not going to achieve them overnight. This is where having practical metrics and a long-term plan comes into play.
4. Communication and implementation
Once you’ve decided on and designed your DEI initiatives, you need to communicate them to everyone in your organization. Make sure everyone knows what’s happening and when. It’s important to tailor communications based on the nature of your stakeholders because people understand messages differently. Use appropriate media including department-wide emails, newsletters and social media.
5. Evaluation and audits
After you’ve communicated and begun implementing your DEI initiatives, you’ll begin evaluating their success. You can do this by following steps two through ten as outlined in the organizational DEI stance evaluation section of this article. Feedback gathered through surveys is arguably going to be your most useful auditing tool.
DEI initiative metrics and results should be communicated to employees throughout your organization. In doing so, you can demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) of the initiatives and prove how they add value at every level.
As we said before, bear in mind that you’re not going to see the results of your DEI initiatives immediately and the results will change over time, so periodic review is vital. If your initiatives are not meeting your objectives, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board.
Common DEI initiative mistakes
When designing and implementing your DEI initiatives, it’s critical that you be on the lookout for some common mistakes organizations make when carrying out DEI programs. First and foremost, many HR and ER departments and managers fail to complete due diligence. The people in charge of DEI strategies need to conduct thorough research, most notably reviewing academic work written on the subject. It’s also helpful to consult with advocacy groups to understand how systemic discrimination manifests itself and how best to combat it.
To be a truly inclusive leader, an HR or ER manager must also be cognizant of the fact that often, employees face multiple instances of discrimination. For example, women of color face both sexism and racism (often called “misogynoir”). By overlooking the intersection of different forms of prejudice, your initiatives are less likely to be successful. Employees’ identities need to be viewed holistically.
Another error managers often make is “token” hires. When you hire people from disadvantaged backgrounds, you need to ensure that their employment is authentic and not simply to “save face.” As previously discussed, tokenism also presents itself when a large number of women or people of color, for example, are hired but not in senior positions. On that note, when conducting surveys regarding employees’ feelings of inclusion, bear in mind that people in senior positions are more likely to report feeling included than people in more junior positions which can skew your data. In fact, a 2022 global study conducted by the International Labor Organization found that 92% of people in senior positions reported feeling included at work compared to just 76% of people in more junior positions, a difference greater than 15%.
The benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace
Beyond a dedication to leveling the playing field on principle, organizations that are dedicated to improving DEI enjoy:
Improved offering quality. When you have more people from differing backgrounds giving their perspectives, you’re going to get a better product or service (this is particularly evident in industries like marketing and advertising). These fresh perspectives help enhance and refine production processes which also helps save time and money. Having contributions from people from different backgrounds also helps prevent organizations from committing a political faux pas.
Innovation. Similar to better offerings, increased organizational diversity helps businesses and NPOs approach problems and challenges in unique ways. Different kinds of insight allow employees to produce distinctive solutions to obstacles they might encounter. And, with increased innovation comes improved outcomes.
Increased employee retention. When DEI initiatives work, employees are less likely to seek employment elsewhere. Research has shown that organizations have the benefit of up to 5x improved retention rates when they invest in DEI. Not only does this lead to lower costs associated with hiring and onboarding new employees, but it also means that organizations enjoy the benefits of keeping talent that is familiar with and experienced in their processes.
Ultimately, DEI is about making workplaces a space “for all” rather than a space “for some.” Not only does improved DEI benefit employees on a personal level, but it also works to the advantage of organizations and ensures their continued success in a world that is becoming ever more competitive regardless of industry. As technology advances and social norms evolve globally, the landscape in every field will continue to change. Organizations will require empathy and consideration from all their employees to satisfy consumers’ demand for ethical consumption.
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