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It’s Time to Start Walking the Talk on DE&I

Jul 6, 2021
Deb Muller

Companies are responding publicly to racial and social justice issues these days, and that’s a good thing. Many businesses have made donations to relevant nonprofits and/or issued statements of support when the #MeToo movement made news and during the Black Lives Matter protests. Even last month, corporate social media accounts added rainbow flags to their profiles to celebrate Pride and more companies began recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday even before it was declared a national holiday.

While taking public facing steps to express solidarity is a positive thing, it’s still not enough. It’s time for businesses to take committed action to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) a reality in the workplace. It’s especially important given the economic impact of the pandemic on communities of color, women and other marginalized groups. As organizations move forward, many employee relations (ER) and HR leaders are taking a fresh look at their DE&I initiatives and exploring ways to take those efforts to the next level.

There’s a powerful business case for walking the talk on DE&I. Customers, partners, current and future employees want to associate with brands that stand up for what’s right. And workplaces where everyone feels valued and employees are free to be their authentic selves are more stable and productive.

Building a Comprehensive and Intentional DE&I Vision

Up-level DE&I at your organization by taking a comprehensive and intentional approach. Thoughtful hiring practices, training to spot and root out unconscious bias and appointing a diversity officer are all valuable steps. But DE&I must be in your organizational DNA and central to how policies get developed and deployed to transform your workplace. Examine your organizational hierarchy and consider changes to the overall structure that allow for more individual career paths for all employees. shutterstock_396846532

Think about DE&I in the context of the entire employee lifecycle, from the initial application to the exit interview. Techniques like the use of blind résumé reviews may help eliminate bias on the front-end, but outreach to universities and programs to reach people of color are also important, otherwise diverse candidates may not even make it into your talent pool. Using AI to match skills with projects can help with professional development or advancement opportunities (as long as you make sure your AI application is free of bias). Take the time to evaluate core business practices with a DE&I lens to ensure it reflects your commitments. Ask questions like: What changes can we make to be more inclusive and to provide access to opportunities for growth for all employees?

Over time, change can happen organically, but it has to start with a comprehensive vision that’s geared toward a specific outcome, i.e., creating a culture that people want to be a part of as productive contributors. Adding accountability by measuring progress is critical, and an overall DE&I vision that is detailed and intentional at every phase gets the best results.

Measuring Progress to Drive Results

Data drives accountability across the business, and that’s true for DE&I activities too. Employee relations metrics are increasingly likely to be shared with leadership, as our most recent Employee Relations Benchmark Study confirmed, highlighting the value employee related metrics have across an organization. Baseline data, such as tracking the salaries of all people at the same level within the organization to ensure there is no inequality, can help you understand where you need to focus and help you track progress along the way.

To make sure data helps drive real progress, it’s critical to tie metrics back to your DE&I goals. Creating and communicating measurable DE&I goals as an organization helps set clear expectations and reminds employees that everyone in your organization must work together to make a difference. Data metrics can be tied back to these goals to identify both successes and areas that need more work. If one of your goals is to increase diversity within your organization’s leadership team by 20%, documenting the demographics of the people being hired into leadership positions along the way will give you clear insight into whether you are on target to achieve that goal.

Open communication and transparency around data can also help you build a culture of trust across the organization. When you set specific DE&I objectives and report on progress, you can share successes with employees and discuss ways to improve when you fall short. Staying silent isn’t an option, and when company leaders address issues directly and honestly, employees know you take it seriously.

Partnering with Managers and Employees on DE&I

Leaders of an organization set the tone when it comes to corporate culture. Employees look up to senior leadership and take cues from their behavior. Those in top leadership roles need to model a culture of acceptance, tolerance and accountability to ensure these values are adopted company-wide. Expect your managers to prioritize these values as well and give them a stake in their success by involving them in the process of implementing DE&I at every level of the organization. Since managers have regular direct contact with employees, partner with managers to make sure they have the training and tools they need to handle employee relations issues consistently and correctly. Ensure they’re on board with DE&I strategies and know how to execute them. Empower your managers to develop their employees and use meaningful DE&I metrics to assess manager performance.

Help managers set a good example and create a welcoming space. For example, educate managers to be more sensitive about seemingly little things like addressing employees in ways that help them feel included. Consider employees’ specific needs related to gender, ethnicity, religious customs, etc. For example, in the same way organizations made lactation rooms available for working mothers, you might provide space or extra time off for employees whose religious practices require specific times or days for worship. Incorporate authentic holiday events or activities that celebrate employees’ cultural heritage to enhance cultural understanding. These types of changes can create a welcoming environment for everyone and help even small groups of employees be seen.

You can also partner with employees to foster acceptance and identify meaningful ways to prioritize and promote DE&I issues. Start a dialog where employees can share concerns and learn first-hand how their actions and words affect others. Provide resources such as training modules, book clubs and EAP benefits to help. Engage employees by conducting employee surveys to gather crucial data to measure success and identify areas of concern on an ongoing basis. Establish clear expectations and set a zero-tolerance policy for severe issues and serious policy violations. Educate managers and employees to ensure that everyone understands behaviors that will not be tolerated as well as the consequences of unacceptable behavior.

Making Change Over the Long Haul

The commitment to an inclusive workplace that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion is a journey, not a destination. Yes, it must start at the top, but it also must pervade the organization to truly effect change. Getting DE&I right is imperative for businesses as our organizations and our world continues to become more blended. Additionally, employee perceptions about fairness are increasingly a key component of a brand’s reputation that can affect the company’s ability to attract and retain employees, partners and customers.

But more than that, effecting change through DE&I efforts is the right thing to do. If you’ve ever been the victim of discrimination, you know how devastating it can be personally, and as leaders, we all know how systemic injustice and lack of equity and opportunity can damage people and the workplace. It’s time to start walking the talk on DE&I — and move toward a brighter future, together.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.