Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: How leaders can take action on DEI

Many companies are implementing DEI — diversity, equity, inclusion — initiatives to live true to their core values. Fostering a culture of belonging from employees to customers, these good intentions also make good business sense.

“Countless studies like the McKinsey reports show that diverse organizations are more innovative and creative, leading to overall improved business performance,” says Andrew Adeniyi, a Vistage speaker and founder of AAA Solutions. “Embracing DEI strategies can boost a firm’s competitive advantage in the marketplace.”
For many organizations, DEI joins D&I (diversity & inclusion), DIB (diversity, inclusion, belonging) and other terms to describe, “It’s the right thing to do.”

DEI has become a useful tool to help businesses fulfill their social corporate responsibility or, some say, moral obligation to society. But what exactly does DEI mean in the workplace?

When everyone ‘attends the party’

Diversity describes having employees who represent the range of human differences and acknowledging and valuing what makes people different, says Adeniyi. “Equity equates to promoting fairness by removing barriers that impact performance and growth,” he continues. “And inclusion occurs when people feel seen, heard, valued, and respected.”

Managing director of Wejungo Susie Japs likes to use a social gathering analogy when describing the DEI mindset to her small to lower-middle-market clients.

“Diversity is when everybody, no matter who they are, attends the party,” says Japs. “Equity is when everyone contributes by bringing food or creating the playlist. Inclusion means all are invited to participate in the fun and no one is left out.”

Quicker problem-solving, innovative thinking, better teamwork, and more effective communications are just some of the benefits businesses can reap from achieving DEI work environments, Japs says.

In a world filled with people of all stripes, companies that don’t consider diversifying their workforce or promoting equitable policies could fall behind the curve.

Because in today’s competitive job market, not only are DEI efforts key to attracting top talent but they are also essential to retaining top performers across all industries, Adeniyi says.

“Today’s younger generations truly care about societal issues like Black Lives Matter,” he says. “Job candidates are asking potential employers about their DEI strategies and what they are doing to uplift people in their community.”

However, successfully cultivating DEI in an organization requires more than lip service from top executives. “Announcing you are going to implement DEI and then not following through with a solid plan may be worse than not doing anything,” says Japs. “Lack of credibility and loss of trust can be the result.”

Additionally, the one-off celebration of holidays or starting a DEI book club is likely not going to result in a sustainable DEI blueprint that makes a tangible difference, according to Adeniyi.

Here are six ways leaders can take more action on doing DEI better from the get-go:

Find your organization’s unique north star

DEI isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Organizations intent on building DEI into their workplace must first define how these concepts relate to their core values and their specific employee base.

“Executives need to ask what DEI means to their company,” Japs says, “DEI looks different for every company and it should. There isn’t one template that everyone follows.”

In fact, the stereotype of what diversity looks like in the workplace may vary widely. For example, Japs says, in a company with an all-Black staff, diversifying might actually mean hiring other people who don’t look like existing employees.

Recruiting more workers who are underrepresented in a company, like military veterans, maybe another way to effectively use DEI strategies, says Adeniyi.

Japs recommends leaders take the time to think through why they need a DEI plan. Is it because of pressure from the board of directors? Is the company having trouble recruiting top talent? Are there problems with employee retention due to a toxic work environment?

“Once they find their DEI North Star, executives can intentionally begin to create a customized roadmap to guide them on their DEI journey,” Japs says.

Gather useful intel early and often

Lack of data is one of the pitfalls many organizations face when designing DEI plans. Says Adeniyi, “Some firms don’t even have an idea of the simple demographics of their workforce.”

Surveying an organization’s workers early on to gauge employee sentiment about diversity and inclusion, says Adeniyi, can provide important insight.

Focus groups and interviews with every department provide opportunities for employees to express their views on what a company is doing right or wrong on the DEI front.

“Taking into account the many voices in an organization leads to the development of smarter goals and more focused DEI action items from the very beginning,” says Adeniyi.

Measuring the climate of a company and evaluating processes also allows for the establishment of metrics to track success and identify bottlenecks once DEI efforts are set into motion, according to Japs.

Create and work toward intentional aims

No matter what DEI action items executive teams set for their organization, each goal needs to have an owner, purpose, and effective plan for achieving it. With this approach, businesses have a better chance of realizing their objectives and sincerely showing their commitment to DEI, says Japs.

If a company intends to hire more women, for example, then doing so requires having enough women in the pool of interviewees to select the most qualified individuals, says Japs. “The point is not to find just any female but the best candidate for the job.”

In this scenario, the owner of this goal would be able to provide solid data on how they are attracting more women to interview, says Japs, and demonstrate increased outreach numbers as evidence.

In terms of DEI deadlines, committing to hitting quarterly goals ensures they will get done, according to Adeniyi.

Japs agrees. “A lot of companies strive for annual DEI goals, but they often get lost forever in the busyness of doing business.”

Executives must take responsibility

Advancing DEI in an organization squarely sits on the shoulders of the leadership team. For DEI efforts to flourish, employees must feel that upper management is all in. If not, losing worker trust in DEI commitments could seriously ding employer brands.

Some 40% of workers said they would consider leaving their company for broken DEI promises, according to a report from Deloitte.

“All successful DEI programs start at the top, with the CEO and/or board of directors,” says Adeniyi.

While many businesses like to hand off the responsibility for implementing DEI to human resources, Japs says that’s not often ideal. “In my experience, HR is usually the least successful in leading DEI efforts because they either don’t have the autonomy or resources to do so effectively,” says Japs.

Assigning a champion who will take ownership of seeing DEI programs through to successful implementation is the best bet, according to Japs. “My suggestion for leadership would be either select an operations leader or form a committee of people from all departments to take charge of the process.”

Training is just the beginning

Organizations often roll out employee training as part of their overall DEI strategy. Learning to speak a common language helps but diversity training by itself is not going to solve problems or shift a culture, Adeniyi says.

“Education alongside human-to-human interaction and someone leading the charge is what moves DEI policies and procedures,” says Adeniyi. “Also the willingness to engage in courageous and sometimes uncomfortable conversation is all part of how growth occurs.”

Adeniyi recalls one consulting client’s employee who thanked him for not making him feel bad for being a white man during a DEI training session. “Shaming people is not the point of DEI.”

Training alone often has workers and management “checking off” the DEI training box and then immediately having fleeting memories of what they learned.

Engaging employees beyond mandatory training takes ongoing effort. Employee feedback surveys and periodic updates can go a long way toward reconnecting employees to the common mission of creating a more diverse and inclusive environment together, says Japs.

“Report back to employees,” she says. “Remind them what DEI means to them and your company.”

Ask employees for suggestions or their participation in enhancing DEI. “For companies looking to hire new graduates to bring new ideas, for example, perhaps start an internship program and have employees step up to be mentors,” suggests Japs.

Never too late to start

While many companies have already embarked on full-fledged DEI efforts, those that have not still have time — but don’t dilly dally, says Adeniyi.

“If you are just starting to think about a DEI strategy, it’s a little like saving for retirement when the best time was 10 years ago,” he says. “But the second best time to start is right now.”

What companies should not do is wait until DEI becomes a non-negotiable in the workplace and all their competitors are way ahead of them.

For newbies to DEI, however, it may take five to 10 years to fully benefit from the value of these efforts and that’s OK. “Just be patient,” says Adeniyi. “It really is never too late to start.”