Establishing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs Is a Business Imperative

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The killing of George Floyd in May brought bias front and center in the national conversation, to the point at which its existence could no longer be denied by most. A movement arose in response, one looking for social justice and lasting change and refusing to quietly accept condolences, thoughts, and prayers.

This movement has opened the eyes of many, including candidates who list among their criteria for future employers: “What is this organization’s position in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I)?” As many organizations strive to implement DE&I programs amid the public outcry, company leaders should look to the programs of companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore for examples of DE&I initiatives that drive competitive advantages.

When companies first create DE&I programs, they often commit a couple of common mistakes: Either they rush the programs, or they fail to get organizational leadership visibly on board. As a result, HR might work hard to find diverse talent — but once that talent is in the door, the new employees are left on their own with no trustworthy ways to communicate their concerns, perceptions, and thoughts.

To create DE&I programs that really work, organizations must tie their programs to business objectives and success in the marketplace.

What’s Wrong With Rushing?

While it’s admirable for an organization to want to correct its DE&I failings as soon as possible, uncoordinated activities are more likely to sow distrust and dissatisfaction than to create lasting change. Employees follow company leaders, and they will value what their leaders value. If leadership delegates a DE&I program to HR or a committee, the program will be seen as having little importance. In other words, it comes across as an exercise in checking the box to make HR happy.

Organizations and employees should collectively prioritize initiatives that support the organization’s goals and mission. If a DE&I program does not support the company’s goals and mission, it is of less importance and is less likely to get done. Furthermore, if that program does not have clear goals — and metrics in place to track those goals — then executing on the program becomes a matter of completing activities rather than seeking meaningful change. Without a trustworthy way for employees to share concerns, the organization is depriving itself of information it could use to make a safer, more fair, and more productive environment for all.

Company leaders may say something like, “Well, we have to start somewhere, so we hired one diverse person in department X.” Again, that’s admirable, but without a more strategic program in place, it will be a challenge for that individual to share their perspectives and be truly understood.

Hiring diverse talent is one thing, but if the company wants to retain the talent it worked so hard to attract, it needs to prioritize continued research and the soliciting of employee feedback.

How to Get a Successful DE&I Initiative Off the Ground

A successful DE&I initiative is about creating a culture. It is much too large a lift for one person or even a few people. When company leaders and employees are genuinely engaged in the research, design, and implementation of a program, that raises the likelihood that real listening, real self-awareness, and real change will occur.

There is neither a silver bullet nor a one-size-fits all approach. Designing a DE&I program that works for an organization requires active input from company employees and leaders. Here are a few steps companies should take:

  1. Collect and compare employee data to both the broader labor market and to your competitors. Set goals, report on them, and examine change over time and in comparison to other organizations. If possible, set goals in units or departments where decisions are made rather than at the corporate level. That way, leaders will be accountable for and transparent about progress.
  2. Devise and review a system for employees to raise concerns. You’ll need some kind of communication line. If there is a lack of trust, use an outside provider to help start the conversation. Employee resource groups can be a wonderful way to support employees, gather good information, and reflect on employees’ experiences.
  3. Before you hire diverse talent, put programs in place to facilitate onboarding, listening, mentoring, success, and retention for these new hires.

Overall, a successful DE&I effort should offer benefits such as learning, self-awareness, trust, more open and respectful discussions, and the creation of an organization where talent wants to work and grow.

Make Sure to Measure Progress

You manage what you measure, so be sure to measure your DE&I program for effective management. Some reasonable goals you can aim to achieve in the first three months include:

  1. A leadership discussion resulting in a clear position on DE&I and a plan for how the company will move forward.
  2. The collection of relevant company data and its comparison to the market.
  3. A survey of your employees to surface their concerns regarding DE&I. Pay specific attention to whether there is any interest in forming employee resource groups.
  4. The development of a process through which employees can easily provide feedback on DE&I to leadership.
  5. The establishment of unconscious bias training.
  6. The defining of key metrics that will be used to gauge initial progress.

This is not a one-time process. Over time, leaders and managers should adjust and build on these programs based on employee feedback and progress against goals.

What Should We Expect in 2021?

In 2021, organizations with diverse boards, leadership and management teams, and employee populations will have an edge over their competitors. Today’s employees and candidates want to work for and stay with organizations that value and actively support diversity. Diverse organizations, better able to understand the needs of diverse customer bases, will achieve better business results, all else being equal.

Allyship will be a major topic for 2021. An ally is a person who does not stay silent; instead, they are committed to taking action in the face of injustice against another person or group of people. In 2021, there will be a great deal of listening and learning about how to be an ally. Organizations will get even more serious about dealing with bias in recruiting  to ensure their candidate pools and hires reflect a broad array of demographics.

Another topic we can expect to hear a lot about in 2021 is intersectionality, which refers to how the facets of a person’s identity (gender, race, sexuality, class, and other affiliations) overlap to shape their experience of the world in terms of both discrimination and privilege.

My advice: Stay open-minded, listen actively, and keep learning.

Omar A. Saldana, SPHR, is vice president of Keystone Partners.

By Omar Saldana