Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is an evolving area, and that’s as it should be. The language used to describe it is in flux as people better understand the issues at stake. The initiatives businesses and governments introduce to redress imbalances and injustices need to be under constant review to ensure they’re still fit for purpose. And new concerns are always coming to light. So, a DEI process can never be a ‘set-and-forget’ endeavour.
It’s little wonder if HR teams, even with the best of intentions, are unsure on the right way to maintain momentum with their DEI initiatives.
Last year’s outpouring of support against systemic racism and the need to urgently address wide-ranging concerns gave a voice to many people who sadly experience these injustices every day. And it opened lots of other people’s eyes to inequities they weren’t previously aware of. Energy levels were high and lots of people were ready to drive change.
Simply updating the conversation from being about diversity and inclusion (D&I) to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and then educating people about the difference between equality and equity, has confirmed for some, and enlightened others, about the lack of a level playing field.
While the vigour behind DEI in 2020 was centred around race, race is just one part of a larger picture that includes a multitude of characteristics that might be used as the basis for discrimination (positive or negative discrimination – if it results in people not being treated fairly, then it should be addressed). For example, ‘The Valuable 500’[i] initiative highlights disability as another area that needs focus, with the aim to ‘unlock the social and economic value of people living with disabilities across the world.’
If HR thinks and talks about DEI in as broad terms as possible, it will help with keeping staff engaged with DEI efforts. No one should be inadvertently excluded from an agenda that in name and spirit must be as inclusive as possible. For example, focusing a DEI strategy purely around race within an organisation might be discouraging for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, or staff facing age discrimination in the workplace.
Headlines clearly show that organisations are struggling with understanding the best way to drive DEI. Support for unconscious bias training is waning,[ii] and quotas for more balanced senior leadership teams aren’t being met[iii]. Because while most DEI training, quotas and programmes are grounded in a desire to drive change, they can end up being a plaster over a much bigger problem if they aren’t followed up properly. HR needs to dig deeper, understanding that real change in DEI comes from the overall values a business espouses and lives by, rather than any one programme.
Business leaders and HR who are committed to DEI and creating positive changes in their organisation – and ripple effects outside the business – need to look long and hard at the values that they promote. If an organisation is centred around values that don’t reflect DEI, then DEI initiatives will end up being undermined.
For example, if an organisation focusses on competitive spirit and drives their workforce to succeed at all costs, without educating their workforce that DEI is good for business, managers might make hiring or promotion decisions based on past successes; decisions that feel ‘safe’,[iv] rather than broadening their perspectives and talent pools. If, however, a value centred around competitive spirit is paired with an understanding that DEI can actually make a business more commercially successful,[v] then fairer and more diverse, equitable and inclusive decisions will be made.
A values-led approach also needs to be reflected in the values held by the staff themselves. The old adage of ‘hire for attitude, not skills’ needs to be expanded out to ‘hire for attitude and values, not skills’. Holding common core values doesn’t mean that all employees need to think the same or solve problems in the same way – far from it. But it does necessitate a baseline expectation around the ethics behind how people interact with each other and complete their work. Any organisation that wants to support DEI, needs to marry up their recruitment and career and succession planning with their values and expectations, so everyone is swimming in the same positive direction.
Giving your people a chance to create meaningful, positive DEI changes, that complement the organisation’s values, is a great way to maintain enthusiasm and support for overarching DEI goals. Something as easy as acknowledging the festivals and celebrations of different religions and cultures can be a great first step – it’s straightforward, it’s quick, and it demonstrates that while DEI does need to tackle some very serious issues, quick changes and improvements also go a long way in moving the dial towards a more inclusive culture. If you have a DEI working group, or internal comms team, empower them to broadcast these celebration messages to the wider workforce, and make it clear that it’s supported by your senior business leaders.
Imagine what it would mean to an employee who’s always quietly celebrated Diwali outside of work to receive a ‘Happy Diwali’ from their employer/colleagues for the first time. Or to a Muslim staff member to read a ‘Happy Eid’ email from their business after completing a month of Ramadan.
There’s a lot of discourse on the subject of bringing your authentic and whole self to work. Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, sending emails/SMS etc. that show the business respects significant events (like the above) is a great way to break down barriers, so people feel more comfortable being themselves in the workplace. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community are not the only ones who have sadly experienced the need to be ‘in the closet’ – this affects lots of people for a variety of reasons. Normalising ‘difference’ by bringing it into the light at work is essential for employees to feel comfortable being their true selves in the workplace.
Another way to maintain energy for DEI change within your workforce is to think about DEI beyond your organisation’s four walls. Does your organisation offer volunteer days off? Could you suggest volunteer work that supports DEI? HR can evidence the business’ commitment to DEI by providing suggestions for people about volunteer work that can make a real difference.
Have you ever considered sending a spokesperson into a school or university where students might face disproportionate difficulties in accessing work following education? The Office for Students recently highlighted stark inequalities in employment prospects for students depending on what university they attend.[vi] Volunteering an appropriate member of staff to talk to disadvantaged students about career pathways is a great way to have an impact on the next generation of workers, and to also show your workforce that you’re not just paying lip service to DEI – you’re dedicated to making real change from the grassroots up.
When those students start to enter the jobs market, it’ll be your brand that springs to mind as an employer who supports DEI. And while DEI shouldn’t be pursued just for brand value – people will inevitably see through that – an organisation that does DEI really well will naturally reap rewards in terms of positive branding. Current employees will feel proud to work for you, and future talent will be attracted to your company, all because you’re known as a strong advocate of DEI. This will help in maintaining commitment and energy for DEI within your workforce.
DEI should be an important value for all organisations. And once that’s been acknowledged, it’s crucial for businesses to maintain their momentum in creating positive change. HR needs to look at the small and the big wins, and how change can be driven in the long run. A flash in the pan response simply won’t cut it. DEI is here to stay – even if the acronym or the top issues change – so it’s wise for businesses to lead on the front foot, as champions and advocates of diversity, equity and inclusion.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
[iv] The NeuroLeadership Institute discusses unconscious bias, including ‘safety’: https://neuroleadership.com/your-brain-at-work/unconscious-bias-in-brain