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Should we all just take a break from diversity and inclusion?

After 6 years of EDI being front and centre, many organisations feel like they’ve emerged with not very much to show for it. So here we are today, exhausted and in a cost of living crisis. Should we just take a break from running into fires and issuing panicked whack-a-mole responses to the next EDI issue to rear its head?

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) has been firmly on the large company boardroom agenda since April 2017 when the UK gender pay gap reporting initiative was announced. The pressure to achieve gender equality and address sexism was only compounded in October 2017 when the phrase “Me too” was tweeted one morning – and by the end of the day had been used more than 200,000 times.

The death of George Floyd in May 2020, and the resulting fresh wave of Black Lives Matter news and social media coverage gave many underrepresented employees the courage to ask their small and medium organisations what they were doing about Diversity and Inclusion.

Fast forward to 2023 you’d be hard pressed to find an organisation who aren’t aware that there is an EDI expectation of them, be it from employees, customers, clients – or society as a whole.

In 2017, with just 12 months to find and make public their gender pay gaps, many large organisations ran headlong into the fire and put a huge amount of effort and resources towards ‘gender pay gap closing efforts’.

In May 2020, there was tremendous pressure to say or do something – anything – about antiracism. Many organisations, large and small, again ran headlong into the fire and put a huge amount of effort and resources towards ‘anti-racism efforts’.

In June 2020 JK Rowling sparked a global Twitter argument and a wider world wide debate about the validity of gender identity – and businesses were once again under pressure to ‘pick a side’ and get involved.

In March 2021 Sarah Everard was murdered and the conversation and pressure turned back to gender…

Throw in a pandemic and massive change to the entire way in which we work and live – with Wellbeing and Mental Health taking centre stage – and it’s no wonder organisations are feeling battered and bruised when it comes to EDI.

After 6 years of EDI being front and centre, many organisations feel like they’ve emerged with not very much to show for it. So here we are today, exhausted and in a cost of living crisis. Should we just take a break from running into fires and issuing panicked whack-a-mole responses to the next EDI issue to rear its head?

In a word, yes.

We absolutely need to stop the panicked whack-a-mole responses. We absolutely need to stop the taking of resources from yesterday’s area of focus and putting it full force to today’s area of focus. As we look around in the dust of the last 6 years of EDI panic and tactics – I think we can all agree that we should give well thought out, measurable, long-term strategies a try.

EDI is going nowhere and it’s time for a shift in our collective mindset about it. Away from panic and short term outcomes – and towards long term plans and sustainable strategic action.

But that’s easier said than done, and it’s illustrated perfectly by the fact that the question I am asked most often by exhausted and stressed out HR Directors is “where do we start?”

My answer as a scientist and technologist and owner of an EDI business is: data.

And by data, I definitely don’t mean sending out a tick-box questionnaire in order to make a pie chart of your demographic groups. I also don’t mean an 8 question EDI bolt-on to your employee engagement survey.

I mean a thorough diagnostic look at exactly what your gaps are, why they occurred and which demographic groups are most affected by them. Only then can we build a strategy based on problems we know we have. We also then have quantifiable data that we can re-measure at intervals in order to check that our strategy is working.

In order to allay the panic, it’s critical that we get to a position where we can identify exactly where – and how much – our actions are delivering real change and progress.

In terms of what those actions might be, we need to forget about knee jerk reactions to the news cycle and go back to foundations. EDI is not a side-of-the-desk job for an overworked HR Director. EDI needs to be in the very veins of your company, running through everything your organisation does, says, produces and buys…

EDI has been way over complicated and organisations now need to get back to basics, starting with a shared definition of what EDI at the organisation actually is

Equity is fairness – is what we’re putting out there fair for everyone? Who can’t access it – and are we OK with that – or not? Internally, are we treating people fairly – or not?

Diversity is difference – do we have enough difference inputting into what we are putting out there? Are we missing a perspective, and are we OK with that – or not? Externally are we appealing to as many different people as we can – or can we do more?

Inclusion is getting the best out of people – included people have a voice, feel safe to come up with ideas, are more productive and engaged and are more likely to stay with the company. Have we done everything we can to enable feelings of belonging – or can we do more?

Despite a lot of learning having been done over the last few years, there is still an enormous spectrum of understanding about what equity, diversity and inclusion means, what ‘good’ looks like, and how to measure it.

Again, achieving this feels easier said than done – but it’s actually very easily achievable.

When I see organisational leaders after they have tried to have generalised, unstructured, unfacilitated discussions about EDI it has invariably billowed out into the terrifying task of “we need to solve systemic racism and bring about gender equality!” followed by an inflamed and emotional discussion around “but we’re just one company and we need to make a profit”. It more often than not concludes with a terrified and overwhelmed “let’s just arrange a bit of training and a couple of talks and…be supportive”.

This is the understandable situation that many organisations find themselves in today. But the good news is that it’s avoidable.

Changing the world doesn’t mean one organisation standing up and solving imbalance on a massive scale. Changing the world is thousands of organisations all working in their own sphere of influence to bring about small every-day changes.

So yes, we should take a break from the way many organisations have been doing EDI. knee jerking and tactics have exhausted HR Directors across the land and yielded little.

If I could recommend one thing to all HR Directors it would be to engage your organisation’s leadership team using a facilitated EDI session, looking only at your sphere of influence. Then work together, as a whole team, to create a long-term EDI strategy, based on measurable outcomes, that they will all be responsible for delivering to.

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