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How to turn DEI vision into reality 

Charlie Grubb, Senior Managing Director - Robert Half Executive Search

While we are making strides when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), there is still clearly lots of progress to be made. And judging by the amount of controversial press coverage that this topic continues to receive, it’s quite obvious that the numbers aren’t adding up.  

Breaking down the ‘pale, male and stale’ stereotypes that are still prevalent in the boardrooms of FTSE-100 companies has proven to be challenging. There is an alarming lack of women, although as one of our own female leaders points out, women “are less likely to put themselves forward”.

A significant proportion of these organisations still have no Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation on their boards. And what about the extremely low disabled employment rate? While it was always going to be difficult, given the apathy for cultural change within many organisations in certain sectors, we would have expected the picture to be a lot different than it is. 

All the evidence points to the fact that DEI is good for business. Indeed, data from McKinsey found that executive teams that were made up of more than 30% women outperformed those with fewer or no females by 48%. And when it came to having more ethnically and culturally diverse boards, once again performance was the winner, to the tune of 36%. These numbers are quite staggering. The neuro-diverse and non-binary groups are other demographics that are also vastly under-represented. 

Let me just add that DEI is not just about productivity and profit. Yes, diversity and diversity of thought does boost financial results. But the ‘E’ and the ‘I’ elements are paramount too – namely ensuring that you have equal opportunities and a level playing field for all, as well as an inclusive environment where everyone can be their authentic selves at work. 

The end goal must be to provide the conditions for each individual to bring their particular makeup of skills so that they can flourish and achieve their full potential. Yet many individuals from minority groups often find they can’t be themselves, which can be emotionally draining. They have to put on a ‘cultural mask’ or hide their identity in order to fit in. 

The way some companies have tried to tackle the problem is to impose diversity quotas. While these initiatives do have some merit, I would argue that for lasting change to take place, leaders must look inwardly first. By this I mean understanding themselves and the demographics of their workforce – and how this then ties in to their recruitment needs. It should not be a box ticking exercise. 

Providing a ‘safe space’
While adopting a diverse hiring mindset is important, ultimately any hiring manager’s mission is to hire the right person for the role. This is another reason why quotas can be dangerous and lead to poor hiring decisions. Leaders need to ascertain where the skill shortages are in their organisation and see how under-represented groups could potentially fill those gaps. Many companies looking to hire software developers for example will target the neurodiverse because of their unique thinking processes which add so much value to these types of roles. 

The next important piece of the jigsaw is the outward looking part, in other words promoting DEI to external candidate audiences. There are many different elements to this, including using inclusive language throughout the application process while highlighting diversity and inclusion initiatives. Potential recruits want to see evidence of your DEI strategy – they will look closely at your careers site, talk to friends and check comments on platforms such as Glassdoor.  

Targeting and engaging with diverse communities and employee network groups (ENGs) is another important way to connect with minority groups and demonstrate your commitment. As Angela Ward, who co-founded our own Black Employee Network (BEN) puts it, “ENGs allow you to be your authentic self and have a safe space to say and feel what you need to. It lets you know that you’re accepted, regardless of who you are, what your sexuality is, or whatever your beliefs are.”

Unconscious bias and allyship
Investing in diversity training is also key to enhancing our understanding of key topics such as unconscious bias and how it can creep in. Allyship, where those from a majority group stand up for those in the minority, is another important concept. Mentoring is an invaluable way to help educate leaders, managers and workers. The key takeaway here is that we must all continue to learn, educate and challenge ourselves, take action and get involved.  

A lot of tough questions will need to be asked, conversations had, and many different stakeholders involved to improve DEI outcomes. Company culture may need to evolve for real progress to happen. Ask yourself, what is holding your company back from making changes? Is it resistance to cultural change from those in leadership roles? Whatever the barriers or engrained behaviours, these need to be rooted out – the very future of your organisation is at stake.  

Once you’ve established what needs to change, you can then put in place a long-term plan that will tackle the issues and help turn your DEI vision into reality. But any change must come from the top and you have to accept that it will take time to turn things around. The good news is that even companies starting from scratch can make great strides quickly and move the needle for DEI. There is so much information available and many success stories. It will require a lot of effort but the rewards are huge in terms of job satisfaction, loyalty, retention and of course the bottom line. 

As Nellie Borrero, Managing Director of Global Inclusion and Diversity at Accenture once said,  “Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice we make every day. As leaders, we have to put out the message that we embrace and not just tolerate diversity.”

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