Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work and the great divide in opinions regarding it has become a point of focus in recent headlines. One common — and very polarizing — debate is: Should we or shouldn't we implement DEI in our organization, and if we do, should we make it mandatory for all employees?
To cut through the confusing rhetoric, the answer is yes, it's absolutely necessary. New research reveals that 89% agree that DEI in the workplace is important. Generation Z (the most diverse American generation yet) is entering the workforce and they are looking for employers that embody and acknowledge their diversity. In addition, customers and employees alike expect organizations to speak up about social issues and they are voting with their dollars and loyalty.
DEI initiatives that backfire generally do so because they create division within the workplace, for some employees it can seem like "too much" or "not worthwhile," and for others, it can feel like "not enough." Given this polarization, organizations are increasingly expected to bridge the DEI divide.
Consider these three proven strategies to unite rather than divide your organization:
- Establish a baseline
- Monitor, listen and adjust
- Keep it energized, consistent and continuing
Related: 10 Ideas to Drive Your DEI Initiatives in 2023
Establish a baseline
Start by establishing a baseline. Survey all members of the organization to understand their perceptions of DEI. You can't determine where you need to go and what needs to be done if you don't know where you are starting. The information gathered can help inform and identify how to shape and improve initiatives. Map out the entire employee experience — recruiting, hiring and performance management — and use it to analyze any disconnect with marginalized groups. Consider race, gender, LGBTQ+, disability and age to assess who the organization is attracting, retaining, promoting and losing. It is not uncommon to uncover that marginalized groups are not being retained or promoted as frequently as the majority group.
The information from your survey and employee experience assessment will establish the baseline and identify where you need to go. Gather senior leadership and those passionate about DEI inside the organization and ask the following questions: What are we trying to achieve? Why are we doing DEI work?
Monitor, listen and adjust
Once an organization has gathered baseline data, crafted its mission statement and engaged everyone, the next step is to monitor how the initiative is received and the progress it is making within the organization. DEI is both quantitative and qualitative, be sure to continue to gather data, with surveys, focus groups or listening sessions to gather feedback. These efforts will enable you to make any necessary modifications to your initiative as conditions evolve over time. Consider asking employees: What obstacles do we have to an inclusive workplace? What are we doing well for DEI? What is one thing we could do to better support DEI?
The feedback you gather should identify issues that consistently arise, they typically center around the lack of middle management engagement, inauthentic commitment, not enough time and lack of prioritization. By listening to the feedback from your employees, you are doing two very positive things: You're demonstrating a higher level of commitment to DEI to employees by allowing them to feel heard and that their input matters, and you're identifying issues as they arise and adjusting your DEI initiative to meet those needs. No organization is where they want to be with DEI, but the key to a successful DEI initiative is to be honest about the gaps rather than pretending they do not exist.
Related: Is This Diversity and Inclusion Concept the Missing Link for Real Change?
Keep it energized, consistent and continuing
The one-and-done, check-the-box DEI training and activities often polarize organizations further. DEI is more than just training; it is an intentional set of activities that drive diverse representation, inclusivity and systemic equity. Rather than a big event or public relations statement, consider these proven activities: DEI communications, enrichment opportunities and, most importantly, work to de-bias and create equitable systems. Offering a range of ways for individuals to participate in a meaningful and comfortable way will encourage continued engagement.
A steady pulse of consistent and clear DEI communication from all levels of the organization, on a regular basis, demonstrates to people a long-term, genuine commitment. Rather than divide an organization with forced training that shames and blames people; meet people where they're at by listening to them and clearly defining the opportunities. Communicating progress, even if the organization's current situation is not ideal, is important to energize all involved in the efforts because progress always outweighs perfection.
DEI will continue to be polarizing unless we engage more allies
in the conversation. Remember, most people are in the middle. Research shows that DEI can be ineffective when it is not supported at senior levels and the impact is not measured. However, when the commitment is intentional and consistent by leadership and measured over time, organizations see positive results. DEI is a competitive advantage. Two case studies illustrate how DEI can unite or divide organizations by tapping into three proven strategies — establish a baseline, plan and communicate; monitor, listen and adjust; then keep it energized, consistent and continuing.
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