BUILDING A DIVERSE, equitable, and inclusive organization is a journey that requires getting the initial steps right. For many business leaders, however, knowing where to start can be challenging. A successful initiative, according to experts, requires organizational introspection, a dedicated plan with clear and measurable goals, and company-wide commitment.
Meeting your goals may entail a complete cultural shift, according to Shaara Roman, founder of consultancy The Silverene Group, so spend time up front thinking about the culture you wish to create. She suggests looking at DEI through “the broadest lens” of inclusion and belonging to ensure that everyone feels safe “to be who they actually are” and can speak up without being marginalized.
To prevent it from becoming a tick-box exercise without employee engagement, a DEI plan should also align with business objectives. Some team members will likely be less enthused than others, and without concrete goals that reflect the company’s biggest aspirations, getting company-wide commitment can be difficult, explains Jennifer Brown, president and CEO of diversity and inclusion advisory firm Jennifer Brown Consulting.
“People sometimes want to give up or they want to ignore [DEI] or deny that it's important,” she notes. “There are all kinds of things people use to avoid engaging with this topic, so it needs to be very well aligned to the entire organization, as well as connected to business outcomes.”
Start at the Top
Leadership buy-in is critical for a DEI initiative: “top to bottom, with an emphasis on being driven from the top,” Brown says.
That’s because leaders set the tone for an organization. “People around them want to mimic them … It influences how we work, how we show up, how we treat people, and how we talk to and about each other,” says Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces. “When the senior leaders … start acting in a more inclusive way and acting as allies for people with less privilege than they have … they can have a ripple effect throughout the whole organization.”
Senior leaders can’t be the only ones dedicated to diversity however, Catlin adds. Second-tier managers, who can be too focused on existing objectives to make DEI a priority as well, must also be fully on board for a DEI initiative to succeed. Getting them on board by clearly stating that participation isn’t optional is the job of the CEO, president, or business owner who runs the company.
Like anything else a business does, metrics matter in DEI efforts. Catlin suggests measuring inclusion first using pulse surveys that ask staff about feelings of belonging, whether their voice matters, and if they have opportunities to grow their career, for example. This will obviously elicit different answers depending on whom you’re asking. “And that’s really important learning,” Brown notes, especially for people who believe that everything's fine because the system works for them.
Roman agrees, noting that assessing the firm’s current culture—from all employees’ perspectives, not just that of the majority—will help you understand where you need to go and how to get there. She suggests following an initial survey with focus groups and interviews that engage a wide variety of people in the organization. Questions should probe how employees perceive:
- Company interactions and decisions
- Performance management
- Access to leadership programs
Avoid focusing only on superficial issues, Roman advises, and “really dig” to find out what the systemic problems are in your organization instead.
Other measurements to watch include diversity-related demographic trends in your workforce, says Brown. For example, how long do new hires stay? Are new hires advancing to more senior roles? Are the answers the same for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender? “Often I see women and people of color falling out of the pipeline,” Brown notes.