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4 lessons learned for infusing DEI into your corporate culture

Donnebra McClendon, Ceridian
Donnebra McClendon
Donnebra McClendon is Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) at Ceridian. She is responsible for designing and driving policies and programs to ensure equity and fairness across the organization. McClendon first joined Ceridian in 2004.

Best practices enhance any business effort—and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives need them as well.

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Despite good intentions by companies to enhance DEI, research indicates that frontline hourly employees, the backbone of many companies, are nearly 20% less likely than corporate employees to believe that DEI policies are effective. Also, in Ceridian’s latest global survey of 2,000 business leaders, 90% indicate that they have a DEI strategy—which is a solid start—but only one-third say actual progress is being made.

This isn’t surprising to me. Changing long-standing ways of thinking and working is hard and, often, a slow process. The final aim is not to have a DEI office or strategy at all, but instead to have the tenets of diversity, equity and inclusion be as foundational to your company as anything else.

In leading Ceridian’s DEI journey, I’ve identified four lessons to help create a sustainable, effective DEI journey that nets real results:

Pack a lunch. If you’re building a DEI practice from the ground up, which many companies are, pace yourself. Building any sustainable initiative takes time. It’ll be tempting to try to do too much, too fast, which may foster shallow versus deep changes. Someone can draft a DEI mission statement in a day, but creating a diverse supply chain or revamping talent acquisition to reduce unconscious bias may require changes in dozens of processes and input from dozens of people and teams.

At Ceridian, we adopted a DEI strategy in 2021 that had 14 pillars. They all looked great—on paper. Three months in, we realized we were spreading ourselves too thin by reaching so broad. We narrowed our focus to seven areas to ensure real progress over three years. We couldn’t concentrate on outreach and engagement, for example, until we had our DEI vision or communication process. Vision and communication, along with leadership, structure, recruitment, development, learning and assessment, constitute our seven pillars.

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Build a DEI-focused network. This is invaluable whether you’re the only dedicated “DEI” person or one of several on a team. When we all help each other and share best practices, we get farther, faster, than if everybody works alone. My first network connection after taking this job was my cousin, who was deeply ensconced in DEI work at Georgia Tech. I asked her, “How do you do this work? How do you stay motivated?” She shared her experience, which helped me.

My use of networks has expanded to Ceridian’s customers. As they worked on their DEI efforts, they reached out to me. We established regular conference calls to discuss what was working and what wasn’t and to glean tips on such things as measuring progress. One of our customer networks centered on professional sports teams and related companies, many of which were new to DEI work. That network has grown to almost 100 participants. We meet quarterly to assess best practices.

See also: How data and transparency are driving DE&I success at Deloitte

My network has also extended the bench of people I can rely on for help. I now consider members of Ceridian’s sales team as part of my network because they interact directly with customers. They also see me as part of their team.

Rally the people. If there was one tip I needed to hear as I started this work it was, “Rally the people.” DEI is not something that any one person, or even one team, can instill in a company culture. Everybody needs to be on board. Sometimes, considerations around DEI might get pushed aside when business deadlines near. Frontline leaders, in particular, are always under pressure to deliver for the bottom line. They might not feel like they have time to participate in a DEI training with so many other deadlines looming. When hitting this kind of roadblock, I find it useful to remind people what’s in it for them and their team. For instance, you might point out that DEI drives more profitable results. Also, encourage people to share their DEI stories and experiences to build connections with others.

Measure small wins. Big wins, such as changing a mindset about unconscious bias, for instance, can be very hard to measure. But small wins can pop up frequently, and they should be measured and celebrated. For instance, if you host a DEI-focused webinar that draws a big audience or an engaged chat, celebrate that and tell people about it. One small win for one of our sports teams was strong participation in a newly established six-week DEI training certification. A steady drumbeat of small wins creates momentum and trust among a workforce that progress is being made even when headlines fall away.

More on DEI: HR lessons to learn from Uber’s suspension of its DEI chief

Keeping momentum going

Everybody starts DEI initiatives with good intentions, but people can lose momentum when they don’t have the support they need, when business needs take over and when DEI is seen as separate from what’s good for the entire company. If DEI leaders pace themselves, build networks, rally people and celebrate success, momentum will more likely carry them through the rough spots.

As DEI initiatives grow and mature, DEI will become integrated into everything. That’s when organizations truly become diverse, equitable and inclusive.