It’s the perennial question: How can organizations advance diversity and inclusion? Certainly, they can create demographic goals and improve their talent practices, train managers and update diversity, equity and inclusion plans each year. But will those efforts meaningfully move the needle? As Black History Month draws to a close, let’s take a step back and look at the wider picture to ensure your organization prioritizes DE&I year-round.
The past year saw more people reevaluating their work, moving into new industries or leaving jobs altogether, as well as physically relocating. One of the drivers is a desire for more purpose in work and life. Many workers are realizing that their jobs are impacting their physical and mental health, and they’re in pursuit of opportunities that align with their passions and offer more flexibility and fulfillment. This prioritization of purpose ultimately makes people feel more connected to their employers and the work they’re doing. A recent study by ADP Research Institute found that U.S. workers who feel a strong connection to their employer are 75 times more likely to be fully engaged than those who do not feel connected. The goal, then, is to build a sense of purpose to drive greater connection and to cultivate an environment where everyone feels supported and empowered.
However, if organizations struggle when it comes to DE&I, they may be challenged to create that environment. Ultimately, a DE&I commitment must begin and end with leaders, who need to create the right conditions for success. They need to build an environment in which people can be their true, authentic selves and apply their unique strengths and capabilities to accomplish business goals. Establishing this foundation precedes the advancement of DE&I in the workplace. It is the guiding principle that enables organizations to attract good people, grow them and retain them.
Then, turn to these five approaches to help build a sustainable DE&I strategy.
1. Think Long-Term, Not Event-Driven
Historically, we’ve seen a pattern when employers confront issues of inequality. When a significant societal event happens or even when a time of year like Black History Month occurs, employers typically follow with a great deal of energy and focus on improving DE&I. Changes are made, plans are put into place and actions are taken. But then, over time, interest wanes and in sets complacency. People become frustrated and, as time progresses, the next significant, catalyzing event happens, and the cycle begins again.
However, the key to a successful DE&I plan is to stay the course and set up programs and goals that will be long-term in nature. This helps leadership think about DE&I in a more comprehensive way—about where they want to be five to 10 years down the road, as compared to solely focusing on what’s happening today. Create goals and weave them through your culture, your hiring practices, your leadership behaviors and your compensation. There will be opportunities to adjust your plan along the way, but always keep the big picture in focus.
2. Make a Strong Business Case
Organizations have often missed opportunities to advance DE&I by staying within the boundaries of HR. The focus has been on talent practices, for instance, and measuring demographics, all of which are important components. But there is a wider picture to consider. For any business strategy to work, it must be tied to the economic success of the organization. DE&I is no exception. For any DE&I goal, discuss what connection it has to the business. For example, will these goals help us better reflect the communities and clients we serve? What is the impact on client acquisition and client retention? Explore the connection between talent practices and business practices to set clear, impactful goals.
3. Design a Data-driven Vision
Once you’ve established the business case and created a long-term vision, it’s time to operationalize it. Because discussions around DE&I can be emotional, use the scientific method to help guide your approach:
- Make observations: “Our sales team does not reflect the diversity of our communities.”
- Create a hypothesis: “If we better diversify our sales staff and sales management, we can target and gain new clients.”
- Conduct research: For example: What does your current salesforce look like? Are there pay equity issues? Do certain groups get promoted at a slower rate than others? What does your data tell you?
After you’ve identified the gaps, create actions to close them. For example, if women and Latin Americans are underrepresented in sales leadership and are promoted less often, one action might be to establish a development program including mentors and stretch assignments. Over time, starting with a baseline, measure the representation of your prospects and clients. If your hypothesis is valid, you might begin to see a change. If it isn’t, ask a different question, collect data and create new actions. By rooting DE&I in this scientific approach, based on data and aimed at a business goal, you can then hold managers accountable and tie their compensation to success in these areas.
4. Create the Right Conditions for Success
To achieve these DE&I goals, it’s up to the leader to create the right conditions for success. Unfortunately, in many organizations, performance feedback happens infrequently, annually or quarterly. But people need real-time information to be their best. Especially in this competitive labor market, it’s essential to keep employees feeling engaged and connected to the organization every day. This means creating a work environment where each of your team members feels seen, valued and heard for all that they are.
Start with an assessment of the person’s strengths. By building on their natural talents, leaders have a clearer path to strong performance. It also lets them know that you acknowledge and value those strengths. Conduct regular weekly, light-touch conversations with team members about near-term work to understand their priorities, what they’re working on and where they need direction or support. Then measure goals, connection and engagement to gauge progress.
5. Build Connection
Connection is the feeling that you’re seen and valued for your uniqueness. In other words, you feel safe to present yourself authentically and to voice your thoughts and opinions. You’re confident that you’ll be given a fair shot at succeeding and that you’ll be assessed only on your actual contribution to the organization. ADP Research Institute’s study found that those who have no intention of leaving are seven times more likely to be strongly connected to their employers. Not surprisingly, those who are experiencing discrimination are six times less likely to be strongly connected, and two times more likely to be not connected. Creating that connection depends on leaders valuing their people, building on their strengths, and giving them opportunities to excel and grow.
In addition to fostering a sense of connection, it’s also helpful to find opportunities for employees to help shape the organization. Such opportunities might include career and development avenues, mentorships, business resource groups or charitable activities that the organization supports. This holistic lens is important. If employees feel they are paid fairly, that they can contribute and be their very best, that their voice is heard, that their leaders listen to them and that they can make a difference, then the likelihood of their staying in that organization is strong.
The future of DE&I is based in science and data. In thinking more like a scientist—by asking questions, researching, measuring and evolving—you can stay open to new possibilities within your organization and the world of work. It’s through this meaningful assessment that you can build strategies that can begin to make a systemic difference to the people you support and the business outcomes you’re achieving.