Is DEI Sustainable in the Workspace?
Is DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) sustainable in the workplace? The simple answer is no, not as it stands today. DEI is not actionable in many organizations, instead serving mostly as a placeholder, with some acknowledgement that it needs to show up somewhere. In some cases, it manifests as a diversity statement on the organization website or static Unconscious Bias training that does not embed true awareness. In other cases, DEI is translated into an observance of annual cultural events such as Black History Month, Pride Month, and more recently, Asian History Month. Yet these events focus more on celebration without the reflection and intentional understanding of their history and the real impact on the employees and communities, groups, genders, identities, abilities and beliefs they represent.
Making DEI More Than Surface-Level
Listed above are examples of performative culturism — noting historical dates of recognition without the intent to make authentic and sustainable change in the organization. Without the drive or capability to foster true equity and inclusion, the workspace culture returns to its previous norms — which may not be an inclusive workspace for all — after the observance has passed. Authentic, actionable and sustainable change requires a systemic approach to building an inclusive workspace every day.
First, it is important to move past numbers and targets and recognize that the pillars of DEI are people-centric. DEI is about curating an environment that cultivates respect for all and recognizing every employee's individual background. This is more than diversity of thought — it is about speaking up for inclusion and embracing differences in cultures, abilities, beliefs, genders and identities. It is also about recognizing the intersectionality of customs, norms and behaviors within the employee community. Our body language, facial expressions and tone of voice can alter the meaning of words and the impact they have each other — words can either build or diminish trust in the workspace.
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How Does an Organization Put DEI Goals Into Action?
To build long-term sustainability, there must be an understanding of the organizational and cultural change that DEI requires. DEI work must hold the same importance as other organizational change strategies. And as with anything else, a diverse and inclusive workspace will not develop overnight. Continual and sustainable change requires planning, resources, focus and execution.
Inclusive leadership centered on people is also paramount. Leaders need to be aware of their impact in the workspace now more than ever. Inclusive leadership requires cultural awareness, understanding that different peoples, groups and cultures may not be comfortable speaking up in team environments. Leaders must also recognize the value of the unique insight different team members bring, being intentional and active listeners to ensure every member is heard.
Inclusive leadership is not comfortable, and it is not static. It requires an openness to learning and active listening, but most of all, inclusive leadership must be built on a platform of respect for all.
Providing a budget for DEI is also key. Many organizations try to implement DEI without providing a budget — or in some cases — by providing a limited budget tied to other departments or projects. Resources are often also shared with employees and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) trying to do DEI work off the “side of their desks.” When other projects or their regular accountabilities require focus, DEI work is pushed aside. Too often when budget restrictions are engaged within an organization, DEI is the first program that is cut. However, DEI without a targeted budget and resources will not be sustainable. As a result, any changes will be short-term and superficial. This inhibits transformation that would otherwise benefit all employees within the workspace.
Only through understanding that DEI is essential to the organization and its employees can actionable practices move forward. This requires addressing systemic barriers embedded in people programs, policies and practices that prevent employees from thriving and impairs the organization brand in terms of talent retention and sourcing. To solve this, there must be equitable opportunities within the organization that allow every employee to reach their fullest potential. Hiring, compensation, development and career progression, and eventually the employees departure from the organization must be considered.
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Systemic change requires understanding whether the intent of these programs, policies and practices positively impact employees and achieve equitable outcomes. If they don't, leaders must make potential adjustments to these programs and policies to eliminate barriers that inhibit equity of all employees. One barrier, for example, is found in talent sourcing: some recruiters eliminate candidates for roles due to an ignorance of the socioeconomic issues in different communities and groups. Taking this a step further, indicating the need for an advanced degree from a high-profile university in role descriptions puts those without access to higher education at a disadvantage. An Applicant Tracking System (ATS) also excludes certain age groups from applying for roles. Another key imperative is looking at employee health and wellness programs to sure benefits can meet the needs of diverse family structures, identities, genders, cultures, and abilities.
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The Road to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Finally, it is important to realize that DEI does not stand alone within the workspace — it is impacted by many of the demographic and workspace disruptions that have been building over the past decade, which have only accelerated since the pandemic.
- Global and diverse workforce: moving across the world — a virtual, mobile and hyperconnected workforce.
- Multigenerational workforce: five generations currently in workspace with a potential loss of knowledge and expertise as some generations begin to retire.
- The rise in artificial intelligence (AI) and innovation.
- The gig economy: contingent work arrangements.
- The rising population of non-dominate groups and the need for society and workspaces to realize that “one size does not fit all.”
Socioeconomic impacts also affect an employee's ability to be productive at work — and in some cases — getting to work. Rising inflation, financial stability, the cost of food and fuel and access to equitable health and education could all affect employee performance.
To create sustainability in DEI, all these components need to be addressed in our quest to build real equity and inclusion.
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About the Author
Ingrid is a Senior Human Resources Executive & CHRO and Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Strategist, with over 30 years of global experience in corporate human resources strategy, board and business strategy.