Employees are increasingly looking to their workplace as an environment to learn from each other and celebrate what makes everyone unique. More and more, they even decide which employer to work for based on their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). But it’s not just employees focusing on DEI; many investors are now basing investment decisions and proxy votes, at least in part, on the quality of a company’s DEI programs. In some cases, prospective customers and partners also inquire about DEI as one of the factors when determining whether to do business together.
It’s critically important for companies to create or refine their DEI strategy, knowing it can have long-term implications on everything from company growth to recruitment efforts and access to capital. So, where do you start?
Set The Tone From The Top
While DEI programs often sit within HR/People teams, these teams aren’t the ultimate owners of their effectiveness. Everyone at a company must take ownership of making a workplace diverse, inclusive and equitable; however, as the ultimate decision-maker, the CEO has outsized influence in the effectiveness of DEI initiatives. Leaders who engage in said initiatives from the highest levels can leverage their influence and success for the benefit of others.
Creating value for customers, employees and shareholders is one way of doing so. Another way is to look for ways to ensure that a broader group of society has access to opportunities and can share in the benefits of working for a great company.
All of that said, CEOs can and should only do so much. Part of the goal of DEI initiatives is to empower employees to create an environment where they can safely discuss and mobilize around these issues themselves. The CEO can help create that environment, but they’re only one person. For these initiatives to scale, you need a group of engaged employees across departments to become involved and inspire their teams to do the same.
Empower Passionate Employees
It’s amazing how authenticity and passion about an issue can rapidly catalyze action within a company. This is true for DEI initiatives, given how salient topics of diversity, equity and inclusion are today. Employees who genuinely care about these issues and want to affect change in their organizations are often successful in mobilizing other stakeholders and team members in their efforts.
Leaders would do well to identify culture “carriers” and other influencers in the company and empower them in roles where they could have a say in setting the DEI agenda at the company. The hope is that the topics and programming are reflective of the diverse needs of your employees. One way of ensuring that many different needs are considered is by assembling a cross-functional team of employees who are passionate about DEI. These employees can speak to their own needs, as well as the needs of other people in their department and ensure they’re incorporated into plans. This approach shows your employees that DEI programs are truly by the people and for the people. It also helps employees buy into these programs, knowing that their voices were listened to.
Attracting diverse talent and creating an equitable and inclusive work environment are important steps, but they aren’t the only considerations. Ultimately, it’s the experience of belonging and feeling like you’re adding value to the company that creates long-term retention.
At my company, for example, we leverage employee affinity groups, provide mentoring and support the building of strong relationships between managers and employees to help create a more welcoming and inclusive work environment. We measure our progress in quarterly employee engagement surveys.
Go Beyond Lip Service
Employees may have previously experienced working at companies where they felt DEI initiatives weren’t genuine but instead were paying lip service to the topic, were performative or were simply doing the bare minimum as required by law. Your organization has a real opportunity to change this perception by walking the walk and truly ensuring all your business and people practices are welcoming and inclusive of all employees.
You can walk the walk by setting a strong tone from the top and by empowering passionate and knowledgeable employees to learn what their colleagues want and to create DEI initiatives that are tailored to these specific needs. In doing so, you’ll see how DEI reaches all corners of your company. DEI not only affects the big picture, like how you attract and retain diverse talent, but also the minutiae, for example, of how you organize into employee affinity groups and share experiences on sensitive topics.
It’s Your Responsibility
There are some who say that creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce shouldn’t be a focus of executive management. However, there are many tangible benefits of a robust, successful DEI initiative. It improves business performance and relationships with employees, investors and customers … while making our world a better place for all.
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