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DEI at Work: Where to Begin and What to Avoid

Written by
Kathleen O'Donnell
Kathleen O'Donnell

Increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace has become a higher priority for businesses today, and that’s no surprise. It’s not just the right thing to do—it drives profits as well. Companies that prioritized diversity in their executive teams outperformed their less-diverse peers by more than 25-36%, according to research from McKinsey. 🤩

But building DEI at work is about more than simply adding a training or a committee to your existing structure. (Sure, unconscious bias training is important, but don’t stop there.)

Start on the right foot, or add on to your progress effectively, by learning the five best ways to build greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in your company. And it’s just as important to know what not to do too—and this guide has all of that covered and more. Let’s dive in! ⬇️

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How to build DEI at work

The best time to start building DEI at work is right now—there’s no time like the present. And with these five guidelines for creating an effective structure to build DEI, you can get to work today.

Meaning well and feeling concern is good, but having a solid understanding of the current state, a plan to change it, and the commitment to sustainable change will take you a whole lot farther.

Want more? Check out 11 Diversity & Inclusion Stats that Will Change How You Do Business

1. Know where you stand right now

You won’t be able to significantly increase diversity, equity, and inclusion at your company unless you know where you stand at this moment. That means digging into the data—both qualitative and quantitative—to understand the current state of your employee experience.

This DEI data gathering should happen through the entire employee lifecycle, not only during exit interviews or short pulse surveys. It means asking the right questions during employee experience surveys, having ongoing conversations, and staying in collection mode so you can track your progress.

2. Create a plan and a leadership structure

Once you know exactly where your company stands in creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment today, you’ll be ready to tackle the next phase—creating a plan to make tangible, significant improvements.

Choosing a team to steer the strategy creation and execution is a great idea—people make plans happen. Ensure that the team is cross-functional to maximize your chances of success because no one department (not even HR) is solely responsible for creating a culture dedicated to diversity and inclusion.

Your plan could include elements like:

  • A DEI charter to describe the purpose of the team’s work and what success looks like.
  • Resources (both financial and otherwise) to support development activities, trainings, and events.
  • A communication strategy to keep the organization informed on progress.
  • Methods to gather employee feedback, like pulse surveys and DEI questions in your employee experience surveys.
  • Metrics to measure your progress and ensure you’re progressing towards your goals.

Having a thoughtful, strategic plan, and sharing it widely with leaders and employees alike, makes it more likely you’ll achieve your targets. Committing to sharing progress with your whole organization means you’ll be held accountable for the results, and that builds trust in your company.

3. Get leadership on board

Many companies assume that hiring a new DEI leader is enough to shift the organizational culture on its own—that’s one of the reasons why more than half of S&P 500 companies have a chief diversity officer. But those leaders often end up burned out or disillusioned within just a few years if the whole company is not truly on board with the commitment to DEI.

Hiring a chief diversity officer could be a great step for your company. But you must get your entire leadership on board with a commitment to DEI to see real progress. 50% of respondents to an SHRM study who work at DEI-laggard companies say a lack of leadership commitment hinders their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, while just 5% of employees from DEI-leader companies say they have this issue.

Leaders can help create a diverse and inclusive culture, or they can be a major stumbling block. Work hard to get your existing ones on board, and be sure you’re increasing the amount of diversity in your leadership going forward—that will also help sustain your momentum.

4. Overhaul your hiring process

Combating bias in your hiring process is essential to creating a sustainable future for your diversity and inclusion initiatives. By ensuring your new talent pipeline is full of employees who share your organization’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, you can keep your company pointed towards a brighter future.

Overhauling your hiring process to remove different forms of bias takes time, but it can be doneespecially with the development of new hiring tools to remove areas where bias tends to creep in.

For example, you may consider using a different recruiting firm if your current one consistently delivers the same narrow candidate profile, or ensuring your hiring committees represent a diverse group of employees to yield better results.

Check out this webinar on how to remove bias from your hiring process!

5. Think long-term 

Beginning a plan to increase DEI in your workplace is great, but this shouldn’t be a short-term trend. To make your DEI training and strategy effective, and trusted by your employees, you need to think long-term and commit to staying actively invested in DEI across your organization.  

Workers who lose trust in their company’s DEI efforts are more than just disappointed—40% of them would consider leaving the organization altogether, and 56% would not recommend it as a place to work to their friends and family. That number is even higher for younger employees, senior management, and LGBTQIA+ employees.

Gallup’s Inclusion Index has identified trust as one of the three main elements of a truly inclusive culture, along with respect and strengths. Employees must be able to trust that your company is really, deeply committed to increasing diversity and inclusion for the long term, not just to receive external applause for short-term steps today.

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DEI: 3 common mistakes to avoid 

Those five steps should help get you closer to a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization, no matter where you’re starting from. But it’s just as important to avoid these three common mistakes when implementing DEI at work.

1. Putting the burden on POC

For many organizations who decide they want to work on DEI in their workplace, the first step is too often asking people of color and/or women to assume most of the burden of the transition.

That might look like forming a DEI strategy committee that only contains POC, having only gay managers as the face of your Pride events, or asking your female leaders to step up much more than your male ones to increase diversity.

Including everyone in your company is, well, inclusive! But it’s also important because the people who are most likely to bear the brunt of discrimination at work shouldn’t be solely in charge of ending it. You also need buy-in, leadership, and allyship from employees and leaders who aren’t as personally affected but see the need for change and want to work hard to make it happen.

2. Being overly boastful

While it’s great that your business has made a commitment to increasing diversity and inclusion—and it’s truly never too late to begin!—it’s also not something you need to shout from the rooftops every chance you get.

Being performative about your DEI efforts can backfire. Letting your results speak for themselves is much more effective—when you do it right, your employees and people in your community will notice and share their observations with others.

Plus, while a strong DEI program is a wonderful thing to have, it’s also considered a rather basic part of being a responsibly-run business these days. And since 45% of US workers have experienced discrimination or harassment at work in the last year, there’s still a whole lot of progress to be made.

Being proud of your efforts is great! But it also shouldn’t be considered going above and beyond in 2022 when you hire women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ folks in more proportionate numbers and promote them to leadership. It’s simply how things should be everywhere.

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3. Ignoring the small things 

There’s a need to focus on the overarching strategic goals of your organization when you’re trying to build a more diverse and inclusive culture. But the small things shouldn’t be missed either—they can also have a real impact on how employees feel about DEI at work.

For example, don’t ignore elements like celebrating the holidays inclusively in your workplace, or asking your leadership team to add their pronouns in their email signatures.

These might be small steps, but they can signal a shift in your workplace culture that helps everyone to feel safe and included. Aiming big is important, but don’t ignore the small stuff along the way.

Takeaway

Building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace is a great goal for any business, no matter where your company currently stands. It’s never too late to begin, and you’ll be surprised at how a small commitment can grow into some big changes.

But to make your DEI at work efforts effective and meaningful, you must work strategically and include the entire organization in this work, or it will become little more than a talking point in your annual report.

Looking to understand how your employees feel right now about your organization’s diversity and inclusion, and where they’d like to go? Using Bonusly Signals, you can ask employees what they think and reward them for their feedback too. 

And, check out this latest resource!

Employee Appreciation White Paper

Originally published on March 31, 2022 → Last updated March 31, 2022

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Kathleen O'Donnell

Kathleen is a freelance writer and employee communications specialist, with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications. She’s also a full-time traveler who loves spending her time writing in little Greek cafes about life as a digital nomad.

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