Why Diversity, Equity And Inclusion Matter More Than Ever—And What Leaders Can Do About It

By Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer, Ideal Outcomes Inc.

There’s hardly a company in America that doesn’t have a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. But planning for DEI is one thing. The reality can be something entirely different.

McKinsey’s research into what’s been called the “Great Resignation” found that employers cited “compensation, work-life balance and poor physical and emotional health” as primary reasons employees quit. Their employees, in contrast, listed not feeling valued by their organizations or their managers as their top reasons. Some 51% reported that they left a company because they didn’t feel a sense of belonging — a sentiment that was greater among nonwhite employees.

A similar disconnect between the views of leadership and employees was highlighted in a multiyear, cross-industry diversity and inclusion survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers. While 75% of leadership maintained that diversity was a value or priority, nearly one-third of respondents felt diversity was a “barrier to progression.” Only 4% of organizations, according to the survey, were successfully implementing key elements of diversity and inclusion. And while 26% of business leaders believe their organizations leveraged affinity groups — long considered a foundational component of diversity and inclusion programs — only 12% of employees agreed.

What can senior leaders do to make sure they address diversity, equity and inclusion in ways that are meaningful to the workforce and enhance workplace culture?

Review the behavior of the management team.
Are there toxic leaders who don’t make their people feel valued or who exhibit bias of one kind or another? Such leaders are a main reason good people leave, even when they don’t have a new job lined up.

Don’t turn a blind eye to the issue. To address it, first look to yourself — and don’t be defensive. Honestly explore your own conduct to see if your influence could be the root cause of the toxicity. Ask your peers to level with you as well. That said, don’t shy away from having a straightforward conversation with any manager showing toxic tendencies, and give them an opportunity to pivot.

Dig deep to discover diversity issues.
What might be considered “normal” in many workplace cultures can actually alienate a section of the workforce. For instance, Ruchika Tulshyan, author of Inclusion on Purpose, gave the example of companies that routinely host social events that include alcohol. Such occasions can exclude employees whose religion, culture or health prevent them from imbibing.

How can you uncover diversity and inclusion issues within your organization? I find that the best approach is to hold frequent group listening sessions, and, more importantly, provide opportunities for private one-on-one conversations. In group meetings, you can identify individuals who dominate as well as those who might be excluded or undermined. Never downplay or minimize someone’s concerns.

Seek wider input.
Gather the perspectives of a wide range of employees. How do they regard the company’s DEI initiatives? Are they constructive? Do they make a difference? What could be done better?

Once you gain this feedback, it’s imperative to act on it and make employees aware of any steps you are taking in response. If you do nothing, it’s worse than having asked in the first place. Applaud team members for their input, and share the positive changes with their colleagues.

Foster a sense of community.
Does your company have a genuine, compelling DEI program? Do your leaders build a team spirit and camaraderie — something that has become even more difficult with the expansion of remote work? What do you do to make everyone feel equally appreciated no matter their gender, skin color, race, religion or sexual orientation?

There are many ways to foster a sense of community. To get started, designate time during the week for employees to get together for an event, like a potluck, that is not related to work. This way, they can share information about what’s going on in their lives, hobbies, social activities and so forth. Even if team members are working remotely, you can have a virtual “happy hour.”

Embrace cognitive diversity.
There’s a kind of diversity that might not be quite so obvious: cognitive diversity. Simply put, this means assembling a team of people with different attributes, varied thinking styles and contrasting perspectives. There’s always a temptation for like-minded people to attract and work with one another, but being open to people with diverse viewpoints and attitudes avoids the danger of groupthink and produces better results.

Allow your team to open up.
Promote an open culture in which everyone feels they can freely speak their mind without fear of adverse reactions. An atmosphere in which individuals can honestly express their views not only helps to eliminate bias but also leads to fruitful debates that boost business.

Go beyond the numbers.
Twenty-five years after sharing their research on diversity, Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Organizations have largely failed to adopt a learning orientation toward diversity and are no closer to reaping its benefits.” They also said, “Increasing the numbers of traditionally underrepresented people in your workforce does not automatically produce benefits.”

The best thing a leader can do is lead by example. Leaders have the responsibility to establish the tone of the organization and maintain it. They also need to make sure managers follow suit and next-level leaders have the training to do the same. A mentoring program is extremely effective.

Prioritize diversity from beginning to end. 
Organizations need to be conscious of the need to train for diversity. It’s not going to happen by itself. Such training must happen throughout the year; it’s not just an annual exercise. Almost certainly, companies will need to introduce training at all levels from bottom to top.

Integrate DEI practices into every aspect of your business, including hiring, training and performance reviews all the way through to exit interviews. A comprehensive approach and all-in strategies are the only ways to succeed.

As Dagny Dukach wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “No matter where in the world or the power structure we find ourselves, we all have a part to play in identifying and remedying inequity.”