Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are no longer nice-to-have qualities for successful organisations – they are table stakes.
This raised level of importance is based on the fact that today organisations have a legitimate business interest in making it a priority. They must also recognise that DEI is beneficial from a social justice perspective and that it contributes to the overall good of society. Most importantly, it is simply the right thing to do!
Coming back to the business case for DEI, there’s a war for talent, and both prospective hires and employees are looking for companies with robust DEI initiatives – and they’ll be more than happy to walk down the street to the competitor if they find that efforts in this area are lacking.
If you still need to be convinced, data shows that more diverse organisations are more profitable: Ethnically and culturally diverse organisations have a 33% likelihood of outperforming their peers on EBIT margin, and inclusive organisations report a 54% increase in creativity, innovation, and openness.
The case for embracing DEI, then, is fairly clear – but how can leaders get started with taking a sometimes abstract concept and putting it into practice?
Everyone on the same page
A great starting point is ensuring that there is understanding throughout the organisation around what DEI actually is. The terms “diversity, equity, and inclusion” are often used interchangeably, but it’s worth unpacking each item a little bit to understand what they’re about.
Diversity is the presence of difference within a given setting, both visible and invisible. That means people of different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences of identity (including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, information processing style and so on) are represented.
Equity is about creating a fair playing field for all. It involves providing different types of support to ensure that everyone has a fair chance of being successful – i.e., being deliberate about access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups.
Inclusion is about creating an environment where individuals feel welcomed, respected, heard, valued, and encouraged to be their authentic selves. It encompasses aspects of involvement and empowerment, about an employee truly feeling like they belong.
These are different concepts that have to be approached in different ways – although not necessarily in the order organisations might think.
“I” before “D”
In many ways, the term DEI is a bit misleading because the “I” and “E” should come first. You can’t bring in and maintain diversity until you create a truly inclusive and welcoming environment.
Likewise, you can’t create that inclusive environment unless you’re willing to understand that you sometimes have to give different people different things to create a truly equitable arrangement. To take a fairly straightforward example, you wouldn’t hire a non-sighted employee and give them the exact same company-issued laptop as sighted employees. In that scenario, you’d have to provide them with something more than what you’re providing everyone else to achieve equity, and that would be the fair and right thing to do – and would naturally lead to more diversity.
Don’t trust your gut
To further foster an inclusive culture, leaders should tackle implicit bias. Everyone has some degree of bias within them – it’s perfectly natural, and it’s what makes us human. But it’s important to recognise and make that bias conscious to ensure it isn’t impacting decision-making.
For example, there’s a tendency in many organisations to make decisions about who gets hired, who gets promoted, or who gets assigned to a high-profile project based on “gut feelings.” More often than not, these gut feelings are simply biases in disguise.
These biases are fed by the fact that, as humans, we tend to want to help people who are like us – whether that’s people who look like us, people who went to the same university we did, or people who otherwise seem “similar” to us.
The problem is that if you follow your gut and only gravitate towards similar people, then you’re automatically excluding a vast swath of the population. You’re not giving equal opportunity to everyone, and you’re not being inclusive.
Do the hard work
To counter this tendency, leaders need to do the hard work of taking the time to reflect on what type of biases they might be unknowingly harbouring. They should ask themselves: In my personal life, are most of my close friends similar to me in background, appearance, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and other factors – or are they different? In the neighbourhood where I live, are the majority of the people similar to me or different? Within my professional career, have most of my role models and mentors been similar to me or different?
The answers to these questions will help leaders uncover their own biases so that they can successfully manage them. Additionally, leaders should slow down and be very intentional about the decisions they’re making around hiring and promotions or who’s being provided with rotation opportunities.
Leaders have a key role to play in setting the tone for the organisation by undertaking this work themselves. At the same time, leadership should make clear what it expects from managers and other employees when it comes to creating a positive, inclusive work environment – and there should be accountability for people who are working at cross-purposes toward this goal.
More inclusion = more knowledge
It’s worth repeating that these efforts are worth it for multiple reasons, including societal good – and better business outcomes. In addition to impacting those who come to work at the company and those who stay, at a time when competition for talent is fierce, organisations can institutionalise more collective wisdom when they are more inclusive and hear from more voices. In a field where knowledge is the fuel that powers the work, few efforts could have a bigger payoff than creating a foundation for DEI to flourish.