Diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace

Over the last 5 years, society as a whole and workplaces specifically have started to invest more time, attention, and resources into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Despite these topics being more commonly talked about, confusion still exists about what they mean and how a workplace can embrace them.

What is DEI?

DEI is an acronym that stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sometimes, the acronym can include other concepts like justice, belonging, and accessibility, and the letters can be arranged in other orders. This could include DEIB, JEDI, EDI, and DEIA.

Although these terms have been condensed to an acronym, they are distinct.

Diversity means differences or variety in a group

  • Typically, people associate specific identities like race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical ability with this term. But diversity can also include variety in life experiences, perspectives, and preferences. 
  • The opposite of diversity is when a group is homogenous, meaning they are largely similar in terms of identities, attitudes, beliefs, and/or experiences.

Equity is about creating balance in a group.

  • This is best done by understanding that people need different things in order to succeed or contribute. Sometimes, this leads to some people getting something that others don’t receive at all or getting something unique. For example, not everyone learns in the same way and some people have disabilities that affect how they learn. To embrace equity, an organization would provide the content in a variety of formats (e.g., in-person, virtual, self-paced, audio, video) and then implement accommodations for individuals with disabilities.
  • Equality is commonly confused with equity. What makes equality different is that everyone is given the same thing, regardless of their individual circumstances or needs. So, equality would occur if an organization was to require every employee to complete the same course in a single format.

Inclusion focuses on whether someone feels valued and wanted in a group.

  • When inclusion is present in an organization, people feel seen and heard. They sense that they're viewed as important and necessary to the group and are able to contribute their best effort.
  • The opposite of inclusion is when people just exist in the group and are not really allowed to contribute to the group's efforts. For instance, someone could be asked to join a team decision-making process, but their perspectives aren’t considered by the group during that process.

What is the purpose of DEI?

At its core, DEI is a framework for ensuring that everyone is able to be their best selves in society and the workplace. Rather than assume that everyone experiences the world the same way we do, thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion helps us realize that some people encounter obstacles to success that others don’t.

One main way DEI can give us new perspectives is by countering the way our brains work. For instance, our brains default to what is called the in-group bias, meaning that we tend to favor people whom we perceive to be “like us.” This can lead us to care only about the perspectives of those who think, act, or believe similar things to what we do. By embracing DEI, we give ourselves a chance to recognize when this brain preference is happening so we can do something different and create a welcoming space for everyone.

Ultimately, DEI encourages groups to be intentional about how they interact with each other. When a group is thinking about and taking action in each of these three realms, it is more likely they are creating a positive experience for all.

How do you demonstrate DEI in the workplace?

Workplaces can demonstrate a commitment to DEI in numerous ways. Below are seven strategies that all organizations should pursue.

1. Evaluate the makeup of your current workforce, job applicants and others. 

Organizations should assess the experiences and perspectives represented in their entire employee population, as well as those of senior leadership, board members, clients, funders, donors (as applicable), and job applicants. This work can uncover potential opportunities to build diversity within the organization at some or all levels.

2. Examine recruitment, hiring, daily work, and promotion practices.

These practices are the foundation for determining who enters into the organization and who ends up staying in it over time. Companies are more likely to be equitable when they:

  • are transparent about pay
  • offer flexible work schedules (as much as possible)
  • are inclusive in the language used in their position descriptions
  • follow an objective process for applicant recruitment, hiring and performance review processes 
  • treat all employees as people rather than task doers

3. Analyze and address complaints and concerns about workplace culture.

This data can highlight areas of the organization where bias or disrespect are underming fairness and inclusion. When an issue has gotten to the point where someone is reporting it, it needs to be taken seriously, even if it seems “minor” or like a “misunderstanding.” Keep in mind that having zero DEI-related complaints doesn't necessarily mean an organization is doing a good job in this area. It can sometimes mean they've created an environment where employees don't believe leadership really cares about (or will act on) their input. Companies could look at data they might already have available through things like engagement surveys, reports to Human Resources or whistleblower hotlines, DEI-related course surveys, and exit interviews. Supplements to this data might be conversations that employees have had with their supervisors, comments in organization forums like town halls, and feedback provided by customers.

4. Consider the assumptions that are built into the organization’s processes.

Organizations reflect a combination of many different processes, all of which were designed and are implemented on the basis of assumptions. Some of those assumptions may be counter to the goals of DEI. For instance, a company could assess which holidays it observes and what identities or perspectives those holidays prioritize. Or, they could review a promotion policy that narrows the pool of possible candidates by requiring supervisory experience when such experience is actually not actually necessary for fulfilling the job requirements. Identifying policies that block inclusion can be difficult, so organizations should ask their employees for input on practices and policies they feel may be overly-benefiting certain groups or blocking opportunities for advancement. 

5. Provide DEI training and development opportunities. 

Everyone benefits from learning that builds self-awareness, and awareness of others. DEI is constantly changing and evolving, and it is not possible for someone to know everything about it just simply by taking a single training course. Exploring subtopics such as identifying and overcoming bias, or being an ally or “upstander” for the respectful treatment of all, is crucial to long-term success. To truly be effective, organizations should ensure their employees are building skills related to DEI on a regular basis. Organizational efforts could include regular blurbs in company newsletters, required or encouraged training, book clubs, curated lists of podcasts and other media, structured conversations between different groups of employees, and ongoing discussions at company-wide and team or department meetings.

6. Create gathering spaces for employees.

Many organizations are creating what are called employee resource groups (ERGs) or employee affinity groups. These are opportunities for employees of specific identities or perspectives, and those who support them, to come together on a regular basis for connection and community care. Despite an organization’s best efforts at DEI, it is still likely that individuals will not always feel a sense of belonging in the workplace. These groups can help employees navigate those experiences. ERGs are most effective when they have been created by the employees directly, are facilitated by employees directly, and receive funding from the organization for relevant expenses.

7. Set DEI goals that align with business needs.

Regardless of how many DEI-related initiatives an organization has, goal-setting is a key driver of culture improvement. When setting goals, companies should consider how having a DEI-oriented workplace will help them with things like employee retention and engagement, talent recruitment strategies, innovation, and the reduction of problematic behaviors like bias, harassment, and discrimination. Goals should encompass both big and small initiatives that can lead to a positive impact on the business’s outcomes. These goals should be created collaboratively with employees and progress on them must be shared regularly.

The work of diversity, equity, and inclusion is ongoing in both society and the workplace. To do the work well, companies must invest time and resources, and be willing to reflect on the impact of their practices. Organizations that are dedicated to creating environments that prioritize these values are ones where employees have the opportunity to do their best work and to not be distracted by negative experiences.

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