Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) isn’t a leadership trend: it’s a permanent commitment.
DEI has been under the spotlight more than ever in recent years due in part to the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing acknowledgment of LGBTQ+ equality. This has led to many organisations making bold statements and grand gestures in the adoption of DEI strategies, only for their good intentions to fizzle out in the face of frustration at the lack of real progress.
According to Ella F. Washington, writing for Harvard Business Review, the problem lies with a short-term attitude and the failure to put the correct culture and structures in place before making the big DEI moves – this can result in employees feeling marginalised and the company saddled with a reputation for hollow promises.
In the HBR article, Washington – a Georgetown professor and organisational psychologist – outlines five stages towards a mature and robust DEI strategy: ‘aware’, ‘compliant’, ‘tactical’, ‘integrated’ and ‘sustainable’.
According to Washington, organisations entering the ‘aware’ stage are typically successful older companies that haven’t prioritised DEI before, or startups whose ‘survival mode’ culture has prevented creation of strong human-capital practices.
Awareness – possibly due some kind of ‘wake-up call’ – results in “high-minded public statements” regarding their DEI intentions and attitudes.
However, what’s really necessary, insists Washington, is for these companies’ leaders to complete honest assessment internally. They should ask themselves two key questions:
- Why does DEI really matter to us? Leaders should explore colleagues’ personal experiences of discrimination and diversity within the organisation and outside to build a foundation for shared understanding and trust.
- Where do we want to be? This is about formulating a “collective internal vision” and direction for the organisation’s DEI strategy. Do leaders want diversity among the workforce, to build a more inclusive culture, have a better relationship with the community, improve or mend the company’s reputation? While Washington acknowledges that organisations should be doing all of these things, the DEI journey needs to start with a specific target.
It’s important, the author adds, that companies avoid benchmarking themselves against other organisations that are further down the road of DEI maturity. Similarly, they should refrain from stating laudable but unrealistic ambitions without the structure or culture to act on them. Such statements will appear merely performative and leaders should opt for more tactical, narrower goals.
Depending on the territory in which the company is located, there are various laws and industry regulations it will have to follow regarding diversity and inclusion. Similarly, there could be DEI lawsuits in play. Some organisations might align their DEI goals with a competitor’s and opt for voluntary compliance. Washington observes that the company’s thinking at the compliant stage might be, “We pursue DEI because we have to,” and that a company can get there through bypassing the ‘aware’ stage – but if that’s the case then it will be inadequately equipped to go further.
The HBR article cites a study of 10,000 knowledge workers across Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the UK and the US that found nearly a third of companies are at the compliant stage; however, the author warns that many organisations get stuck there. Mature diversity initiatives connected with the company’s overall strategy don’t necessarily come with compliance.
Similarly, diversity might be reasonable on the frontline but that doesn’t necessarily mean employees from minority groups feel supported and able to advance. A diverse workforce without an inclusive culture will not produce benefits such as teamwork and innovation.
Washington suggests another two questions for leaders to ask themselves:
- Where can we set goals that go beyond our compliance targets? Organisations can move further along the path of DEI maturity by seeing imposed regulations as a starting point rather than an end goal, pushing to exceed metrics or keeping incentives in place after regulatory requirements have expired.
- How can DEI help to meet other goals? A challenging aspect of moving on from the compliant phase is securing buy-in from senior executives who might not have any experience of the kind of discrimination you need to combat. To do this, it can be helpful to show them how DEI objectives can further the organisation’s wider mission, goals and values.
By this stage, a company is on its way to transforming its culture. Workers at all levels might be engaging in difficult conversations regarding bias and giving each other feedback, and teams could be looking to improve diversity through decision making.
However, organisations in this phase are usually lacking a strategic DEI approach that’s driving the whole business. Efforts might be uncoordinated, with one area championing DEI efforts and others ignoring them.
As with the earlier stages, the way past this is through asking key questions, such as:
- What’s the strategy? This is the point at which leaders should start defining the overarching DEI strategy that combines all the organisation’s efforts. However, it’s still important not to “shoot too high”, Washington warns. Start with a shortlist of priorities that can be integrated with short- and long-term goals.
- Where should we standardise? Look for areas where an inclusive culture has been successfully created and try to replicate the policies across departments.
- How can DEI efforts be connected up and down the company? Try to create a “feedback loop” between executives, managers and team members. Regular meetings between senior leaders and participants in grassroots efforts can help to create a map of where DEI work is having a positive effect on corporate culture.
- How far does our influence reach? Examine the effects of discrimination across both internal and external stakeholders – including employees, shareholders, partners, suppliers, customers and competitors – and look at ways of reducing inequality and building inclusion.
A company has reached the integrated stage once it has aligned its internal and external DEI work and connected bottom-up and top-down efforts.
If the organisation has a defined DEI strategy and a well-developed culture of inclusion, and has addressed the impact of its inequality and discrimination internally and externally, it is integrated and can legitimately claim that DEI is part of everything it does.
That doesn’t mean it’s time to boast: Washington observes that a common attribute of organisations in this phase is humility. Leaders must also be prepared to change tack if efforts lose their impact, and be wary of factors that could mean the success of their DEI work is short-lived – for example, the company might be over-reliant on favourable market conditions or a particular individual’s passion.
To move on to the final stage, leaders should ask themselves the following questions:
- What structures and systems should we create? DEI needs to be integrated into the organisation in a way that transcends one leader’s influence or a market cycle.
- What needs to be challenged? The status quo must be questioned if the company is to move on from the integrated phase. The effectiveness of its DEI work must be evaluated regularly and its impact on people and the business measured constantly.
With DEI efforts deeply embedded into the corporate DNA, and the stress tests of leadership change and economic challenges passed, an organisation can say it has taken the final step towards DEI maturity and reached the sustainable stage.
However, the work of DEI is never complete, warns Washington, and continued vigilance is required to ensure the organisation doesn’t slide backwards. True DEI commitment involves the reassessment of initiatives and strategies.
Wherever you are on the path, keep moving forward.