In June the Republican party moved to deny any Pentagon funding for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) programs. Shortly after that a Supreme Court decision banned affirmative action programs in college admissions.
There’s an undeniable reality to face: DEIB is under attack.
And it’s no different in some of the world’s largest tech companies. As those companies trimmed workforces through several rounds of layoffs in the last 18 months, DEIB programs became prime targets for cost-cutting measures.
The fragility of these programs begs a new question: How can we make them more resilient, avoiding the fate of being first on the chopping block?
‘B’ critical in DEIB
For decades now DEIB – using “B” for belonging, which I’ve noted must be a key component of a diversity strategy – has struggled to become an embedded part of the enterprise. Instead of being viewed as a key business driver, it’s often dismissed as a “nice to have” program. But that’s precisely what must change – DEIB must become too embedded to fail when the budgetary belt tightens.
“Embedded” sounds difficult to achieve – something like a complete change in mindset compared to what we see as traditional business drivers (profit, customer base expansion, growth).
3 steps to start
But the companies with the best DEIB programs are those that have found a pathway to cultural integration – DEIB itself is a business driver. Instead of shifting their cultures to include DEIB, they find ways to align DEIB with existing cultural priorities.
Try this approach:
- The first step to finding that alignment is listening – what does your organization, and the people in it, really value? You won’t really know until you implement a regular listening program that asks them at different times during the year.
- Once you’ve heard them, the next step is to see where the priorities line up in both the cultural and business function columns. For example, if innovation turns out to be key to the culture, you would embed systems that elicit and reward multiple, differing opinions. Crowdsourcing tools are good at getting these opinions floating to the top and considered by coworkers and managers alike.
- Once you’ve heard from your employees, an action plan based on that listening should quickly go into effect. Let’s say safety is key to your culture. You can implement inclusive practices, such as psychological safety – defined as a workplace where people feel they can speak up and admit mistakes without fear – in your regular safety briefings. Whatever the priority turns out to be, the focus for the HR department is on finding ways to embed DEI, not blow up the culture.
Here are a few practical ways to improve DEI embeddedness.
- Make leaders, especially in the C-suite, accountable by having real DEIB metrics connected to their yearly goals and objectives. Some common metrics for this go beyond gains in underrepresented groups representation in management. You can include the number of new programs, as well as the effectiveness of programs based on listening program feedback.
- Avoid creating a separate DEIB “department” with a few employees who run all initiatives. Instead, make mid-tier managers aware that they are expected to move DEIB initiatives forward, sometimes without the help of a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) or DEIB team member. Common metrics you would like middle managers to keep track of are employee retention across groups, internal mobility, mentorships, employee feedback, underrepresented group representation for employees and suppliers, and inclusive branding.
- Set up regular listening sessions or technology-based tools to gather feedback during every quarter rather than relying on a once or twice yearly census. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are good places to gather qualitative information and data. For example, I conducted focus groups with a Black/African American ERG at a medical institute and heard some pretty eye-opening stories. Employees felt severely undervalued and deprived of resources that their counterparts were receiving, and that was an insight we couldn’t get without an ERG.
- Once you’ve gathered all feedback, don’t just “report and forget.” Devise a real action plan based on the insights you have based on your company’s culture. When it’s presented to employees, make sure they know it’s the outcome of a carefully executed listening strategy and process (“you’ve been heard”). Then set real milestones that will show progress as you go forward (“we’re doing something about it”).
Change the treatment
We have to stop treating DEIB as a compliance-only initiative, or one that’s disconnected from cost-benefit analysis. While it’s hard to assign revenue components to DEIB, it’s not impossible. Scores of studies on revenue impacts have shown that more diverse companies are more profitable, more innovative, and get higher returns on invested capital. This year and next will see more layoffs as companies finish their inflation-driven belt tightening. It’s not too late to protect DEIB programs from those cuts by improving embeddedness and getting buy-in at the C-suite level.