Over the past two years, conversations around race and social justice have become more and more mainstream. Companies and workers alike have begun to seriously reflect on the impact of systemic injustice—and their responsibility to address it through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives (DEI).
People who have been historically marginalized, on the other hand, are being vocal about how much safer they feel working from home, where they can escape the stress of microaggressions and the sense of not belonging. While many organizations have responded with a flurry of social media posts, and programs to support their workforce, it’s become clear that these actions are missing the mark.
In small businesses, DEI initiatives may seem like an organizational luxury few can afford. But for an increasing number of workers, this is a non-negotiable. They’re leaving in search of companies that offer flexibility, a sense of safety and belonging, and a genuine commitment to social justice regardless of the employer’s size.
So, it is time! Time to assess your organization’s efforts around DEI.
Before launching a DEI initiative, examine your motivations
The first step is to figure out what you want to achieve with your DEI initiative. Talk to your employees, talk to your managers, talk to folks outside of your company. In a recent webinar, Startup Advisor Jennifer Kim, put it best when she said:
“Before launching a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative, stop and ask yourself: Why are we doing this? Too often, it’s about wanting to feel better, rather than actually solve problems. This kind of motivation leads to performative DEI, which can do more harm.”
My friend Dr. Angela Spranger chimes in her agreement. “As long as we take only the bare minimum, performative steps to acknowledge social justice issues and the equity concerns of our employees, we will continue to see the “big quit” taking its toll on our organizations.”
Commitment to DEI Benefits All Employees
Dr. Spranger notes that employees are thinking more critically about their companies and institutions. DEI is about creating an environment in which all employees “stay because they feel seen, safe, and valued.” The wisdom of these words has struck me since she published her book by the same title. It’s amazing how often people just need to be acknowledged and told they count to put forth their best effort.
Dr. Spranger recommends making a commitment to inclusive excellence. Our business documents say a lot about our priorities. Is DEI even mentioned in your business plan? Does your employee handbook reflect your commitment to diversity? Does it have some teeth to address toxic workplace behaviors such as impartial investigations?
Start Your DEI Efforts With Representation
For many organizations, increasing diversity starts with more representation of traditionally underrepresented groups at all levels of the organization. When hiring (and we are doing a lot of that right now!) ask yourself “What is this candidate bringing that is not already heavily represented?” This will feel uncomfortable and maybe a little risky but that’s okay.
More employees recognize that visible equity in an organization is both a business strength and a competitive advantage. This is supported by years of research: perceived equity in the workplace deepens organizational commitment, leads to greater productivity, and a better employee experience. Representational diversity is an important starting point, but we have to take those next steps.
Take the Next Steps
Empowering a group of employees to identify and address the root causes of systemic inequities is a high-impact initiative that will lead to increased organizational commitment, says Dr. Spranger. When staff at all levels become engaged in redesigning the outputs of their work, it changes the overall tone in the organization. Dr. Spranger provides a great tip: ask yourselves “What is it we are creating here? What are we sending out into the community and the world every day, either in shipping trucks or in the psyche of every single employee?”
Allyship is another powerful tool to create an inclusive culture. Being an ally in the workplace means advocating for members of social groups outside your own, specifically those that traditionally face discrimination. Allies belong to the dominant group and work to help others facing different challenges to succeed in various ways. Allyship is more than showing sympathy towards discriminated individuals. Allies facilitate positive change to create more opportunities for underrepresented workers.
As we embark on the DEI journey, let’s be humble and accept that we will not get every step right off the bat. Let’s agree to start uncomfortable conversations with each other and be in a place of support and willingness to make progress. It is a business imperative!