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A Clear-Eyed Assessment Of The State Of DEI

Image for Amidst the flurry of activity surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion in enterprises today, a remarkable 80% of U.S. companies claim to have active DEI plans (Corporate Compliance Insights). However, the crucial question remains: How can we guarantee that these plans genuinely drive clear transformation, going beyond mere symbolic gestures?

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Ostensibly, there is a great deal of activity surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in enterprises today; some 80% of U.S. companies report that they currently have DEI plans and actions in progress. However, it’s easy to mistake activity for meaningful impact and growth. For too many organizations, widespread DEI activities result only in superficial changes (flags, posters, cupcakes). These changes are often restricted to a particular point in time (a specific date, workshop or guest speaker, with no follow-on changes in culture or processes) or very limited in scope (one diverse hire at the leadership level, with no further action.)

Moreover, the activity that does take place around DEI—however truly well-intentioned—is often not evidence-based. There is limited data, limited insights, and limited concrete reasoning as to why any particular action is taking place, or what any specific issue or problem it is intended to solve.

A Lack Of Clear Vision

Both of these issues—the superficial nature of many actions, and the lack of evidence-based work—have a direct link to the high turnover of those in DEI roles. After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, a lot of organizations rushed to hire a chief diversity officer or create a dedicated in-house DEI team. However, a lot of the people who were hired for these roles, though they may have had a great deal of relevant lived experience, did not inherently have the skills and experience necessary to make broad systemic organizational changes happen and influence executive teams to take accountability.

The fault for this does not lay with those individuals, but on the companies that hired them; bluntly speaking, these organizations didn't know what they were actually hiring for or what good looked like. Caught up in the zeitgeist of the Summer of Racial Reckoning, these company leaders decided they needed to hire a chief diversity officer, and quickly—but they didn't understand what that role entailed, what their goals should be for such a role as well as the company, and what skills would be needed to make that role impactful and productive.

Many leaders continue to say, “We’re early stages,” or “We’re embryonic,” or “It's a journey.” However, the state of DEI has remained largely unchanged for 30 years. In order for meaningful changes to materialize, there must be a fundamental shift in the way organizations see themselves and their responsibilities.

A Mixed Bag Of Outcomes

When the pandemic and the digital revolution supercharged the shift to hybrid working, it was both a help and a hindrance to DEI in the workplace. On the one hand, flexible work arrangements have opened the doors further to true diversity in hiring and enabled companies to leverage the talents of employees from all over the world. In addition, individuals previously restricted from on-site work due to certain physical or neurological differences and requirements are now represented in greater numbers across every industry.

At the same time, the pandemic also drew certain inequalities into sharp relief. The transition to working at home exacerbated the challenges many families face in finding and affording appropriate childcare and eldercare. Women disproportionately bore the brunt of this burden. Video calls also made readily apparent who could afford to have a separate, dedicated office space in their home, and who could not. The issue of proximity bias also came into play; some leaders only like to promote people who are physically around them, and the pandemic made going into an office setting impossible for many people.

In the first couple of months of the pandemic, the prevailing strategy among business leaders was to focus on “business-critical elements”—and DEI was not seen as business-critical at that point. The murder of George Floyd was, ironically, the event that reignited corporate conversations about race and ethnicity. Initially, many corporate responses simply involved putting up black boxes on Instagram—and quite rightly, stakeholders called them out for this and demanded a more serious effort to address systemic inequalities.

Unfortunately, many of these efforts are still yielding only superficial improvements.

Purposeful Steps Toward Change

Enterprise leaders looking to make concrete gains in DEI need, first and foremost, to rely on concrete indices. Every action and project must be evidence-based and evidence-led. Data in all its forms must drive insights, discussions and decisions. It must also be used to measure progress and impact.

Accountability is also crucial to driving real, lasting changes. When we say “everyone's accountable,” what we really mean is that no one’s accountable, because everyone will assume somebody else is taking care of it. We conducted a recent poll at a DEI conference on what percentage of leadership teams had Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) related to DEI. Over 30% of organization leaders admitted they had none, and for those who did have them, the majority were limited to gender balance at senior levels. Meanwhile, employees in at least 80% of these organizations were saying their leaders do not have accountability or take responsibility.

Senior leaders must also listen to a range of employee voices, particularly those of the younger generations who have greater expectations around DEI and refuse to be quiet about the topic. Young people have been taught that they can speak more freely on social media about what's happening and what’s not happening at work. They're also more open to “canceling” people and companies for failing in DEI. Leaders must take the time to listen to what their employees are saying and what they want, as well as respond with the tangible steps they are going to take as a result.

Finally, enterprise leaders who are serious about change must manifest a certain level of self-awareness. A lot of senior leaders get to a point where they assume they have learned everything they need to know—because of the professional level they've attained, or because of the life experiences they have had. Many of them don't take the time to build their own awareness of the inequalities that permeate the workplace as well as how they change over time.

Company heads need to do their own work in this area. This is not something they can delegate. They need to raise their awareness, understand how the world is shifting and then consider the role that they want to, and should, play.


Thursday, 21 March, 2024