March 29, 2022

What now? If your DEI plans have stalled, start here

The summer of 2020 brought the most significant spike of corporate interest in DEI that we’ve ever seen. Companies made effusive proclamations that things would change; they said they were ready for a fundamental transformation of their diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts. But a reckoning is only the beginning — what matters is what we do next. DEI practitioners had their phones ringing off the hooks in the second half of 2020, but momentum has predictably stalled.

If your organization started with positive intentions and bold ambition but has yielded scarce results two years later, you’re probably asking yourself: what now?

The first challenge is knowing where to begin — or begin again. Strapped teams are channeling their limited time and resources toward replacing those lost in the “Great Resignation” and staving off further burnout and turnover. But, even in a crisis, companies mustn’t let DEI initiatives fall by the wayside.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Arthur Woods, author of Hiring for Diversity, said: “The greatest challenge leaders face right now is resisting the urge to move quickly and hire impulsively. Rushed recruiting efforts usually cause us to revert to our most familiar ways of hiring. We abandon structure and make short-sighted gut decisions, both of which are the perfect recipe for hiring bias.”

It’s moments like this that our decisions matter most. Taking the time to slow down and make conscious decisions for the long run is foundational to the success of our organizations. 

DEI can’t exist in a silo.

DEI has often been relegated to the margins of our organizations, siloed into some far-off corner of the HR function. Since mid-2020, awareness has grown that DEI must be integrated into every aspect of the business. Organizations have introduced DEI-specific roles, often with Executive and Director titles. Still, there remains a disconnect between filling these roles and giving Chief Diversity Officers real power to effect change. While having a Head of DEI looks great on paper and is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, if that person doesn’t have buy-in from leaders across departments, they’re not empowered to fulfill their mandate. 

Performativity and superficial “progress” have been the status quo for decades. If our organizations are ready for true transformation, we will need to understand where we stand currently and where we aim to go. A common place to start is to examine the hiring process and find more diverse candidate pools. But true transformation goes beyond representation. According to Chief Diversity Officer of Twilio, Lybra Clemmons, “In the 2010s, corporate DEI hinged almost entirely on representational headcount data as a measure of “success.” Today, we are broadening that focus to evaluate all stages of the employee lifecycle. Equity in action, not just equal headcount.”  True transformation comes from understanding the covert power dynamics within your organization, how those power dynamics affect different segments of the employee population, and how to create policies that promote equity, inclusion, and belonging for that population. Hiring candidates from diverse backgrounds is great, but good luck retaining them if you don’t have a culture of belonging, inclusion, and equity. High turnover rates for marginalized groups are a telltale sign that an organization isn’t keeping up with promises of belonging. 

Success metrics: Your mileage may vary.

Establishing metrics for success is essential to holding organizations accountable for the work. But so often, defining these metrics becomes another opportunity to get stuck and lose momentum. Every organization is at a different place in its journey to cultivate a more inclusive work culture, so it follows that each org will have a different set of success metrics. Start by collecting data on how your employees feel about their current work environment. How often are you running a DEI survey? What are you doing with that data? Lybra Clemmons says: “Use data to move, not prove. Data should be used to help make decisions and evolve policies and practices, rather than a means to pat ourselves on the back.”

Creating metrics for success should be highly individual to your company. If you’ve hired a Head of DEI, ensure that they have the resources and the team to enact their strategies within your organization. Create bi-lateral, open channels for communication between your DEI leaders and your C-suite executives so that important decisions in every corner of the organization can be approached with a DEI lens. DEIB work is not one-size-fits-all. To be effective in cultural transformations, leaders must start from a place of radical honesty about the work still ahead of them. 

Saying your values vs. living them 

Your culture depends on your people feeling included and engaged. There have been many barriers over the last few years to cultivating a strong workplace culture, but now’s the time to fortify our DEIB efforts and strengthen our commitment to lasting change. The difference between saying our values and living them comes down to consistently working toward embodying those values with action, including making room for individuals who can lead real change. 

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