Why do DEI Strategies fail? (& How to Promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace)
With advances in technology and increases in remote working, the global talent pool, and baby boomers retiring in droves, finding and retaining top talent is more difficult than ever.
Beyond offering competitive benefits and pay, one of the top ways organizations can attract and retain the right people in the right roles is through developing and sustaining a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy.
While many organizational leaders understand the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace for underrepresented populations, they may not fully understand the positive impacts that DEI can have on all of their people and ultimately their bottom line.
According to Glassdoor, research has shown that 76% of applicants and employees rate DEI as important, and 1 in 3 prospects and current employees (with a higher percentage for those who identify as Black or LGBTQIA+) will not apply or remain at organizations that lack diversity.
In addition to employee attraction and retention, there are many other tangible benefits of hiring and supporting a diverse workforce including greater creativity, disruption and innovation, stronger decision-making, and higher performance than organizations lacking in diversity.
However, many organizations fail to implement and support effective long-term DEI strategies. Often, DEI initiatives remain nestled inside HR departments rather than getting embedded throughout the entire organization’s departments, people, systems, and processes. This is why some organizations may initially succeed in hiring, but not retaining, diverse talent.
Before digging into some of the reasons why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategies fail and some steps leaders can take to implement these successfully, it’s important to understand the difference between these three terms and how they are interrelated:
- Diversity is the representation of different identities, abilities, and different ways of thinking and being.
Some elements of diversity may include, but are not limited to age, generation, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, disability, religion, political affiliation, neurodiversity, ways of thinking & communicating, and more!
Diverse organizations have stronger representation from a variety of identities present in society, resulting in a highly capable workforce with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.
- Equity is how diverse individuals are treated in the workplace. Equitable workplaces ensure everyone has access to the support they need to remove barriers and gain equal opportunities for growth and development. Additionally, equitable organizations aim to understand and address existing systemic barriers both within the organization and society.
Equitable organizations will have diversity not only at the entry level but at all levels of the organization, including executive leadership team members.
- Inclusion considers how people are treated and feel within the workplace. An inclusive organization supports individuals to share their perspectives while being respected and valued. Additionally, inclusivity is a way of behaving that mitigates issues such as intolerance and discrimination within the workplace.
Inclusive organizations incorporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into their culture, the fabric of their being. This means that inclusivity is not held at the senior leadership level, or within the HR department, but rather that all individuals within the organization are actively demonstrating behaviors that promote and support inclusivity.
Organizations may hire diverse candidates but likely won’t retain them without being equitable and inclusive. On the other hand, organizations may be equitable and inclusive to those who already work for them, but they may end up with a homogenous workforce if they don’t proactively seek diversity.
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Three Reasons Why DEI Strategies May Fail:
1. There is a focus on diversity but not on equity or inclusion.
When diverse hires are made, but an organization’s systems, processes, or culture don’t support long-term equity and inclusion, they may end up feeling left out, unsafe, or potentially leaving the organization.
Example of a lack of systemic Inclusion:
If there is organizational diversity with various ethnicities or religions within a North American company, but only Western or Christian holidays are acknowledged and celebrated, many individuals may feel a lack of inclusion and camaraderie.
One way that organizations can work to be more inclusive around holidays includes offering a fixed number of flexible holidays for individuals to apply to the occasions they celebrate rather than applying them to specific holidays only.
This is only one example of where a systemic issue may not support inclusion and how an organization might adapt, so it is important for organizations to continually check in with their people and proactively assess where there is room to improve inclusion.
Example of a lack of systemic Equity:
Not everyone identifies with the male/female binary, and this is not always visible. Individuals who identify as trans and non-binary may not feel comfortable (or safe) visiting gender-assigned restrooms.
One way organizations can support an equitable work environment is by giving everyone access to a safe and comfortable space to use the restroom, change, or shower, depending on the available facilities. In some organizations, this may look like having all restroom facilities as gender-neutral facilities, while in some organizations there may still be gender-assigned restrooms but one or two additional separate, single-stall gender-neutral restrooms available for anyone to use.
Just like with the previous example, this is only one potential way an organization can consider developing a more equitable workplace for their people. The more diverse your workforce is, including your leadership team, the more proactive you will likely become in spotting and improving barriers to equity.
2. The scope of diversity is too limited or narrow, primarily focusing on more visible elements such as gender, age, and ethnicity:
This may mean that many other elements that contribute to a diverse workforce are not included in hiring or supported with inclusivity and equity as they expand in their roles. Invisible diversity such as different ways of thinking and solving problems, varied styles of communicating and sharing ideas, levels of introversion/extroversion, and neurodiversity may not be considered and supported.
If organizations don’t hire and support non-visual elements of diversity, they may miss out on a significant number of skilled applicants and employees that could contribute to a highly productive and successful workplace.
If an organization’s culture is typically loud, energetic, and boisterous, they may end up hiring individuals who primarily fit this description, especially if they are laser-focused on hiring for a cultural fit. This means that talented individuals who are, for example, neurodiverse, introverted, or hard of hearing may not be deemed a “cultural fit” resulting in them not being hired, promoted, or celebrated within the organization.
One way that organizations can challenge themselves when hiring for cultural fit is to look at various ways their core values can be demonstrated behaviorally and discuss these with new candidates and current employees to determine and sustain values alignment that also promotes diversity.
If optimism is a core value, for example, consider discussing which behaviors emulate this, and how diversity can be considered. Does one have to be outgoing and extroverted to demonstrate optimism, or are there other behaviors that also demonstrate optimism while allowing for greater diversity?
This is one potential area that organizations may overlook when hiring and supporting DEI, so it’s important that leaders continually reflect on their own subconscious biases and support a greater span of diversity (without being performative or tokenist).
3. The necessary accommodations for diverse situations, different needs, and disabilities (whether visible or invisible) are unavailable, complicated to access, or attached to stigma or judgment:
When individuals with diverse needs and situations or disabilities don’t have access to the tools or accommodations they need to comfortably perform in their role, there is a risk of disengagement, injury, or potentially losing these highly talented individuals to other organizations with stronger attention to DEI.
An organization has a ground-floor business and hires a qualified candidate who also happens to use a wheelchair. Without assessing the entire office, the organization mistakenly believes that it is fully accessible because it is on the ground floor. However, mid-morning of the first day, the new employee needs to visit the restroom and notices that despite the office being on the ground floor and having adequate room to navigate their wheelchair, there is a single step up to each washroom and no automatic door opener.
This new employee now has a few options: wait until they go home at the end of the day to use the restroom, ask a colleague to help them open the door and support them going up/down the single step, or attempt to do this themselves and potentially risk an injury. Depending on this person’s personality and comfort level, they may also advocate for accessibility to management, or they may decide that they don’t want to work for an organization that doesn't consider diverse needs.
Instead of putting a new employee in this potentially uncomfortable or dangerous position, organizations can regularly assess their facilities to ensure that they are accessible and inclusive to all employees, regardless of their situations and abilities, and make adjustments when they are not.
This is only one example of a situation where diverse needs were not accounted for. To ensure adequate accommodations for various situations, needs, and abilities, organizations may consider regular reviews of their facilities, systems, processes, and work environments alongside organizational surveys and staff engagement “town halls” to determine where they can improve.
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Three Additional Ways to Promote and Sustain Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Within The Workplace:
In addition to the above suggestions to help mitigate some of the issues discussed, there are other ways that organizations can help to promote, implement and sustain their DEI initiatives:
- Embed DEI into values, behavior & cultures:
If DEI lives only within the HR function or at the executive leadership level, it likely won’t get supported throughout the entire organization. Everyone needs to be aligned around clear values and behaviors that support equity and inclusion in the day-to-day workplace. This means that there are regular conversations happening about DEI throughout all levels of the organization, people are challenging their assumptions and biases, and systems and processes are evolving to support existing and future employees.
- Foster psychological safety within your organization:
When people feel respected and valued by leaders and their team members, when they feel heard and listened to when they share ideas and concerns, and when they feel they can be their authentic selves without encountering discrimination, they will be more likely to feel safe, supported, and included. This means that leaders must demonstrate respectful listening and thoughtful consideration, while proactively reinforcing these behaviors within others.
This may also mean that leaders may have to have difficult conversations with individuals if behaviors that counter DEI values occur. These may include but are not limited to: microaggressions, racist, sexist, or homophobic “jokes”, power-hoarding, taking credit for others’ work to actively block their recognition, or general incivility. If these types of behaviors take place and are not nipped in the bud by leadership, it sends the signal that it is ok for people to continue behaving in ways that take away from psychological safety and push against equity and inclusion.
- Foster a culture of connection, belonging, and shared learning:
When organizations foster connection, belonging, and shared learning among their workforce, people are more likely to share ideas with each other, challenge their previously held beliefs and biases, and demonstrate accountability and respect for their colleagues.
Activities such as monthly “lightning talks” where different employees can speak on a topic they are passionate about is one great way to create a space for idea sharing that helps individuals share their ideas, passions, and authentic selves with their teams.
Many experts argue that in the increasingly competitive global workforce, DEI is becoming a critical component within an organization’s strategic plan. If your organization is developing or renewing your strategic plan, consider working with a strategic planning facilitator to ensure that your team is aligned around what success looks like and that you end up with clear goals to measure your progress in DEI and other strategic initiatives.
While we at SME Strategy support hiring and celebrating in alignment with an organization’s values and culture, we also believe it’s important to recognize and support diversity when doing so.
Many organizations are now shifting the acronym DEI to EDI, which begins with equity. By focusing on equity first, this prioritizes systemic change internally so that when diverse personnel are onboarded, they already have the necessary systems and processes to support everyone on the team.