Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is by definition a people-centered business endeavor. So at first glance, the phrase “people-first DEI” may seem redundant. But that’s not always the case. Numerous factors shape DEI initiatives. But not all of these factors are beneficial. In fact, some even derail DEI progress. Why is this happening?
In recent years, many organizations have invested heavily in DEI endeavors, primarily in response to growing societal pressure, evolving customer expectations, and increasing competition for qualified talent. However, research reveals mixed results.
For instance, according to Deloitte, 86% of business leaders think embedding DEI into their work culture is very important. Yet only 25% say their organization is ready to move the needle. And only 30% link inclusion with business outcomes like productivity or profitability.
In this environment, it’s easy to find employers that are struggling to succeed at DEI. Plenty of programs land flat or wind up amplifying the issues they’re trying to solve. So, how can employers fix this?
Where DEI Goes Wrong
Inclusion challenges clearly are people-driven issues. But often (and ironically) organizations view DEI through a technical or data-focused lens. For example:
- Many organizations see DEI as a layer of additional commitments and activities, rather than a comprehensive transformation that starts with embedding people and culture into business strategy and objectives. As long as a specific “target” percentage of employees are from underrepresented populations, leaders see DEI as a success.
- Well-meaning executives invite inspirational DEI speakers to deliver presentations once a year at company meetings. They believe these stories will make a lasting impact on employees. Then they’re surprised when it doesn’t happen.
- Similarly, some organizations hire a specialist to spearhead their DEI efforts. But if that position is a title in name only, and lacks appropriate responsibility, authority, and budget, nothing changes.
Although choices like this can contribute to stronger DEI outcomes, they won’t make a difference without employee buy-in. That’s where people-first strategies make all the difference.
Marissa Andrada, a self-described culture master and kindness catalyst, counsels companies on DEI. As a chief people leader and board director, she’s found that integrating people-centered DEI strategies with business strategy unlocks opportunities for growth in individual performance, corporate performance, and beyond.
Andrada says, “Diversity is rooted in the practice of inspiring people to feel confident in bringing exactly who they are to the table, which is unique for every individual. Overlooking the potential and value of individual talents defeats the purpose of building a company culture with diversity at its core.”
She adds that leaders who develop emotional connections with staff are better able to hear their voices and “grow the company through growing people.”
Of course, the road to embedding deeper people connections into your DEI program requires deliberate, thoughtful action. Try the following steps to make sure your efforts are designed and delivered with true human needs in mind…
3 Keys to People-First DEI
1. Close Gaps in Career Opportunities and Pay Practices
Many companies still struggle with pay gaps among people from different gender and race populations. In fact, Pew Research over the past two decades reveals that women still don’t earn equal pay for equal work. And SHRM says race-based salary inequities are just as disappointing.
It’s very difficult for employees to believe your company cares about DEI if you ignore existing pay gaps. Staff members won’t get behind internal DEI efforts if they’re being discriminated against in their paychecks. On the other hand, if you identify and close discriminatory pay gaps, you’ll open the door to DEI program acceptance and momentum.
Don’t forget that opportunity gaps and pay gaps are closely related. Equal pay is not enough. Your job is to also remove barriers to advancement and professional development across the board. By leveling the financial and opportunity playing field, you’ll speak volumes about DEI. Plus, you’ll get more people excited about diversity and inclusion as a broader work culture concept.
2. Ask Employees to Share Meaningful Changes They Want
Rather than play a guesswork game with DEI, go right to the source. Survey employees to determine what matters most to them. Where do they see openings for DEI to help make your workplace more inclusive? What do they want the DEI team to do for them and their colleagues? I guarantee the answers will be both eye-opening and informative.
For example, you may discover that employees want your organization to invest in employee resource groups (ERGs). Company-supported ERGs give people common ground and a chance to feel more “at home” on the job. Healthy ERGs are naturally inclusive and open to all members, including those who want to be better allies.
Another DEI program your people might appreciate is formal mentoring. Many up-and-coming workers from underrepresented groups feel isolated. They may want to climb the corporate ladder but have few (or no) internal role models to follow. Mentorships can be a way for them to grow within a supportive system. They can also attract talent from diverse candidate sources. That’s yet another reason to get staff members involved in developing your DEI strategies.
3. Keep Updating Your DEI Vision, Mission, and Approach
DEI doesn’t work as a standalone “set it and forget it” campaign. It’s not an automatic process. It’s a moving target that requires fine-tuning every step of the way. As your culture changes and becomes more inclusive and diverse, your people’s needs will change, too.
If you’re a leader, this means you’ll also want to take a flexible stance toward DEI. For instance, instead of building a formal, structured 12-month, 3- or 5-year DEI plan, consider taking a page from the agile playbook.
On a quarterly or semi-annual basis, evaluate what’s happening across your company related to DEI. Are things working well, or are tweaks in order? What’s missing? What’s no longer needed?
It’s best to assign a committee of employees to own this responsibility. Just be certain you empower them to conduct regular reviews and recommend appropriate adjustments.
By constantly refining and retooling your DEI efforts, your organization will stay ahead of the curve on DEI, in general. The field has experienced significant transformation — particularly since 2020 — with increased social injustice awareness. If your DEI is stuck in a pre-Covid era, you’re probably not connecting with your current employees’ needs and expectations. A refresh can resolve this issue and help you get back on track.
Final Thoughts on People-First DEI
When handled well, a commitment to DEI can be a huge asset for any company. It builds a sense of camaraderie that improves a brand’s reputation and appeal, while enhancing a company’s value in the marketplace.
But lasting change doesn’t happen unless employers design, implement, and manage DEI efforts around what truly matters to their people, rather than trying to force everyone into a one-size-fits-all mold. For successful results, start by connecting with your people, reassessing your culture, and moving forward from there.