Are you disturbed by news about organizations backtracking on workplace diversity and inclusion commitments? I certainly am. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article declared “The Rise and Fall of the Chief Diversity Officer.” Is this just hyperbole, or is it cause for serious concern? Either way, we can’t brush it under the rug.
After all, only 3 years ago, employers were scrambling to advance DEI initiatives. For many, this included new C-level positions with sweeping responsibilities. According to LinkedIn, from 2019-2021, demand for senior workplace diversity executives grew nearly 170%. This easily outpaced hiring for every other C-suite role.
But now, the pendulum is rapidly swinging in the opposite direction, and workplace diversity leaders are taking the hit. In fact, C-level DEI hiring actually shrank last year at a rate of -4.5%. And DEI positions are the only ones moving in a negative direction.
Why such a swift, dramatic shift? Multiple factors are driving these decisions. But sadly, HR is getting caught in the middle. As a former Chief Diversity Officer at a major U.S. hospital system says, the hiring spree now feels like a “knee-jerk reaction” that didn’t create much impact and left both sides feeling disillusioned.
DEI at Work: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?
So what’s really happening here? Is DEI frozen in time — or worse, losing ground? Here’s another top DEI executive’s opinion:
“Some employers may have neglected or even paused their diversity and inclusion programs. In the short term, this may seem understandable given the extraordinarily challenging circumstances. Long-term, however, it will come back to haunt you when the economy improves and you need to compete for talent again.”
At the time, LaFawn was VP of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB), where she led efforts to remove bias and barriers in the company’s products and its work culture. Since then, her role has expanded. She now serves as SVP of Environmental, Social & Governance, and her commitment to DIB is just as resolute.
Timeless Insights From a DEI Leader
With all the mixed news about workplace diversity lately, I decided to revisit a conversation I had with LaFawn late in 2020 on the #WorkTrends podcast. If you want a reality check, I invite you to join me. Despite different circumstances three years on, I think you’ll agree LaFawn’s wisdom still rings true today…
Lessons for Today’s Leaders
Here are several takeaways that continue to resonate:
1. DIB Isn’t Just One Standalone Thing
Too many companies attempt to lump diversity, inclusion, and belonging into one category, separate from other business functions. As LaFawn says:
Companies are trying to silo off diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Or they make one of the terms synonymous with the others.
2. How to Unpack DIB
What should we understand about the distinct elements of DIB? According to LaFawn:
Diversity is the belief that teams with different work styles, problem-solving techniques, life experiences, backgrounds, perspectives, and skill sets truly make innovation possible.
Inclusion is about actions and behaviors that create a culture where employees feel valued, trusted, and authentic.
And belonging is a feeling of community. It is the people and our culture that make us feel connected.
3. An Integrated View
When these three distinct elements of DIB are combined, we feel valued. LaFawn explains:
It’s not about looking like me or coming from where I come from. It’s about those common threads that pull us together in a broader work context.
4. The Pandemic Exposed Many DIB Weaknesses
Even now, we see Covid fallout that disproportionately affects some members of the workforce. For example, frontline workers endured extraordinary stress during the lockdown. This has led to a severe talent shortage in the services sector that is likely to continue.
But by exposing this and other issues of workplace bias and inequality, the pandemic has underscored fundamental changes organizations must make to ensure that marginalized people feel like they belong.
The Business Case for Workplace Diversity
Of course, business leaders must focus on business performance. So I asked LaFawn to share her thoughts about DIB’s impact on the bottom line. Not surprisingly, she served up some compelling statistics:
Will we be a better company 10 years from now? 15?
This question should keep every business leader up at night.
We know that businesses with a more diverse workforce are 36% more likely to be in the top tier of their industry. We know that firms with greater gender diversity are 25% more likely to be at the top in financial returns, market share, and retention.
So diversity, inclusion, and belonging do affect your bottom line!
That’s not all from LaFawn. For more of her DEI guidance, check this article: “How Belonging Differs From Diversity and Inclusion — and Why It Matters.”
Workplace Diversity Belongs With Us All, Especially Now
Like LaFawn, I believe DEI still belongs, today and in the future of work. And we’re not alone by any means.
Earlier this year, an in-depth Pew Research study of nearly 6,000 U.S. workers revealed some valuable insights about the state of workplace DEI. For example, while only 33% of respondents said their employer has a dedicated DEI leader onboard, 61% feel their organization’s policies ensure fairness in hiring, pay, and promotions.
That’s encouraging. But it’s not the whole story. Consider this small slice of DEI life from TalentCulture’s world:
Several weeks ago, we asked our community to tell us if their work culture has become more diverse and inclusive since the pandemic. Interestingly, only 37% told us the situation has improved at least somewhat, while 63% said it’s the same or even worse.
Clearly, there’s still work to do. But building a culture around workplace diversity is not about platitudes. That’s not a sustainable strategy. DEI is a process. And that process is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.
DEI Leadership Action Items
If you’re a leader who remains committed to creating a workplace around fairness and opportunity for all, keep moving forward. I’m right there with you. And if you’re uncertain about how to move forward, I suggest revisiting other ideas that have stood the test of time.
For example, consider practical advice DEI leaders shared in 2020 with one of our blog contributors, Laura Sabattini. Laura is another DEI expert on the move. In 2020, she was a Principal Researcher at The Conference Board, and she’s since joined Honeywell as Director of Inclusion and Diversity.
Clearly, Laura isn’t just passing along interesting ideas. She is actually walking the talk every single day. I think you’ll agree, the suggestions she curated are worth another look:
1. Create a Common Vision
Enhance communication and drive consistent messaging across the organization. Focus on helping leaders and colleagues understand how DEI improves the work environment and increases resilience during times of change.
Tips from DEI Leaders:
- Define DEI in ways that directly align with your organization’s culture and values.
- Identify measurable behaviors and clear expectations to hold people accountable for those behaviors.
2. Encourage Participation and Collaboration
Leverage trends and events to build awareness among those who haven’t been involved with DEI, to ensure that ownership doesn’t fall solely on underrepresented groups.
Tips from DEI Leaders:
- Provide resources to help people engage, participate, and take action at work and beyond.
- Build trust by encouraging dialogue over conflict and giving people latitude to make mistakes.
3. Invest in Developing Leadership Skills
Inclusive cultures don’t just happen by chance. They require intentionality and willingness to improve how we work and interact with others. This may require leaders to “unlearn” some management standards before they embrace new skills. The good news: This can improve leadership effectiveness and business results.
Tips From DEI Leaders:
- You don’t need to start from scratch. Leverage existing inclusive leadership models.
- Work with formal and informal DEI champions to identify meaningful behaviors. Some organizations may focus on decision-making, while others may focus on innovation. The key is to align DEI skills with your business and culture.
4. Emphasize Accountability
To build buy-in, hold people accountable for their role in building a more inclusive culture. This includes specific team or leader behaviors as well as managerial metrics (for priorities such as engagement or representation among teams).
Tips From DEI Leaders:
- Gather input from leaders and regularly follow-up to discuss their accountability and progress.
- Engage human capital analytics to identify DEI patterns, trends, and impact. (For example, compare promotion and attrition rates across functions and teams.)
- Periodically assess what is and isn’t working, and provide stakeholders with updates.