Between nonstop changes in skill demands and pressing concerns over talent retention, the gravity of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging has – for some organizations – become lost in the noise. Although the social and economic importance of DEIB is far from lost on leaders, its presence and momentum are nonetheless beginning to wane among many organizations.
In August 2023, the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida officially disbanded all DEI programs and related job roles under orders from the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis; the policy change is one of several attempts from the governor to stifle identity-based hiring and other anti-discrimination initiatives in public education and workforce sectors.
Indicative of the larger, political plots implicating DEIB and co-opting the acronym for certain ideological agendas, this mandate provides an unnerving glimpse at the extent to which the workforce has become yet another battleground for partisan debate. Although the past few years have made it difficult to discuss DEIB apart from its role in government and identity politics, the bottom line remains: leaders have everything to gain from reupping efforts to cultivate diverse, equitable and inclusive spaces.
Given the growing emphasis on employee well-being and the business needs of amassing strong talent pools, experts agree now might just be the time to supercharge DEIB programs and restore their staying power.
DEIB’s role in attracting and retaining talent
In recent years especially, social justice issues have captivated American’s attention and held a large sway over consumer choice. Naturally, many people want to know that their goods and their income are coming from ethically-minded businesses.
Seemingly everywhere, research suggests a positive correlation between organizational commitment to social responsibility and high-performance. According to an article from the Harvard Business Review, companies with high levels of so-called “change power” have better business outcomes, stronger leadership and an overall greater production of employee well-being. Largely related to DEIB, this new metric for organizational success demonstrates that agility and self-awareness make for healthy companies.
And yet, the 2023 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Report from leadership development firm DDI finds that many organizations are falling short on DEIB. As the company’s chief executive officer Tacy Byham notes, DEIB is hugely intertwined with executive-led efforts to boost talent retention.
“Meaningful work is feeling like you have a purpose, feeling like you have a sense of belonging,” she says. “And that all comes from a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture.”
Echoing a key finding from the report, Byham explains that many minority workers leave their positions after seeing company DEIB efforts fall flat. Missing that key sense of inclusivity and without ample “opportunities for growth and development,” many employees feel impelled to seek advancement elsewhere. This poses an obvious challenge for executives concerned about their ability to attract and retain talent.
Mindful of how the events of 2020 continue to drive DEIB efforts and elicit companies’ verbal commitments to the project, Byham asks the crucial question at play: “Do organizational leaders feel their companies are putting their money where their mouth is?” For many, the answer is a resounding yes; but for a growing number of outliers, the request for more engagement with DEIB is falling on deaf ears.
Byham says there are several dimensions bundled into DEIB. The first, diversity, operates on a logistical level; does the employee body give due representation to various identities and backgrounds? To this effect, equitable hiring practices are an essential part of building diversity into the company culture and ensuring every individual can see themselves reflected in the employee population.
When it comes to providing strong leaders, inspiring employee engagement and bolstering company confidence, DEIB becomes a critical component of those essential cultural elements. Oftentimes, employees’ relationships with their direct reports play a huge role in coloring their perception of the company and its culture — an oft-heard observation that, according to DDI’s recent report, rings true at every level. In the study, polling 2,155 female and minority-identifying mid- and senior-level managers, 64 percent of respondents with plans to exit the company cited untrustworthy senior leadership as a push factor.
When companies take an earnest and evidence-based approach to DEIB, personal, professional and organizational successes abound. In a bottom-up analysis of the intimate connection between DEIB and the central categories of change power, HBR’s research team found that DEIB — in concert with a strong showing of change power — is an essential component of three top-of-mind prerogatives for company executives: purpose, choreography and development.
Restoring corporate confidence in DEIB
As chief people officer at Riviera Partners, Decio Mendes understands how DEIB has been somewhat stymied by a growing sense of cynicism in response to the recent torrent of Supreme Court decisions that seem to suggest a “pulling back” of rights and restrictions on the same groups that the movement tries to celebrate.
“There are all these things that seem to counter the spirit of diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Mendes. And for many individuals trying to make sense of what the recent rollback of Affirmative Action means for the workforce, DEIB feels fraught with competing tensions and ideas.
Despite some uncertainty, what Mendes finds important above all else is that leaders stay tuned into the best practices and hold themselves accountable to feedback from employees, job applicants and stakeholders. One common trap he’s seen many leaders fall into has been keeping too narrow a focus on stamping out unconscious bias at the expense of other elements included under the umbrella term.
“Just like everything, it starts to get weaponized a bit,” he says.
Although bias-free hiring practices play a huge role in fostering workplace diversity, Mendes cautions leaders against making a single factor the centerpiece of their DEIB mission. For many companies, striking a productive balance between the various elements of DEIB and appreciating their nuance can be tricky. Far from an impossible project, it’s a matter of finding the right programs and leaders to invest in. For one, Mendes appreciates how the recent addition of “belonging” brings another layer of depth and significance to the overarching mission.
To Mendes, the best teams are those that represent a full spectrum of identities and backgrounds — all of which bring unique perspectives and experiences to group discussions and collaborative problem solving. “At the end of the day, that’s the power of diversity,” he says.
Especially when it comes to brainstorming new innovations, having a smattering of “different lenses, different thoughts, different ideas and different ways of looking at life” creates huge payoffs, both in the way of personal growth and overall business advantages, Mendes adds.
Alongside diversity of thought, Mendes stresses the importance of tying in that crucial “belonging” aspect as a means of creating “psychological safety” and comfort for all employees. “If you don’t feel like you belong, you can’t do your best work,” he says.
In addition to encouraging people to produce their best work and venture outside of the box, experts agree belonging is an essential part of helping women and minority workers feel like they have the room and support to develop their skills.
The power of meaningful questions and radical acceptance
As an accomplished speaker on the topic, Risha Grant anchors belonging at the heart of everything she does. Deeply passionate about diversity speaking but discontent with the overwhelming emphasis on numbers and analytics, Grant informs her work with focus on slashing through perceived differences and building community.
“My approach is to help people find the humanity in each other and to tell stories that people can see themselves in,” Grant says. “It’s really about remembering that we are all interconnected and that together we can achieve anything that we want in the world.”
According to Grant, for DEIB teaching to stick, workforce communities need to understand why certain biases exist to begin with. Only then, once organizations understand the deep-rooted, often subconscious source behind its own prejudices, can it effectively dissolve those harmful preconceptions. Simply, Grant reminds leaders to investigate the horse before strapping it to the cart, so to speak.
“A lot of the issues we deal with in the world and in our companies have to do with the fact that we don’t understand why we feel the way that we feel about people,” Grant says. “We form judgments about them before they even open their mouths.”
The first thing Grant asks her company clients to do is gather a clear, comprehensive understanding of the organizational culture. “Do an assessment, ask questions and really listen to your employees,” Grant recommends.
Often, when Grant performs an initial baseline assessment to gauge the health of a company’s DEIB initiatives, she finds a marked mismatch between what employers think and what their employees feel.
“One thing that has been consistent is that there is a huge gap in how leadership sees the company and how employees see the company,” Grant explains.
When it comes to capturing an accurate and authentic sense of company culture, Grant emphasizes the importance of asking real people real questions.
“You can really see that when you ask the right questions about how people are feeling – what experiences are they having? Had they experienced any discrimination?” Grant explains, then you glean a much better sense of what needs to change and how those changes can come to fruition in a functional way.
Often, leaders will grossly underestimate the extent to which their employees feel excluded from company culture. At a surface level, leaders believe their companies are issue free, unaware of the more complex, personal issues people can be grappling with but uncomfortable mentioning over a quick conversation. When Grant can engage employees and elicit more meaningful responses, she often finds that individuals can encounter frequent microaggressions or indicators of a toxic work environment without the requisite sense of agency to snuff them out.
At the end of the day, as Grant points out, what DEIB teaches on a fundamental level are those universal, time-honored lessons that most people have been hearing from a young age. It’s all about the golden rule; spending budgets and learning delivery aside, these initiatives thrive on a commitment to treating others with mutual respect and appreciation, she says.
When it comes to dismantling those stubborn biases and complexes, Grant encourages leaders to make DEIB “a part of the fabric of how you do business.”
In concert with belonging, Grant champions “radical acceptance,” which she defines as “the practice of welcoming and embracing people’s full humanity, including our own.”
At its core, Grant’s use of radical acceptance concerns discarding any preconceived notions or prejudices and making an intentional effort to avoid causing another individual harm. Echoing Mendes’ recognition of how comfort begets success, Grant explains how resisting the common impulse to present a tough exterior can help people treat themselves and others with more compassion.
“There’s so much to learn from each other,” Grant says. Although data analytics are a great metric for visualizing progress on a logistical level, she says DEIB is ultimately a story about people and undoing historical boundaries. “When you get to know a person and understand them on a human level, that changes the game.”