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7 keys to a successful diversity and inclusion initiative

Today's workforce is calling for a stop to bias and prejudice, and business and HR leaders need to take effective action. Here's a look at diversity initiative best practices.

A diversity and inclusion initiative is an important way to address current shortcomings of an organization's workforce composition and within its culture. But that doesn't mean it's easy to create an effective initiative.

Corporate diversity efforts have all too often fallen short of creating real change. Instead, they have often been seen as hollow approaches where too many said the right thing or "checked the right boxes" but did little else. To avoid such an approach, business and HR leaders need to reacquaint themselves with the basics and ensure they approach any initiative with empathy.

What is diversity and inclusion?

Broadly speaking, diversity refers to the demographic perspective. It means that a workforce includes a heterogenous mix of people representing a variety of ethnicities, genders, ages and abilities. Inclusion means that diversity is enabled to thrive. An inclusive corporate culture welcomes, supports and engages underserved groups.

What is a diversity and inclusion initiative?

Diversity and inclusion initiatives are the strategies and processes that organizations use to create and support diversity and inclusion, and gain a competitive advantage. However, diversity and inclusion initiatives vary from organization to organization, depending on the needs and areas for improvement. For example, an organization that was created with diversity as a core principle has different needs than a traditional organization with a homogenous workforce.

Diversity initiative essentials

Benefits of diversity and inclusion

A diverse workforce offers myriad benefits. Here are just a few:

  • A better reflection of the customer base;
  • More diverse views;
  • More creativity and innovation;
  • Better performance and productivity; and
  • Better brand reputation.

A number of studies support the benefits of diversity and inclusion. For example, organizations with the most gender-diverse executive teams were 25% more likely to have above average profitability, as compared with teams that had the lowest gender diversity, according to the report from McKinsey & Company, "Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters." Executive teams with ethnic and cultural diversity fared even better. Those with the most ethnic and cultural diversity were 36% more likely to outperform as compared with teams that had the least diversity. In addition, the higher the percentage of diversity, the more organizations outperformed.

Creating a diversity and inclusion initiative that truly works is not easy, however. To that end, here are seven essentials to increase the likelihood of success.

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1. Think beyond diversity and inclusion

Some diversity and inclusion leaders believe that diversity and inclusion efforts should expand beyond D&I to support true change. For example, diversity, inclusion and belonging (DIB) brings belonging into the mix, which means that extra effort goes into ensuring everyone feels like a rightful member of a community. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) includes equity, which makes strides to even the playing field for underrepresented groups. It focuses on fair treatment and equal access to opportunities.

Adding belonging, equity and other appropriate language helps to signal a more expansive approach to balancing inequity to an initiative -- or even a job role.

That was true for Daryl Graves, director of equity, balance and belonging at Dialpad, a software company that sells an AI-powered cloud communication platform. He added equity and belonging to his job title to reflect his expanded focus. Graves wants to make sure that diversity and inclusion exists across the company, not just within certain pockets.

Many organizations focus on adding diverse talent to the C-suite, within a particular discipline such as IT, or for a certain demographic such as women or entry-level talent, Graves said. That targeted approach misses the mark. Instead, that representation needs to be balanced and distributed across the organization as a whole.

Equity and belonging mean that organizational leaders are striving to ensure that everyone who joins an organization has an opportunity to deliver on the impact that they can have at the company, Graves said.

2. Enlist top leadership support for diversity

As with any other initiative, a D&I, DIB or DEI effort initiative won't be successful without the support of top leadership.

That reality is supported by a number of studies, including research from Russell Reynolds Associates, a management consulting firm.

"When senior leadership (namely, the board and executive committee) champions D&I, key human capital outcomes improve," the researchers wrote in a study synopsis on Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance.

These outcomes include better employee engagement, more creativity, a greater sense of belonging and better retention, according to the study.

Leaders' enthusiasm is key.

Senior leadership must embrace diversity and inclusion initiatives with a passion that ignites the rest of the organization, said Celinda Farias, director of global talent attraction operations at multinational financial services corporation Visa, headquartered in Foster City, Calif.

"The minute you center [on] diversity and inclusion from the top, it is no longer a dirty subject, we're all talking about it," Farias said.

3. Fund diversity initiatives

Verbal support for diversity and inclusion initiatives is important, but true success requires funding the initiatives so they have the chance to gain traction.

In response to the recent racial unrest and protests in the United States, many organizations have made statements reaffirming their commitments to fostering inclusive cultures but haven't backed that up with financial support, said Charles F. Coleman Jr., diversity and inclusion strategist at diversity consultancy, CFColeman, LLC, located in New York.

"A budget to support D&I initiatives and being present when those plans are executed [is] a visible display that [leaders] are leaning in and expect the rest of the company to follow suit," Coleman said.

To show that support for diversity and inclusion is backed by actions, business leaders can look for a myriad of ways to support diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging by making these concepts a part of the business offerings.

An organization that manufactures and sells telephony products could cater to those who are hearing-impaired or those who are neurodiverse, Graves said. A venture capitalist could help build diversity with specific investments. Black founders, for example, typically get less than 2% of venture capital dollars, so a VC could bridge that gap in equity by focusing at least part of its investments on startups with Black founders.

The point is to think broadly.

"Social impact, how you serve the community and your customers, should also be a consideration," Farias said.

4. Get proactive about D&I, DEI and DIB training

A successful diversity and inclusion initiative requires leaders, managers and staff to be empathetic. Training should be proactive, rather than in response to a D&I failure.

We can very well be an advocate consciously for equality and equity but we still make decisions based on our inherent biases.
Tashi CarperDiversity and inclusion consultant, The Carper Group

Training is important because people may act on unconscious biases they're not even aware of, said Tashi Carper, diversity and inclusion consultant at The Carper Group, located in Sterling, Va.

"We can very well be an advocate consciously for equality and equity but we still make decisions based on our inherent biases," Carper said.

To deliver the training, organizations need diversity practitioners with the competency to help employees understand the cycle that creates biases and how to disrupt and break that cycle, Carper said. Some organizations may need an external consultant to deliver training to employees directly or via a train-the-trainer approach.

Training effectiveness is the key.

Too often the emphasis is placed on who is delivering the training when the emphasis should be on the impact of the training, that is, the takeaways and whether objectives were met, regardless of who delivers the necessary training, Graves said.

For diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging efforts to be effective, people must be willing to confront their prejudices and unlearn things that they think they know -- and that isn't easy, Graves said. However, if employees are open, honest and willing to receive constructive feedback, they will benefit from training programs.

5. Make diversity and inclusion core values

Business and HR leaders often don't think creatively enough about how to increase diversity, equity and inclusion through new hiring criteria. Increasing diversity takes effort; it is not a passive endeavor, hoping that the right people apply.

When leaders consider who to add to the organization, they need to shift from culture fit, where potential employees conform to the existing homogeneous culture, to culture add, where potential employees bring valuable, diverse skills and experiences that your organization lacks, Coleman said.

"A company that wants to hire an employee to fit their culture is not concerned with having a culture that is fluid or adaptable," Coleman said.

Other experts echo this sentiment.

Business and HR leaders should question if they are going to change the makeup of the organization in a holistic way and not just execute an approach that results in "tokenism," Kimya Dennis, interdisciplinary trainer at 365 Diversity, a diversity consultancy based in Baltimore. In other words, D&I hiring should be ongoing and not amount to just checking a box.

6. Use data to support diversity initiatives

Data can help support a D&I, DEI or DIB initiative, both in terms of showing its benefits and in tracking whether stakeholders are supporting it.

Organizational leaders should look at the data to prove the benefits of a diversity strategy and whether it's being upheld, Farias said. At the end of the day, CEOs and individuals who make up the C-suite are bottom-line driven so they're constantly looking at numbers.

For example, are D&I hiring efforts actually supported? The answer is no if certain departments are taking a fallback approach to hiring, such as recruiting only from one or two colleges or sourcing prospective employees from one competitor.

Data can also support whether there's a widespread effort to address common areas of inequality such as compensation.

"We have to make sure that we're also trying to retain equitably," Graves said.

Organizations must have the data to show they have an equitable approach to compensating people for the same work and make it a part of how they extend offers, promote employees and provide leadership and growth opportunities within the company.

7. Invest in diversity software

There's a potential for bias at any stage of the employee lifecycle, whether recruiting, hiring, onboarding or managing workers, and technology may help.

Many HR technology vendors offer tools to help mitigate any bias. For example, tools exist to help identify and remove unconsciously biased language in job postings to create a more diverse applicant pool or remove signs of gender, race or age so recruiters and hiring managers won't be swayed by unconscious preferences.

That said, these technologies to boost diversity are not perfect. Many technologies billed as aiding diversity and equity efforts rely on machine learning or AI, which itself can be biased. Human judgment is still a critical part of the equation.

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