Workplace Culture

Building Impactful DEI Policies: The Essentials

A variety of global factors make diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) more vital than ever. Organizations that embrace collaboration and full inclusion will far outpace those that settle for mere (and ineffectual) compliance. To gain all the benefits of a diverse workforce, leaders need strategic approaches to DE&I.
— By Jill Motley

When the Employment Equity Act was passed in 1995, provisions were made for designated groups such as women, racialized minorities or visible minorities, Aboriginal groups, and people with disabilities. While companies are prohibited from discrimination, many organizations fall short of their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) goals. According to Deloitte Canada, approximately one-half of Canadian organizations have invested in strategic DE&I ventures. However, most of this movement has only been within the past five years.

To see real change, one must take strategic action. Tokenism and quotas are often found to do more harm than good. For lasting effects, business leaders need smart, science-based approaches to DE&I that lead to long-term culture transformation and behavioural changes.

Neuroscience and Human Bias
According to the NeuroLeadership Institute, “If you have a brain, you have bias.” Acknowledging everyone has bias as a natural part of being human destigmatizes the notion of partiality. Rather than being indicative of a character flaw or only the problem for certain people, this approach allows for more open conversations about preferences and prejudices.

Much of the “diversity training” broadly used today leaves employees feeling defensive. They are told they have a deep, unconscious problem that must be rooted out. While it is true that bias is widespread and very difficult to observe in oneself, neuroscience can help business leaders change the conversation about diversity training. Scientific research has found that “unconscious bias lives in everyone.” Everyone has preferences, and everyone can benefit from science-based approaches to improving inclusion and empathy for others.

But admitting bias alone is not enough. To acknowledge that everyone acts, at times, in biased ways is insufficient to promoting change in an organization. Companies must learn to identify instances of bias in constructive manners that promote more conversation, not less. Respectfully engaging one another, rather than dismissively accusing, will have a much more meaningful impact.

Developing shared language based on the scientific reality of universal bias is essential to these conversations, and this is the first step toward practical changes to reduce discrimination across corporations.

Promoting Inclusion
A diverse workforce not only improves worker engagement, but it also allows employers to more easily hire new talent and incorporate a variety of perspectives into the company. At the same time, inclusive practices help to better serve customers and retain employees, and it can increase the brand’s social standing. How can organizations move beyond a focus on legal requirements toward diversity as a corporate value?

Many DE&I efforts at Canadian companies are led by volunteers, often in addition to their other job responsibilities. If an organization determines DE&I is an essential value, it must staff accordingly. When staffing is not possible, employee resource groups (ERGs) may be encouraged. In Canada, these are often especially valuable toward improving employee engagement and providing networking opportunities.

ERGs can be a helpful starting point for identifying talent and raising awareness of the value of inclusion. Additionally, ERGs may highlight markets or community outreach that could prove beneficial to an organization. As employees are more engaged in their companies, they will also serve as referrals for new hires. In this way, a diverse workforce will perpetuate itself.

Metrics to Determine Impact
It is tempting to point to employee demographics and declare, “We’re inclusive!” But the data gathered must be both quantitative and qualitative. Because bias can be so hard to discern alone, utilizing outside consultants may provide the greatest insights.

It is tempting to point to employee demographics and declare, “We’re inclusive!” But the data gathered must be both quantitative and qualitative.
Appropriate investigation of key details must be made. What is the rate of turnover among various demographics? Is there representation at every level of the organization? Are promotion rates equitable? Most importantly, how often is this information reviewed, and to what extent are company practices adjusted based on the data?

Practical Considerations
While initiatives to improve DE&I will vary in efficacy across corporations, there are a few ideas that can have universal appeal.

First, organizations can make office environments conducive to DE&I. Especially as Canada faces an aging workforce, it will be essential to have workplaces hospitable to employees with disabilities.

Make adaptions aimed to support people with mobility, visual, or auditory impairments, such as signage in large letters and Braille, automatic doors, and gradual ramps to accompany or replace stairs. Ensure that tables in conference rooms and dining areas are an appropriate height to be wheelchair accessible. Consider a variety of furniture options, such as chairs without wheels and with arms, that make it easier to stand up. Designate an appropriate number of parking spaces for mobility-impaired persons. Use strobe light and siren fire alarms to alert those with hearing loss.

Second, companies can take simple steps toward improving gender inclusion. Add single-stall, unisex bathrooms to create a more inclusive environment. Offer spaces for nursing parents to pump and store milk. Examine family leave policies to make work more flexible as employees care for children or aging parents. This will also lead to greater retention overall, and especially for women.

Third, commit to learning about DE&I and examining best practices around Canada. For example, VanCity hires people who will work close to their home, which leads to better representation of the population in surrounding neighbourhoods. Additionally, VanCity has a robust talent scout program that rewards employees for referrals and intentionally advertises at career fairs geared toward Aboriginal people.

Develop a shared vocabulary around unconscious bias in your organization and have open conversations when preferences interfere with DE&I goals. Connect with outside consultants to gain more perspective. Make practical adjustments to office environments and policies. Take good intentions and transform them into lasting changes.