Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the workplace have faced numerous challenges over the last 50 years, despite meaning well. Here is how to translate good intentions into research-based, comprehensive and integrated strategies for sustainable change.
— By Donna Chan
Equity, diversity and inclusion are laudable goals. To the purely rational businessperson, they lead to more innovative thinking, easier work distribution, and good public relations. Striving for EDI is also, of course, simply the right thing to do.
That said, there are right and wrong ways of going about anything. Some companies only chase the bare minimum goals required by law. Others eagerly attempt to implement an equitable, diverse and inclusive corporate culture but fall flat on their faces at the first hurdle.
So what does the data say? What are the proven strategies for enabling EDI in the workplace successfully?
The Baseline: Making a Sincere Attempt
Many companies have attempted to capitalize on an increasingly diverse workforce and consumer base by setting the goal of increasing their own EDI. Nearly as many have found themselves unprepared and unsure of how to actually do that.
For example, a Deloitte study found that the most common sourcing channel for talent acquisition among Canadian companies is employee referrals. This is not surprising – it is common wisdom that networking is important -- but this tendency can lead to a talent “echo chamber” of sorts. That is employees of a relatively non-diverse organization are probably mostly connected to other non-diverse people. So, a non-diverse company that uses employee referrals more than any other sourcing channel will have a hard time increasing its own diversity.
The same study found that Canadian companies severely underuse employee resource groups (ERGs). Some 45 per cent of Canadian companies surveyed reported that they had no ERG. Of those Canadian companies that do have ERGs, 66 per cent have no staff or rely solely on volunteers to operate their ERGs. This frequently results in a lack of funding and poor oversight.
There has historically been something of a stigma against ERGs in Canada, an idea that they serve more to divide people than unite them. However, other research shows that a properly leveraged ERG is an invaluable tool for measuring and maintaining equity and inclusion within the company.
Creating Change: What the Research Shows Really Works
The main difficulty comes from the fact that equity, diversity, and inclusion are spectra. None of them are binary with clear “yes” or “no” features. EDI is a complicated set of sliding scales, but data suggests that maximizing the degree of equity, diversity, and inclusion in a company leads to greater and greater benefits.
A 2020 study from McKinsey titled “Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters” shows that more diverse companies are more likely than ever to outperform their peers. The same study stresses the impact of multivariate diversity. In other words, even if a company is very diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender, they may be lacking in other types of diversity, such as LGBTQ+ individuals. Thus, firms need to consider how they can adapt their diversity profile from an intersectional frame.
A company that has made relatively little progress in this area should focus on developing its diversity first. Such a company should start by reviewing its HR policies, beginning with hiring and onboarding, with increasing diversity in mind. For example, it might help to shift talent acquisition to a sourcing channel that is likely to produce more diverse applicants.
Once the overall, by-the-numbers diversity of the company has been increased, effort should focus on building diverse teams and on encouraging the members of those teams to support each other and provide their unique perspectives.
Some metrics should be chosen to measure the success of these measures. There are many ways to analyze the EDI of a company statistically, and a wide variety of metrics should be used to make sure that a complete picture is made.
For a company that has made some strides but wants to further increase their diversity and inclusion, there are a handful of actionable goals that will be especially important over the next few years.
EDI is a complicated set of sliding scales, but data suggests that maximizing the degree of equity, diversity, and inclusion in a company leads to greater and greater benefits.
First, it is important to make sure that the company’s diverse talent is represented at as many levels as possible. Where appropriate, existing diverse talent should be advanced into executive, management, technical and board roles. The company should also take the time to select appropriate metrics and targets for the representation of diverse talent.
Second, the company should ensure that leaders and managers have the power to advance diversity and inclusion and that they are accountable for progress on those fronts. Leadership should become the heart of the company’s EDI efforts.
Next, the company needs to level the playing field in advancement and opportunity. Promotions and pay processes should be made as transparent and fair as possible. The goal here is to make the company into a true meritocracy. A meritocracy will naturally be diverse at all levels, so a goal of meeting diversity targets is a good way of removing bias from these decisions.
The company should also develop its culture to become more open and less discriminatory. Managers and staff should be trained to spot and respond to microaggressions. There should be a zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory behaviour, and the employees should establish norms for open, welcoming behaviour. Leaders and employees should be asked to assess each other on how well they meet these standards.
Finally, it is vital to vocally and unequivocally support multivariate diversity. Employees should feel that they can bring their “whole selves” to work with them. Leaders should express their commitment to building community among the diverse members of their teams. In this way, firms can make real, sustainable progress on diversity goals.