Using a DEI lens to Value Employees and their Contributions

Younger generations of workers want to work for employers who value and support their efforts and adhere to positive values in Human Resources, operations, and the community role. Embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion in everything the company does is critical to recruiting, hiring, and retaining talent. -By SHARON ROSS

Over the last two years, a lot happened as the pandemic led employees, especially younger workers, to clarify their expectations about work and the employer’s role in creating a positive workplace. Millennials and Gen Z have made it clear that they want to work for companies with values they rigorously support, including diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and social justice. The pandemic led to all employees finding a voice to express their perspectives, which has surprised some employers who were unprepared for bottom-up feedback. The companies striving to embed DEI in everything they do will be best prepared to move forward into a changed future. A holistic human-centered approach means looking at everything the company does through the lens of DEI to achieve real and lasting change. It is the only way employers can create a supportive employee experience that enables people to bring their authentic and best selves to the workplace, leading to innovation, productive collaboration, and a brand as an employer of choice. DEI defines the organizational culture.

Flipping the Focus

Employees and company stakeholders are paying attention to the sincerity of companies touting diversity, equity, inclusion, social responsibility, and value-driven operations. The labor shortage, combined with the willingness of employees to change jobs when they find an employer who does not meet their expectations, has changed organizational dynamics. Employers are realizing that embedding DEI values is a critical strategy for long-term success.

The difference now (compared to pre-pandemic) is that leadership is recognizing that DEI is not an initiative or program. It is a set of values, and like other business values, it must be expressed in everything the business does. A holistic human-centered approach to DEI is needed because it turns values into ongoing sustainable actions to make change lasting. A holistic approach means moving beyond surface-level efforts and developing a truly inclusive culture that creates a sense of belonging.

Josh Bersin’s report Elevating Equity: The Real Story of Diversity and Inclusion called the pandemic a wake-up call for DEI, as women left the workforce disproportionally, racial issues exploded, and people of color faced higher health risks. Now, “…the tone has changed. The issue is no longer just diversity. The new focus is on inclusion, because we know that diversity without inclusion will fail.” Creating an inclusive culture is the answer is the theme of the study. “…inclusion should be the goal, and diversity is the result—thereby flipping the focus to actual behaviors.” Diversity became about numbers, but inclusion is about embedding human-centered values.

Approaching DEI Holistically

Approaching DEI holistically requires organizational leaders to change their perspectives. Viewing DEI as a way to minimize compliance, legal, or reputational risks turns Human Resources into an enforcer function. Josh Bersin found that DEI training, recruitment practices, ERGs, and other interventions add value, but not as much as leaders think. The main finding of the Josh Bersin study is this, “The most powerful strategies to drive inclusion and diversity come from the business strategy, not HR programs. When the business has the right focus, the HR practices add value. When done in isolation … the practices have little or no long-lasting impact."

DEI’s value is not realized with workshops, training programs, or even embedding it in recruitment and onboarding. It is realized through daily leadership behaviors. For example, behaviors that embed DEI include active listening, feedback, allyship, senior-level engagement, holding leaders accountable, setting goals, and embedding DEI in every HR and learning and leadership program, process, and procedure. There is a vision that leads to DEI being embedded in business strategy and driven in the entire business ecosystem, including marketing and the supply chain.

In other words, there must be systemic change. The Josh Bersin study concluded that DEI should operate "as a business function, not a set of HR initiatives, with a well-defined strategy that is owned by everybody in the organization and supported by capable experts."

Focusing on the Employee Experience

DEI is not a program or a public relations mantra. It is how employers treat people. Daniel Oppong, Founder of The Courage Collective, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultancy, wrote, “Instead of focusing linearly on increased representation, an organization should think holistically and ask questions like: ‘Even if we hire more people from underrepresented groups, will they stay? What will their experience be like? Are our policies, procedures, and systems designed to ensure that people from underrepresented groups thrive, not just survive?’”

The DEI strategy should encompass the entire employee journey, including external messaging, brand reputation, ERGs, meaningful growth opportunities, exit interviews, development opportunities, employee recognition, investment of resources in people, and employee voice. It includes developing leaders who understand how to create value through DEI. Dr. Sangeeta Gupta suggests holistic strategies include tactics such as forming DEI councils that provide feedback on all aspects of the organization and look for opportunities for tangible action, launching cross-department mentorship programs, and ensuring objective competencies are considered for job candidates. Collecting data and developing analytics can help organizations achieve intentional DEI and promote transparency and accountability.

Moving Away from Programs

A holistic human-centered strategy for DEI is an all-encompassing strategy to embed DEI in the organizational culture and operations. This moves DEI away from being a program or initiative, something long past due. Though programs like bias training remain essential, they are not likely to create sustainable change.

The human-centered strategy makes DEI a set of core values in people activities and decision-making, including recruitment practices, team participation, development opportunities, pay decisions, benefits programs, allocation of resources, mentorships and sponsorships, employee training, promotion practices, communications, retention activities, external relationships, and social commitments. It takes time to change a culture, but success means diversity, equity, and inclusion become sustained practices that contribute to the success of people and the organization.

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