The C-suite must commit to prioritizing DEI as a core value
by Rina Z. Souppa, Senior Director of Product Management & Design at SAI Global
When companies move to implement diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives like systemic racism training, many moving parts need to work smoothly in concert. The C-suite must commit to prioritizing DEI as a core value across the organization, and employees must be willing to learn and adapt their behavior. However, there is a lot of ground to cover between Point A and Point B — and in organizations of all sizes, Human Resources leaders are the ones doing the majority of the legwork to promote inclusivity. How can these professionals make the biggest impact on DEI and drive organizational change within their role?
Align with top-level leadership on motivations
DEI is a ubiquitous concept, yet many companies are having trouble turning it into real action. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of corporate directors revealed that 83 percent believed companies need to do more to promote gender and racial diversity, yet only 16 percent believed their companies are "excellent" at recruiting a diverse workforce. HR leaders can help bridge this gap between intention and action by uncovering the core motivations behind the move to implement DEI and antiracism initiatives, then changing communications based on the findings.
For example, if top-level leadership is mostly concerned with the bottom-line benefits of implementing a training program on systemic racism, they will likely be most swayed by the fact that racism cost the U.S. $16 trillion from 2000 to 2020. A CEO struggling with low employee engagement and retention issues may become more motivated to implement DEI when presented with internal surveys indicating employees want more diversity initiatives.
There are many angles from which training on diversity and antiracism makes financial and ethical sense. Determining the ones top leadership cares about most makes you a more effective communicator and advocate for DEI.
Assess employee evaluations of DEI effort
To set your goal posts and chart the path toward them, you need to know where your employees currently stand on the topics of diversity and systemic racism. It's a good idea to conduct internal surveys to get an idea of what employees need and what obstacles you may face.
When planning to implement a training on unconscious bias, for example, a survey may reveal that employees of color are experiencing more tension and discrimination than you realized. This may also be coupled with responses from white employees indicating that they don't feel systemic racism is really a problem. Having a clear idea of current attitudes and needs can alter the way you roll out training and respond to pushback.
Facilitate organization-wide conversation
While it's important for the C-Suite and HR leadership to take a firm stance in favor of DEI efforts, it can't be a one-way conversation. Employees must feel free to express their frustrations and voice their needs around DEI, yet don't feel safe or comfortable doing so. For HR leaders, that may mean thinking of creative solutions such as facilitating an anonymous survey, or reporting system that provides anonymized results.
The language management uses in an organization determines the way employees refer to or report issues. Many employees who experience racism at work are hesitant to use specific language about those encounters if management has not already used the terms in question. If HR and managers have only issued communications regarding "DEI" as a monolith umbrella term, employees are more likely to submit reports that vaguely reference "discriminatory behavior" when what they are really experiencing is outright racism. Be ready to get specific, even when that's uncomfortable.
One example of how to normalize conversation around antiracism is to add a section to an internal newsletter that highlights wins linked to diversity and inclusion. This type of action helps employees from marginalized groups feel supported by leadership, and shows resistant employees that this new, inclusive culture is not going away.
Evaluate current recruiting and hiring practices
As changes occur in policies and procedures for current employees, HR leaders must also determine the changes necessary to ensure an inclusive process for recruitment and hiring.
Common pitfalls include very limited self-identification questions which demand candidates box themselves into "Black, White, Asian or other" rather than giving a fill-in or "decline to answer" option. Questions that attempt to gauge "cultural fit" are also highly subjective and can inflame unconscious bias that eliminates otherwise suitable candidates from consideration.
Companies often attempt to improve their diversity numbers by implementing a quota, or strongly suggesting the need for increased "diverse" hires. One of the problems here is that this can lead hiring managers to choose unsuitable candidates just to "check the box", doing a disservice to the chosen candidates as well as the business as a whole.
Leverage performance averages
Do your employees of color have similar performance averages compared to white peers? If they don't, it could be a significant red flag indicating you need to look closer at how managers treat employees of color.
If a qualified individual is placed in a role but unable to be successful within it, there is a reason that must be uncovered. They may not be receiving the resources they need to succeed, or they may be the recipient of unfair treatment. If you can confirm that hiring managers are choosing qualified individuals, then any subsequent lack of performance should be investigated to find out what about the environment is holding the employee back from their full potential.
Continue the learning journey
Although HR leaders bear the majority of responsibility for examining diversity and the issue of systemic racism in the workplace, they must accept there is no final destination to the learning journey. There is always more to learn in this rapidly advancing area of HR, and the most effective leaders will seek out DEI certifications from leading organizations to remain ahead of the curve.