HR Insights
Quick Read
December 1, 2021

How leaders impact diversity, equity, and inclusion

It starts from the top. Leadership has an important impact on creating a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in your workplace.

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It’s clearer than ever that organizations need to focus on improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). Not only is it the right thing to do, companies reporting greater diversity in the workforce are more likely have a variety of viewpoints, develop more innovative ideas and solutions, and outpace competitors as a result.  

McKinsey surveyed 1,000 companies in 15 countries and found a widening gap between organizations that are D&I leaders and those that are not. Companies that are making progress toward increasing diverse representation were financially outperforming their peers.

While significant progress has been made toward understanding the value that DE&I brings, there are still many companies who are not succeeding in their DE&I efforts. Here are some of the ways organizations can create real, lasting change at their organizations.

Create a culture of DE&I

Donnebra McClendon, Director of DE&I for Ceridian, says companies often believe DE&I is something that can be trained. But it can’t. “In order to get it right, you have to build a culture where people feel as if they’re truly helping to be part of the change. It’s driven by behaviors, not by training. Training is one and done.”

Creating employee resource groups, offering a larger variety of benefits, and increasing representation are all starting points to help organizations improve DE&I. But there’s more that needs to be done to create sustainable, meaningful change.

Diversity development expert Sherryl Dimitry believes that it’s not enough to have more minority demographics in roles with responsibility. It’s “whether diverse contributions and opinions will be valued, accepted, and assimilated into the culture at large”.

McClendon advises that it’s critical to embed DE&I into everything an organization does, including company policies, micro-learning sessions, and newsletters. The commitment must be tied to the company’s core values in a way that enhances the organization’s culture.

She cautions that organizations and leadership especially need to be intentional and “culturally humble”.

Developing more diverse leadership

Experts agree that more needs to change at the leadership level. Ensuring diversity among the organization’s leaders is a good start, but it will likely have little impact without the foundation of an inclusive work environment and equitable opportunities for development.

Organizations should ensure they’re championing diverse groups of talent to advance in their careers, from leadership and management roles to more technical and creative positions. The key is to have a succession management strategy that considers DE&I and that there is equity in the process of determining who gets promotions and advancement opportunities.

The change must be top-down and built into leadership accountability for DE&I success. Becoming inclusive requires intentional actions – it doesn’t just happen organically.

As Ceridian’s McClendon states, “Policy without practice is pointless.”

What questions should organizations be asking?

What do leaders with intention look like? It may vary from company to company. But ask the people that are looking at leaders – the employees.

What are we getting wrong? Businesses should examine how they’re conducting business and determine what else can be done to become a truly inclusive and equitable organization.

How do we build organic relationships? It’s okay for leaders to show their vulnerability; employees can relate to that. In all things, be authentic.

It’s not just about asking the right questions. It also means asking the right people what is still needed.

Next steps

  • Continue to build and develop DE&I in leadership roles.
  • Address equity in pay and benefits. Offering diverse benefits is table stakes, but there must also be a culture in which employees feel that it’s safe to use them without fear of suffering career issues. Continue to review benefits for fit of a diverse and fluid workforce.
  • Foster DE&I in employee engagement efforts.
  • Encourage and support employee resource groups with executive participation.
  • Focus on education, not training. Training teaches skills, education changes behaviors. McClendon advises, “educate, celebrate, create”.
  • Track, measure, and evaluate your organizations’ progress toward its DE&I goals.

Studies continue to show that companies that believe in and have strong DE&I cultures perform better than companies that don’t. McKinsey reports that the more diverse companies were 43% more likely to experience an increase in profits.

Donnebra McClendon believes that “organizations change when behaviors change”. Increasing diversity and inclusion can deliver measurable value when financial performance and innovation are the outcome. But it’s also just the right thing to do.

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