Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – Asking Uncomfortable Questions

Too many of us feel uncomfortable at work, but most won’t talk about it. Around 40 percent of people of color and women report compromising their authenticity and true self to secure acceptance from others at work. Meanwhile, only 20 percent of Millennials are willing to have conversations about gender, race, and qualities that contribute to our unique identities. Notably, Millennials are the generation that make up the majority of the workforce and who are poised to lead our economy into the future.

A compelling case for creating organizations where we can express, and be accepted and valued for, our true selves has never been clearer. Companies with the most ethnically and culturally diverse leadership teams are a third more likely to have industry-leading profitability.

Specifically, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), beyond being a moral imperative, is linked to the following key results virtually any business values –

  • Winning the competition for top talent – close to 70 percent of applicants consider not just diversity – but a company’s record of equity and inclusivity.
  • Improved decision-making.
  • Greater innovation and insight into your stakeholders.
  • Greater employee experience, engagement, commitment, retention, and well-being.
  • Building a best-in-class reputation.

Let’s take a topical example: the pandemic and COVID-19.

It’s projected the impact of the pandemic will be more severe for women and people of color. If this initial trend continues, global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030. However, if we can reverse this initial trend, supporting the retention, acceptance, and promotion of women and people of color – we have the potential to add $13 trillion to GDP in 10 years.

Diversity = Representation

Before we talk about DE&I, let’s define each.

Diversity is the presence of varied identities and differences are represented across all levels and areas of the organization. Diversity encompasses everything that makes us unique, including –

  • Race
  • Gender and Gender Identity
  • Ethnicity
  • Age
  • Physical ability and health
  • Culture
  • Veteran status
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Education
  • Nationality
  • Socio-economic status and background
  • Parental status
  • Mental health
  • Personal interests and passions
  • Physical appearance

While some dimensions of diversity are legally protected classes, each of these dimensions (this is not a complete list) affects our experiences and potential. It’s natural to hesitate and feel uncertain about where to go next. Knowing what questions to ask, and what data to gather, can guide you to an informed and powerful strategy. So, what are the key questions to ask around diversity?

  • How diverse is your applicant pool?
  • What recruitment sources and strategies are most effective at attracting diverse candidates?
  • How does diversity change as you move through your hiring process? (Adverse impact is one key here, but you can go deeper to look at non-protected groups and set higher standards.)
  • How can you increase the diversity of your leadership pipeline – both from the outside and internally?
  • Whose diversity is included in current discussions of the topic? (Unfortunately, we often fall into the trap of focusing on only a couple areas of diversity, perhaps ones that have surfaced in the past.)
  • How is diversity related to retention by job/group?

As an example for the last question: If you hire college graduates for certain positions, do you tend to hire from some universities more than others?  Affiliation with some universities may be linked with greater socio-economic status (i.e., more elite, higher tuition universities will graduate more students from wealthier backgrounds).  Knowing if/how the university or program a person graduates from affects performance can educate and inform recruiting.  You might also want to determine if college graduate status is related to performance at all – often times it isn’t – and can create a more diverse applicant pool and team.

Equity: Fairness and Equal Opportunity

Diversity involves getting (and keeping) people in the room.  Work inherently has an element of reciprocity: we exchange unique skills and abilities, and time, for rewards.  Rewards could be pay and benefits – but also extend to recognition, status, power, and influence. Whether for age, race, gender, body weight, appearance, religion – most of us know the sharp pain of unfairness.

Equity asks us how employees and are treated when they join our teams.  Are they receiving equitable outcomes relative to their inputs?  To understand if our organization (or team, store, clinic, or department) creates an environment we need to determine how we provide equal access to resources and opportunity, and ensure we’re providing fairness and respect to all. Questions to ask:

  • Does diversity influence access to the same resources and information? Have perceptions of unfairness contributed to decisions to leave your organization? Focus groups (done by trusted members of your team or a third party), exit interviews and/or existing employee experience/engagement surveys are useful sources of information.
  • Are there differences in pay, overall compensation, and benefits related to race, gender, and other dimensions of diversity? Remember to consider all groups (not just the minority, or those most frequently discriminated against). For example, men are often not included in, or hesitate to ask for, flexible work arrangements (hours, parental leave, working from home). Knowing the factors related to using distinct arrangements can create a more equitable environment.
  • How does your culture value and embrace the uniqueness of others? How can you link the value of equity to your vision and mission?

Inclusion: “Do I belong here?”

Concealing who we are isolates us. We doubt and mistrust others. It hurts us – both mentally and physically. The opposite of concealing who we are is belonging. It is among the most powerful ways to foster commitment and performance. We see this across industries in in employee experience and engagement surveys and research – and it’s replicated by academics and practitioners across disciplines. An inclusive group must be diverse, but a diverse group isn’t always inclusive. This might be why more than half of us report at least one microaggression, a minor derogatory slight or insult, in the past year.

What’s more, dimensions of our diversity intersect. I am a cisgendered white female without children. My experience and perspective is different than a military veteran, cisgendered female without children. Inclusion means we’ve created an environment where everyone, across diverse backgrounds, feels that they belong. As a leader, I’m always questioning how I’m creating an experience that makes each person on my team know they are key to not only our success – but who we are a team. It’s difficult to know if I’m reaching this goal. Can each person relax and truly be themselves? Tough questions to ask here:

  • Is there a safe way for employees to communicate concerns? With what comfort and ease can employees share ideas and points of frustration with their leaders – and even members of their team? Create a channel where employees can communicate with confidentiality – or even anonymity – when needed.
  • How do employees meet and build ties with others? Are people working and interacting with the same group of like-minded people? Leadership meetings are an ideal channel to ask about this and brainstorm ways to increase connections across departments and between diverse people. Build channels for employees of different ages, races, backgrounds, and all dimensions of diversity to know one another personally and professionally.
  • How can creating belonging and connection be a part of each part of how you hire, develop, and retain your team?

Final Thoughts

We devote too much of our energy to our jobs, careers (and for some of us, callings), to be uncomfortable; or worse, unsafe just being ourselves.  Actively listening to our teams, tackling tough questions that may be uncomfortable to ask, and taking intentional and thought-out action is the first step to not only growing our teams and organizations – but may transcend and create a tipping point that affects others in the future in ways we cannot know.

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Resources:

McKinsey & Company. Delivering growth through diversity in the workplace. 2018.

Health Services Research. December 2019 Special Issue: Experiences of Discrimination in America: Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality

Glassdoor Diversity and Inclusion Study. 2019.

Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria. 2017. Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD. Basic Books; Revised, Anniversary Updated Edition.

COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects. McKinsey&Co. 2020.

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