Whether you’re just starting out or are a seasoned entrepreneur, “Inside Business” provides you with advice and best practices to help you better manage your business. This article offers tips on how to reinvigorate workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

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Companies have rushed to declare their commitment to workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), but despite some progress, many can still do more. Disability:IN, a nonprofit organization, determined that in 2020, 86 percent of companies measured on its Disability Equality Index had an employee resource group specifically for people with disabilities, but only 32 percent of those have hiring targets for people with disabilities.

Likewise, the gender pay gap in 2020 remained consistent with that of years past, with women earning 84 percent of what men earn. Last year white men were also one of the few groups to increase in representation as they climbed the corporate ladder; men of color, white women, and especially women of color all saw massive decreases as white male rankings increased.

There is hope. Organizations will continue to make progress in DEI, say Stacey Gordon, CEO of professional DEI counseling company Rework Work, and Dr. Sabrina Volpone, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder specializing in diversity and identity management in the workplace. After all, it’s a competitive disadvantage not to: Both experts believe companies that don’t take DEI seriously will witness an exodus of workers. In fact, one-third of job seekers reportedly won’t apply to companies that aren’t prioritizing these efforts.

With this in mind, it’s important to ensure that leaders continue to push progress forward. Here’s how.

Start with belonging

Diversity has become a catchall phrase for increasing representation and equality at work, but for lasting change, start with an inclusive mindset. “If you don’t have an inclusive culture, you can’t capture the diversity from within,” says Monika Kochar, CEO and co-founder of SmartGift, a leading corporate gifting platform. “Many companies do a lot of lip singing to actively promote DEI at the hiring stage, but they’re not following up through the life cycle of the employee’s time at work.” Understanding your employees’ needs and desires and recognizing and engaging them will give them a sense of belonging throughout the year.

Photo of a meeting at a diverse workplace, illustrating the importance of workplace diversity.

Ask yourself why workplace diversity is important

The single most important thing you can do to improve DEI in your organization, says Gordon, is to take a good, hard look at yourself and your motivations. In other words, why do you want to diversify the workplace? Is it because you need to tick some boxes, or is it because you truly want to uplift historically underrepresented groups? And if it’s not for the second reason, why not? The most important thing is that your intentions come from a place of compassion and openness.

“For leaders to be able to embrace diversity and make it actionable in the workplace, they really have to internalize it,” Gordon says. “What I’m seeing is that when they don’t do that, it turns into an initiative that HR or the chief diversity officer or somebody ‘over there’ has to take care of. And when they do that, they’re going to have some short-term wins but they’re not going to have long-term sustainability.” 

When you remind yourself and your team that a diversity of perspective, background, and experience leads to better ideas, solutions, and more profits, it will fuel lasting effort and blow the doors open to access and opportunity.

Get personal with others

Relying on press releases from your organization or emails to reassure staff that the workplace is becoming more inclusive because you’re afraid to talk about DEI isn’t going to cut it. It’s vital that you get involved and have conversations with people about their own experiences in your workplace.

Photo of a one-on-one meeting to illustrate the importance of workplace diversity

“Talking to your team, talking to your employees, creating that kind of culture or climate of ‘We’re going to talk about this’ is vital as a leader,” says Volpone. “If the organization is not doing much, the leader can still do a lot,” she adds. “And that impacts employees and how they react, to how engaged they are in the workplace and how committed they are to diversity at work.”

Ask questions that dig into each person’s point of view: What do you like about working here? What is most challenging? Is there anything that prevents you from doing your job to your best potential?

If managers are not willing to get vulnerable and personally put in the work to ensure that the people and environment they oversee benefit from DEI efforts, nobody will ever benefit, says Volpone. If employees don’t feel comfortable sharing, use anonymous pulse surveys throughout the year in which they can talk about their ongoing journey.

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

One-size-fits-all solutions don’t breed inclusivity. In today’s business world, we often don’t consider other people’s situations and what they may be going through. Someone who is the first in their family to go to college and work in a corporate environment does not have the benefit of a passed-down playbook of how to get ahead at the office. Personalized learning plans, mentorship opportunities, or assigning an “office buddy” would set up this person for success.

It’s important that leaders invent new norms to better include groups already marginalized. For example, if you’re interviewing candidates for a position and you see a woman who is lacking a year of work from her résumé, it’s crucial to examine your own thought biases in response to that: Is she unreliable, or is it because she had to take on full-time child-care responsibilities at home? That’s the unconscious bias Volpone uses as an example to show how leaders and hiring managers can unknowingly cut off their own diverse workforce.

Likewise, next time you invite your employees out for drinks after work, think about how you might be excluding sober individuals and working parents. Suggests Volpone: “Doing things on lunch breaks can be a better idea.” Questioning norms and why you always doing things a certain way will help you make efforts to consciously implement DEI.

Photo illustrating the workplace diversity at a business meeting

Allow others’ voices to be heard

Social movements are all about amplifying the voices of historically underrepresented groups, so when you shut someone down, you roll back your DEI efforts. Next time you’re given the opportunity to listen to those you lead, take it.

“Meetings are the place to start. They’re usually pretty frequent, and it is so common [as a woman] in every meeting just to be cut off or treated like a secretary,” says Volpone, who advises that leaders “make sure the meetings are good for everybody and that voices are heard.” You can do this by putting a system in place where everyone has at least five minutes to speak, or helping to amplify a speaker’s idea by reiterating it and adding, “That’s a great point, Jennifer. Are you saying ____? What do you think about this idea?”

From listening to how people feel when they’re at work to acknowledging and respecting team members’ experiences of harassment to letting people finish speaking in meetings, listening is vital to transforming your organization into one of inclusivity.

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With more than 20 years experience in the media world, Kathleen Harris has been an editor, writer, and content strategist for media companies, premier brands, and startups alike. Her specialties include business and career insight, leadership advice, and lifestyle trends. Her track record includes working as the Editor of RealSimple.com and Deputy Editor at The Knot. She has written for Huffington Post, Washington Post, Pop Sugar, Real Simple, and more. She was trained as a journalist at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

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