Christopher Berry, Senior Manager, Transformation Services, Sevenstep

Build Inclusion into Your DEI Roadmap

Building a diverse workforce remains a priority in business. Despite pressures related to economic uncertainty, a focus on cost control and news about lagging DEI commitments, more than two-thirds of Sevenstep clients maintain diversity goals in their hiring.

This continued emphasis on diversity should be no surprise. Today's business pressures are not competing with DEI. Instead, they add to the need for a stronger, more diverse and inclusive organization that attracts workers from all backgrounds and enables their success. Beyond the business case, building a diverse and inclusive workforce is, very simply, the right thing to do.

But when it comes to improving DEI, there is much work ahead, not only in hiring diverse workers but also in keeping them on board once hired — and that's where inclusion becomes paramount. An inclusive culture makes every worker feel valued as part of the organization. Improving inclusion increases retention, reduces the burden of acquiring new talent and enhances the ability to attract and secure talent from all backgrounds.  

In our work with employers across industries, we have seen that building an inclusive workforce is not just a wish. There are specific, actionable paths and priorities to yield real improvements. To help clarify that journey, the following areas of focus can frame the conversation and provide a guide to identifying areas of improvement.

Based on traditional and emerging practices, these inclusive workforce priorities are not only good for improving DEI; they are good for improving overall talent and business performance: 

Create a Transparent Culture and Empowering Experience for Workers

In work, as in nearly every part of life, people value interactions and experiences that are honest, transparent and empowering. According to a McKinsey Employee Experience Survey, people with a positive employee experience have 16 times the engagement level of those with a negative experience. Similarly, a study by ADP revealed that employees are more engaged when they perceive greater satisfaction with organizational commitments to diversity and inclusion.

Simply put, employees need a greater focus on DEI to feel connected and satisfied in their jobs. Those who do not will leave. So how do you cultivate an experience that retains staff? A good starting point is to consider employees as consumers and employee experience as your product. Improving that experience begins with communication and interaction:

  • Overcommunicate on DEI commitments: At a minimum, organizations should execute an internal DEI-centered marketing strategy that connects the wants and needs of its people to the functional areas of the business and broader organizational goals while also remembering that the wants and needs of its people will change over time. 

    A commitment to diversity is not a one-time event. Employees need to know that the organization is acting on their DEI priorities every day. Regularly communicate the organization's commitment to DEI. This communication can develop internally and externally through various channels such as newsletters, intranet portals, and social media—but ultimately, genuine communication comes when people speak to each other personally, across all levels of the organization, about the individual wants and needs that drive their success. 

  • Hear the voice of the employee: Conduct employee surveys and focus groups to understand their wants and needs. Use the insights gained to tailor the employee experience to individual preferences, providing flexibility and personalization where possible. Remember, people want different things for themselves. More than that, what they want will change over time as they grow or their roles change. The employer that understands the individual dynamics is best positioned to enhance the experience for everyone. 

Replace Passive "Trickle Up" DEI with Active Approaches to Inclusion

In a recent WebMD Health Services study, 65% of LGBTQIA+ respondents reported needing more from their companies to foster belonging, and two-thirds of Black employees reported a need for a more significant focus on equity, again demonstrating that wants and needs will vary by individual and group.

These figures reveal discontent among employees despite continued efforts to boost diverse hiring. Often, the cause of this persistent challenge is a misplaced belief that hiring diverse workers will automatically create a positive ripple effect throughout the organization. However, this belief in the "trickle-up" effect overlooks the need for a sense of belonging and a clear vision for career growth.

What trickle-up typically fails to capture is that people do not stay where there is a lack of belonging or vision for their own careers, and they often look for that in their leadership. If leadership is visibly homogenous, they will not believe in a tangible path toward career growth, regardless of how committed their leadership is to the principles of DEI. To enable lasting change, the following practices will provide a practical starting point:

  • Establish leadership accountability: Company leadership defines the operational guidelines for success in most aspects of business, but the people ultimately define the culture. If leadership defines and manages everything correctly, they create a cycle of improving employee experience and development. Leadership drives the experience, the experience defines the culture, the culture retains the staff, and the staff develops into future leaders.

    Establish diversity and inclusion goals for leadership positions and hold executives accountable for progress. This ensures that diversity is not just limited to entry-level positions but is reflected at all levels of the organization.  

  • Actively fight unconscious bias: Despite the best intentions, discrimination and bias will often prevent individuals from moving into new roles or progressing in their careers. For example, affinity bias alone is one of nearly two hundred types of bias and one of the most prevalent obstacles to inclusion.  

    This type of bias — in which people tend to seek out others with similar skills, qualities, or identities to their own — comes into play in onboarding as well as the opportunities companies present to employees. Are we evaluating and selecting candidates based on qualification and merit alone, or on what we believe a candidate should look like based on our biases? Are we genuinely promoting, rewarding, or creating opportunities for all internal talent or just for a select few who are like us?

To start addressing the issue, companies can begin by implementing unconscious bias training for all employees, especially managers and decision-makers. This training helps individuals recognize their own biases and make more objective and inclusive decisions, but it is only the beginning. Progress happens when an organization maintains consistent open conversation to help managers, leaders and individual contributors recognize the areas of bias that uniquely influence their roles.

Get Intentional about the Success of Diverse Workers

The success of every individual worker is critical to an organization's success, and today a larger portion of that workforce comes from diverse backgrounds. The 2020 US Census indicated that by 2045, groups currently labeled as "minorities" will likely reach majority status, with one in three Americans projected to belong to a race other than white by 2060. Earlier Census data shows that Millennials are 19% more diverse than Baby Boomers, and a study by Pew Research Center found that 48% of Gen Z identifies as non-white. Both figures bring the generational shift in diversity truly into focus.

As the workforce becomes more diverse, organizations that demonstrate the highest level of success for diverse workers are gaining an advantage in attracting more talent. But success is not only dependent on the abilities and work of the individual. It also requires an organization that provides a real path forward. Clearing that path does not happen on its own. It requires an intentional effort to address the biases, barriers and pitfalls.

There is no quick fix for building a diverse workforce, but an ongoing commitment supported by continuous action, communication and re-evaluation will yield meaningful improvement. By taking a proactive approach to DEI, organizations can cultivate a diverse and inclusive workplace that drives innovation, engagement and business success.


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