Improving Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Whether just starting out or setting stretch goals, organizations can always find ways to improve their equity, diversity, and inclusion practices

With COVID restrictions lifting, teams face a choice: go back to “old habits,” or design new ways of working for a changed environment. And we’re not just talking about remote work—the past year has shown how critical it is for organizations to rethink their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices.

At the macro level, organizations are making incremental, if slow, progress on DEI. More are recognizing Juneteenth, and some large brands are sharing their progress in diversifying their vendor pool and supply chain. But at ground level, it can feel like the motivation to act (and be held accountable) is dwindling. Some leaders may want to avoid the discomfort and effort needed to address and ameliorate, wherever possible, the persistence of racism, inequities, and exclusion in the workplace. 

We caught up with teams addressing their own diversity, equity, and inclusion transformation, and learned that to deliver on the promises and foundation of DEI work initiated over the last year, it’s essential to view the challenge holistically, at three stages: Start, Share, Stretch. 

Start small. Given the scale of the challenge, it may feel like you need a total overhaul to make your organization a more just environment. But like any other change initiative, it’s better to simply start somewhere: implement a variety of small changes to improve DEI, and then test and learn to see what takes hold. “‘Good’ is different for every organization,” says Grant Harris, director-at-large for training and diversity and chair of the diversity & inclusion subcommittee for the Virginia Military Institute Alumni Association Board of Directors. “Making small incremental changes over time will lead to large shifts in culture.” 

Share perspectives and power.  Leaders must show a willingness to listen to–and empathize with–employee perspectives, and communicate their own intent to have difficult conversations. “We need to have senior leadership interested and bought in and along for the ride, and also need to have staff pushing, and pushing in multiple directions,” said Rachel Marcuse, COO of DEI consulting firm ReadySet. (Full disclosure: ReadySet and NOBL are working together to grind and polish NOBL’s own DEI lens.) Encouraging employees to share their own experiences, amplifying their colleagues, and calling on your team to do better creates the sustained momentum that builds movements. Of course, if people are taking on more of the work, compensate them for it.

Stretch your concept of where DEI begins and ends. If your team is genuinely already well on its way to a more just culture, think about how you can continue to build on prior success, even if that means abandoning ideas that felt untouchable. For instance, venture capital, strategic advisory, and philanthropic organization Tusk found early success in rethinking how it approached hiring with a hard line around a previously sacred resource. It found that shifting the firm away from mining personal networks for potential candidates produced a more diverse talent pool. 

“We have a pretty strong stance now that any candidate that comes in is not coming through our personal network, unless it aligns with our DEI efforts,” said Meaghan Collins, chief of staff at Tusk Strategies, who helped lead the work. It was a move that effectively devalued leaders’ Rolodexes, but opened the conversation more broadly among the entire team. 

Kickstarting DEI within Your Organization

If you’ve yet to address DEI at your organization, or your initial efforts have faltered, it’s never too late to make progress: 

  • Establish your baseline. First, acknowledge your organization’s history around DEI. What’s your current level of effort? How might you benefit by focusing more resources on DEI? As Harris notes, “Companies should focus on starting where they are.”
  • Identify systems that could use improvement. Systemic bias and racism require systemic solutions. According to Marcuse, that means looking at everything from “how we talk to our customers and clients, how we design our products, and what we change internally, rather than a one-off training on bias.” Good places to start include:
    • Hiring Processes. Are you recruiting a diverse field of candidates? Have you established a system for evaluating candidates that eliminates bias?
    • Handbooks. Have you thought about how your culture is codified and shared? Collins described recently convening a group of individual contributors to update them on the progress of the firm’s culture manual.: “Nine times out of ten, there would be no participation, no one would have said anything,” she said. This time, “it was a full-blown, hour-long discussion.”
    • Learning and Development. In addition to reconsidering curriculum and subject input through a DEI lens, Cevin Owens, principal learning partner for Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, writes, “you may also want to focus your DEI lens on the format of L&D programs—consider offering more than the standard ways of learning and awareness building for your teams.”
  • Build a coalition for change by creating more leaders. Find others and get them to push it forward, support them. Harris recommends “Instead of offering a company-wide training on bias, create small affinity groups where employees up and down the chain of command can join an intimate group of others who look like them and have shared life and work experiences where they feel comfortable speaking about these topics.”
Published July 18, 2021

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