January 13, 2021
Keith Plummer & Dr. Sarah Saska
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) roles and initiatives disappear overnight. A month or so later—no less than 24 hours after the murder of George Floyd—we observed organizations scramble to elevate their DEI efforts, and many for the first time. Starting on May 26th, 2020, we received an 800% increase in inbound requests for DEI consulting, and the demand remains high.
No doubt, 2020 was a powerful reminder that anti-Black racism remains strong within our institutions and us. It demonstrated that so many groups face exacerbated inequities, many of which are compounded by oppressive systems and current crises. For example, working mothers and primary caregivers have disproportionately exited the workforce or reduced their hours. LGBTQ2+ people have found that company sick leave policies are not inclusive of their chosen families, and isolation measures have exacerbated existing mental health disparities. Team members’ accessibility needs have sometimes been sidelined in rapid transitions to virtual work, and assistive equipment has transferred to new contexts with varying levels of success.
And all of these ongoing issues only scratch the surface. As DEI advocates and professionals, we know the interrelations of identity, power, and exclusion are multidimensional and overlapping. We can’t focus on creating inclusion and addressing inequity only during a crisis. This year, we must embrace a proactive and intersectional approach before headlines.
On a global level, 2020 was the year of reactive action, and 2021 must be the year of long-term, strategic direction.
In 2021, we need organizations to follow through on their big promises. The events on January 6th at the United States Capitol only make this more crucial. As the United States was besieged by a violent mob adorned in Nazi paraphernalia and symbols of white supremacy, we are again reminded that our silence on issues of prejudice and basic human dignity promotes hate. We should be alarmed, but not shocked, by the disparate treatment of the Capitol insurrectionists compared to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters due to white privilege. These rioters were not unique and have been a part of society all along in our workplaces, in law enforcement, and in the government itself. To combat the systems that brought individuals like these their power and privilege, we have developed meaningful DEI tactics for the workplace.
DEI work is often limited to a branch of Human Resources and not integrated adequately across an organization. While DEI is an essential component of effective recruitment, retention, promotion strategy, and an employee training requirement, its insights and perspectives must be woven into how a company operates every day. Beyond HR, DEI stands to add value in product and technology design, marketing, executive leadership development, corporate social responsibility, strategic planning, and other areas. When falling into the trap of a reductive DEI approach, a company will very likely miss out on innovative workplace culture, external campaigns, or product/service offerings.
In 2021, we need a more significant proportion of leaders to recognize the multi-functional nature of DEI roles and the necessity of integrating DEI insights and feedback across projects and departments. There must be a continued rise in the creation of Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) positions because leading DEI is complicated and specialized work. Businesses who hired DEI positions in knee-jerk and tokenizing manners—namely because of their identities and not expertise—will realize that an effective professional needs a well-rounded skill-set in public speaking, data analysis, education, change management, conflict resolution, and social justice, among many other necessary traits. DEI professionals must also be at the highest decision-making tables.
Passionate and invested advocates usually lead DEI initiatives and bring companies to introduce comprehensive DEI strategies that include dedicated positions, performance metrics, and responsibilities. These DEI champions are disproportionately members of marginalized groups and lead these programs on top of the work they were hired to do in the first place. As such, while the company benefits from their labour, it goes uncompensated. Alongside this, many DEI departments and leaders live in fear that their budgets will be slashed because they are so often inconsistently or under-funded, only secure during times of scandal and civil unrest. DEI professionals are stifled from the beginning in accomplishing their goals because companies make them operate without the significant financial backing to initiate transformations or introduce long-term plans.
In 2021, DEI cannot be an afterthought or a fever dream. Companies need to back up their promises with budgets and get their teams to recognize that this work is a shared responsibility deserving real recognition. All positions’ roles and responsibilities, especially middle and senior management, should be formally integrated into DEI strategies. Leaders should have an explicit allocation of time explicitly dedicated to DEI goals. Employee Resource Groups (ERG) and leadership positions should not be volunteer (exploiting employees with marginalized identities) but must be voluntary. This means they are both by choice and financially rewarded. If team members contribute to panels, organize programming, or participate in marketing campaigns relating to DEI, this must come with additional compensation. If your company made significant monetary commitments to DEI programming in 2020, this must carry on to the next year and years to come. DEI leaders cannot build successful initiatives with ad-hoc expenditures; these efforts require non-negotiable budget lines over the long haul.
DEI strategies that are governed by intuition and good intentions will fail and misallocate valuable time and resources. Research has shown that only around a quarter of employees who are members of marginalized social groups feel like their company’s diversity projects help them. Like sales or marketing, in DEI, organizations need data to shape gaps, growth areas, and instances of excellence in concrete, measurable, and actionable forms. Every workplace is unique and does not necessarily mirror industry trends. Some companies might have unaddressed accessibility issues, a problematic workplace culture devoid of psychological safety, racial bias in hiring, and some might have all three or different issues altogether. They’ll only know if they seek out data.
Without data, there is no accountability. Data is your company’s first step in benchmarking and giving credibility to DEI programs. These numbers, testimonies, and statistics give leaders something tangible to advocate with and construct a tailored business case for DEI at your company. Businesses must regularly survey their workforce and overlay thoughts, experiences, and outcomes on respondents’ social and corporate locations to analyze for disparities, themes, and insightful feedback. DEI goals must be tied to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Objective & Key Results (OKRs), making these metrics bear weight on employee performance reviews and bonuses. Companies need to commit to specific goals around DEI and be transparent about progress. Leverage data supporting your DEI strategy, but remain reflective, critical and iterative in your methods and measurements.
Diversity and Inclusion have been the mainstay monikers of many departments for a while, but it’s time to expand our scope and thinking. Diversity refers to “difference” within a given setting and can take many forms, including appearance, thoughts, and identity. When our DEI initiatives are created to treat everyone the same or “equally,” this generates issues given the mosaic of experiences and people composing our teams. Equity acknowledges that everyone has different needs and opportunities and creates processes to reach their full potential. Intersectionality recognizes that these differences are complex and overlapping. Someone can’t segment themselves into one aspect of their identity. Finally, belonging is the culmination of these efforts in the workplace, which elevates inclusion to a place where every employee feels a deep sense of authenticity, purpose, connection, and value.
In 2021, companies must thoughtfully incorporate equity, intersectionality, and belonging into their initiatives, surveys, programming, and policies. A DEI strategy without equity and intersectionality is vapid and unproductive - akin to white feminism designed to disproportionately benefit white women, with little regard for people with multiple marginalized identities. Furthermore, while belonging can be one of the most important elements of positive workplace culture, belonging should never be wielded to distract from necessary structural change. Companies must rename and reevaluate their DEI-related departments and initiatives to reflect these critical components of an effective DEI strategy. In 2021, we expect a greater focus on aligning teams on the meanings and implications of each of these terms, as well as their significance in reaching company goals around fairness, innovation, and workplace culture.
A company’s commitment to DEI requires them to take tangible actions in creating a more just world. Companies should take a clear stance on social issues and human rights. Companies should holistically engage with stakeholders inside and outside their business and thoughtfully give back. For example, a company that has robust pride initiatives should not donate to anti-LGBTQ2+ politicians. A company branding itself as eco-friendly should not disproportionately contribute to waste and pollution or disingenuously greenwash products. DEI must be raised to a top-line agenda item with transparency and metrics that hold leaders accountable.
In 2021, Corporate Social Justice must be an influential guide in company operations. Companies must rethink their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) through this framework. Companies must take more significant steps toward social and fiscal sustainability, accounting for their impact on the world and the communities they operate in. We must call out and hold businesses accountable when they place profit margins above the common good or exhibit glaring inconsistencies in what they are projecting versus what they are actually doing.
We need to innovate, and we need to rewrite the playbook for DEI. Changing workplaces changes lives. 2021 is not only the time to adapt and transform; it’s time to redefine the field and scope of DEI and, as a result, the way we do business. 2021 is a chance to do better and continue on our journey toward justice.