Learn to recognize the barriers employees face and use diversity, equity, and inclusion to ensure all employees can thrive.
Workplaces Are Not Equitable
Who benefits from the way your workplace is structured?
Whose needs are accommodated?
Who is made to feel that they belong?
If your workplace is like almost every other part of society, it is enabling and welcoming to a small subset of people.
“Large-scale institutional systems are very rarely designed to be equitable to a broad set of individuals with a diverse set of needs,” says Dr. Erin Huner, Director of Culture & Inclusion at Ivey Business School. “These systems were built for the needs of a fairly narrow group of people.”
The solution? Re-design systems – including your workplace – with equity at the core. In the business world, this movement is called diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s an important part of social sustainability.
This article will help business leaders understand:
1. What diversity, equity, and inclusion means.
2. Ways in which your workplace might favour some groups over others.
3. A 7-step process to implement DEI effectively.
What is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?
Here’s what the words diversity, equity, and inclusion mean:
- Diversity is the presence of many different types of people.
- Equity means everyone has equal access to opportunity and protection from discrimination.
- Inclusion means everyone feels a sense of belonging.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion is not something that people and organizations can ‘do or not do.’ They constantly engage with diversity – it’s simply a question of whether they do it well, or do it poorly.
“Humans interact with other humans in so many facets of their lives,” explains Dr. Nadine de Gannes, member of Ivey’s EDI Advisory Council. “Given that our workplaces are full of these interactions, the question is whether we’re holding ourselves accountable for having them in dignified and respectful ways.”
Employers that don’t actively engage in DEI practices increase the likelihood that their employees will feel less dignity and belonging at work.
Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter: Stephanie’s Story
We share a personal story to show how diversity, equity, and inclusion make a difference.
Stephanie Torok is 36. She has cerebral palsy and epilepsy from a stroke at birth, which limits the use of the left side of her body. She uses a walker or scooter to get around. Her experiences show how systems aren’t built for everyone.
When she was young, she didn’t notice the barriers. “All my mom had to do was grab my left hand and I could go upstairs. It was just my normal.”
As Stephanie got older, she started bumping into challenges.
As she prepared to enter high school, Stephanie’s elementary school teachers suggested she join the developmental education program, which prioritizes life skills over academic learning. They didn’t believe she could thrive in the mainstream system. But Stephanie did graduate from the mainstream system, with honours.
Later in life, Stephanie enrolled in college, where she was approved for accommodations (extra support from the college). These included a note-taker and tutor. However, staff turnover meant that two months into the semester Stephanie had not received a note-taker or tutor. “My stress was so high that term from falling behind that it triggered a seizure,” she recalls. Due to the lack of support, Stephanie dropped out in the second term.
Since then, Stephanie has worked several retail jobs. Some employers have been accommodating, for example by allowing her to have a chair at her cash register. Other employers have been unwilling to adapt. At one job, Stephanie couldn’t be a cashier because the employer didn’t allow chairs behind the till.
“I live in a world that wasn’t built for me,” says Stephanie.
She’s not alone. Many people have lived their whole lives in systems where they feel like a square peg in a round hole. These people might include those with physical disabilities or learning differences, people of colour, immigrants, women, and people who are LGBTQ+. Systems may not leave these individuals feeling dignified and respected.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Improve Financial Performance
DEI matters to your organization ethically, but also financially.
Employers are under-realizing the power of their people, says researcher de Gannes. “In this fourth industrial revolution, the biggest share of corporate expenses is employed in human capital,” she says. “And a diverse workforce that has a sense of belonging will outperform any other.”
And diversity matters at every level. Research shows that a 1% increase in the similarity of racial diversity between upper and lower management boosts firm productivity by $729 to $1590 per employee, per year.
There is also financial benefit to ensuring all members of your team feel a sense of belonging. Fostering a sense of belonging leads to improved job performance, less employee turnover, and fewer employee sick days, according to research by Deloitte.
7 Steps to Implement Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Work
Ready to start understanding and dismantling the barriers faced by employees at your workplace? De Gannes and Huner have advice for doing so, based on their research and practical experience.
The 7-step process below will help you modify your workplace in ways that say to everybody, “We expected you to be here. We planned with you in mind. You belong.”
You may be leading organizational DEI efforts, or you may have less direct authority. But everyone in an organization can try to push for these changes.
Step 1: Listen
Every workplace is different. Before you change anything, collect feedback to understand what employees experience as problematic.
“There’s not enough time being spent on just peeling the layers of the of the onion to identify the problems,” says de Gannes. “People tend to rush into creating solutions before understanding the problems.”
The first time you listen, don’t try to respond to the concerns raised. The saying ‘listen to understand, not to respond’ is fitting for this stage of engagement.
Be aware that challenges in your workplace may reflect what’s generally known of inequitable systems – or may not. Be open to ways that your workplace may differ from the norm.
And be aware that not all employees will experience the same thing. Listening to the perspective of one person of colour, for example, isn’t enough to understand racial barriers to equity in your workplace. You must hear from many employees.
De Gannes offers her personal experience as an example. “For me, my race doesn’t affect my experience as much as my gender. But sharing that with my employer does not mean that our organization has a gender issue but we’re we’ve got race all sorted.”
Step 2: Make Sure You Can Follow Through
Listening will give you a sense of what needs to be fixed. But you won’t be able to fix everything immediately.
A common mistake that organizations make is trying to do everything at once. This can be especially tempting if your organization has been publicly called out for poor DEI practices and you’re feeling pressure to respond.
Resist the urge to bite off too much. Set a very clear budget and time allocation for the work, then be candid with employees about the resources available.
“Building equity costs money and requires resource allocation,” says Huner. “I am always skeptical when people design equity plans without a budget. Inequality cannot be addressed through goodwill and mission statements on their own. It requires intentional resource allocation.”
Once you’ve been transparent about your budget, start to prioritize and sequence the suggestions your employees offered in the listening process. Show employees how you are prioritizing and sequencing, and get their input on that, too.
Step 3: Take Action
OK, it’s time to get to work!
In the early days, employees may not have much trust in the organization. It’s important to take assertive action, especially in the beginning. Show employees you’re taking their concerns seriously.
“If you don’t see through that first cycle of meaningful progress, you won’t have legs to stand on going forward,” says de Gannes.
Make sure the organization has enough time to complete the work it commits to, including changes to physical infrastructure, policies, and processes. Don’t over-promise then under-deliver.
Step 4: Help Employees Learn
Some of the changes your organization needs will be behavioural change by employees. For this, the go-to action is usually training programs. Huner encourages leaders to stay laser focused on the learning outcomes. Each program should have a clearly define set of things it helps employees know, value, or do differently.
The required learning outcomes vary from organization to organization, and even over time within the same organization. But in the early days of implementing DEI in any workplace, there are two skills employees need.
Skill 1: Self-awareness
“We begin all of our DEI-related learning at Ivey by asking participants to deepen their understanding of themselves,” says Huner. “Because if you don’t understand your own perspectives and biases, it will be much more difficult to understand someone else and the lived experiences they describe to you.”
Huner suggests using a Positionality Wheel to begin this work. The wheel asks people to think about their own identities. For example:
- Which identities did you come to know first? This question helps people see which aspects of their identity they were encouraged to see as important.
- Which identities are most relevant to others? This helps people uncover how they are seen and understood by different people. They also start to realize that how their identities are seen depends on the context.
- Which identities are most relevant to you? When people answer this question, they realize that how they see themselves, including their power and privilege, depends on the context and how others see them.
Chelsea Hicks-Webster, writer and life coach, offers an example of how these questions can create self-awareness:
“I am white, but question #1 would help me see that I never thought about my skin colour growing up.
Even now, I live in a rural, largely white town, and I rarely think about my skin colour. Question #2 would help me see that my white neighbours never notice or comment on my skin colour.
But the ‘irrelevance’ of my racial identity is context specific. This year, I took a course where another student and I were white, and the four other participants weren’t. The white participants – including me – monopolized class discussions. Question #3 would help me see how my skin colour was related to inequitable power distribution in that context.”
Skill 2: Active Listening
Connections matter more than rules. Huner cautions against training employees on a set of ‘rules’ about specific words or processes, for example. Fundamentally, DEI is about learning to see others with respect.
Employees must learn to have open, exploratory conversations with people who are different than themselves. Teach your employees the skills for active listening and compromise. This can help them empathize with the impact their words and actions have on other people’s dignity.
Step 5: Assess Impact Properly
Most DEI programs include Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess how things are working. Assessment is important, but choose your KPIs wisely.
Huner noted two common, but problematic, metrics for assessing DEI programs:
1. ‘Number of people trained’ does not equal impact
“The most common KPI is counts. People want to know how many people went through a given training program,” says Huner. “That’s not a bad thing to know, but it’s not the whole story.”
We should also be assessing learning. All training should be designed to achieve learning outcomes – things participants will know, value, or do differently after the training. As you assess your programs, be sure to measure how well you achieved those learning outcomes.
2. Celebrate accommodations – and also when accommodations aren’t necessary
Many organizations count the total number of accommodations they create, such as providing a note taker for a person with a learning difference.
That’s not necessarily evidence of strong inclusion practices. When someone constantly has to ask for accommodations, they get a very strong signal that the system was not designed with their success in mind. Research shows that having to request accommodation decreases a person’s sense of belonging.
“Our measure of success should be around building systems using universal design principles to increase inclusion and access from the start,” says Huner.
The bonus? Proactively planning for the most vulnerable and complex members of our communities ultimately increases inclusion and belonging for all members of the community.
Step 6: Report back transparently
After completing an initial sprint of work, organizations should report back on progress.
That’s also a good opportunity to hear employee feedback on their experience of the changes and get input to shape future priorities.
Step 7: Repeat
If an organization is doing DEI right, efforts will be cyclical and long-term. There’s no final destination. DEI should be a continuous cycle of listen-do-share-repeat.
With any long-term effort, attention from inside and outside the organization may rise and fall, but steady work is still important. Consistent progress will allow you to capitalize on moments of attention to make strides forward.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Extend Beyond Humans
“We rarely extend conversations about equality and inclusion beyond human-to-human interactions,” provokes Huner. “We are not good at making kin and understanding the impacts our work has on the land, water, and animals.”
But people are unavoidably connected to the land. As the Indigenous Dish With One Spoon Wampum Covenant teaches, we eat from the same bowl as the birds, plants, animals, water, and rocks around us. We have collective responsibility to take only what we need from that bowl, maintaining balance for all.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are complete only when we are live equitably with both our human and our non-human kin.