Maintaining internal progress towards DEIB in an uncertain external environment

April 25, 2023

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) within the workplace has been on a fluctuating see-saw for the past few years. In 2020, we witnessed large swells of support for social justice movements, bold statements, and large financial pledges to enhance DEIB. Now, the weight is tipped to the opposite side, and we’re often seeing crashing support, waning efforts, and stagnant impact.

The volatile macroeconomic environment and the politicization of DEIB efforts have caused some organizations to react fearfully and downsize their DEIB efforts or remove resources entirely. However, organizations that moderate their commitment to DEIB based on the volatile external environment may find their efforts intermittent and fragmented. 

For People/HR leaders tasked with creating this paradigm shift, these circumstances beg the question: How can we enhance DEIB and maintain the momentum to drive impact in moments when external support feels inconsistent or resources are scarce? 

Strong DEIB initiatives focus on mitigating barriers to advancement and encourage, enable, and empower all people to thrive, regardless of their backgrounds. While saying or displaying that your organization is committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is one thing, the strongest initiatives are often those that sit quietly under the surface. In moments of volatility, focus on your organization’s preparedness to drive equity.

Start when you’re scaling 

The most critical step in building a DEIB strategy within your organization is the first one. Building the foundation of DEIB while your organization is still growing can cement your commitment to DEIB and enables you to develop an agile strategy that will meet the needs of your organization today and address the opportunities of tomorrow.

Stay intentional 

The development and evolution of DEIB is intrinsically tied to data. But it’s not just about what data is easiest to collect—it’s about whether the categories truthfully and accurately reflect your workforce. The categories used by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the census, and other government entities may not be the most accurate or robust to accurately represent your people (both in terms of how they identify and where in the world they are). 

For example, many HRIS systems default to the EEOCs standard way of collecting race and ethnicity. Depending on the choices provided, people who are of Middle Eastern or Arab descent often don’t have an appropriate category to choose from and are left to select “White” or remain blank, given the lack of an option that most accurately reflects their identity. Similarly, there are challenges when the categories presented equate a person’s race with their ethnicity. For example, individuals who are Afro-Latinx and identify as being both “Hispanic/Latinx” and “Black” for example, are often forced to choose one over the other. 

While EEOC data may be needed for auditing or legal reasons, you can be intentional about creating a separate, internal, and more inclusive system that allows for more categories and intersectional analysis and can account for the fluidity needed to capture the changes in the ways in which people identify before being trapped by static and outdated terminology. Moreover, this allows you to also account for the global variation in how dimensions of diverse identity are conceptualized and where it is legal to collect this information.

Focus on Intersectionality

Organizations should also take care to assess whether their systems allow for the collection and analysis of intersectional data. Far too often, data is analyzed by looking at variables one by one instead of acknowledging the compounded effect they have in shaping a person’s lived experience. By allowing employees to choose categories that more accurately reflect how they self-identify, the data centers your people and is more honest. 

Prioritizing what DEIB data to collect can feel overwhelming, especially when the strategies are initially being built. Identify what’s most important in the immediate term and plan around it. You can collect this data now and set an action plan on how to improve the data in the future.

Measure sentiment and progress 

Yes, it’s helpful and important to understand the makeup of your workforce at different levels, in different departments, and across regions. But this will not always tell you how people are feeling or progressing. 

The goal of successful DEIB programs is ultimately to mitigate barriers to advancement that encourage, enable, and empower all people to thrive—especially those who’ve been historically excluded and/or marginalized. In order to achieve that goal, you must have systems that can accurately help you get underneath these questions.

Understanding what representation looks like is essential, but without any other context, it can be a lagging indicator. This is especially true when hiring is restricted, which is the case for many businesses right now. In these cases, it’s important to understand how to hone in on retention and improve cultural indicators for all.

Audit your operations 

Aligning accurate DEIB data to organizational policies and practices will give you a wealth of information about the employee experience and can help you understand the level of fairness and inclusion across a number of processes and systems. Building this muscle early on can help focus investment and may reveal critical areas where operational practices are advancing diversity and, more importantly, where they are not. 

Move forward

Why focus on the data? Because it’s within your control, foundational to measuring progress, and critical for understanding your impact. 

The DEIB seesaw will inevitably shift again. Taking steps to collect, organize, and evaluate your DEIB data will prepare your organization to drive even greater impacts when the weight tilts to the other side.  

Leena Kulkarni is the Head of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Array. In previous roles, she worked to build and implement DEIB strategies for F500/1000 and Non-Profit organizations, universities, and startups. Her background is in DEIB data and analytics, learning and development, and behavioral science. She holds a Masters of Public Health from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a Masters of Education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a B.S. from Cornell University. Her writing and research can be found in:Harvard Business School Publishing (working papers), The Huffington Post, and PLOS Medicine.

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