Insights & Ideas

A process, not a product: What’s next for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace 

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Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the workplace should have always been at the forefront of every organization’s priorities. But two years ago, the murder of George Floyd spurred national conversations about making DEI efforts with respect to race more transparent and actionable in the workplace. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic raised the profile of work/life balance issues and the lack of institutional supports, which pushed the conversation further into the equity and inclusion space.

For a closer look at how DEI initiatives have been rolling out in real time, we connected with three experts in this area:

Cathy Bergland, lead consultant at CB Leadership Group

Nam Provost, founder and lead consultant at Racial Equity through Action and Learning (REAL)

Kaleen Robinson, chief talent officer at Salo

Each offered their views on how workplace DEI work is evolving—and lagging—plus tips for keeping this work relevant and focused on change.

Embed diversity, equity, and inclusion into your organization’s ongoing mission

Through her work as lead consultant at CB Leadership Group, Cathy Bergland sees successful companies keeping DEI front and center even when the external world has quieted.

“My concern is that the focus and urgency to work on DEI issues is waning,” Bergland says. “The systems we are dealing with didn’t happen overnight and it is going to take long, slow work to fix them.”

This is why embedding DEI initiatives in your organization’s focus is key. For Nam Provost, founder and lead consultant at Racial Equity through Action and Learning (REAL), building a good DEI program requires a strong foundation. True change cannot happen from a single training or policy.

“The trend I am seeing is that leaders in organizations want to go back to what is comfortable,” Provost says. “I see it in the increased focus on ‘belonging and diversity’ as stated goals. Diversity, belonging, and inclusion are outcomes that can only be achieved by creating pluralistic and equitable environments.”

For Provost, this means that DEI work doesn’t have standard metrics. Your organization will always be changing and improving.

“Organizations should think of DEI work as a process, not a product,” Provost explains.

Go beyond talent acquisition

Provost says many organizations reacted to the current racial reckoning brought to the forefront after George Floyd’s murder by increasing focus on talent acquisition.

“But the reaction to diversify and fill talent quickly often steers the work and conversation away from the additional work needed to retain top talent,” she says. “It has to be a both/and.”

And DEI roles have limited success when DEI titles are layered onto already full roles in human resources. Provost warns this is not a new trend, but it is getting notably stronger—and it is a red flag.

“DEI is a complex discipline that requires expertise in organizational development, people management, learning and development, and systemic, strategic planning,” she says. “Many organizations continue to fulfill their need for the optics at the top level with practitioners with varying levels of DEI expertise and limited resources. People have a desire to find the silver bullet or shortcut when there is none.”

Make space for continued conversation and learning

It can feel frustrating when the wave you had hoped would carry your organization forward isn’t moving as quickly as you expected. But data shows job seekers and employees still care, so persistence is key.

The most successful organizations create space for ongoing discussions and learning, says Kaleen Robinson, chief talent officer at Salo.

“There’s freedom in creating an environment where people can ask questions and keep learning,” Robinson says. “By providing some structure and framing to the conversations, it allows individuals to learn and grow in their own journey and at their own pace.”

And people do want to talk about it, Robinson reports. She says she’s having frequent conversations about people’s own specific needs and questions. She’s also hearing from people who are curious about high-level strategy, including what the organization wants to do and who they want to be in the DEI space.

Recognize the role of flexible and remote options in equity and inclusion

During the pandemic, many employees found home as a new and improved workplace, offering work-life balance they hadn’t had before. For others, such as those with certain disabilities or medical conditions, the remote work option has been central to workplace equity and inclusion for decades, letting people more fully participate.

“Flexible working options are not a nice-to-have,” Robinson says. “They’re a requirement in order to be successful in most organizations these days.”

For many, having a hybrid environment creates the best of both worlds.

“Creating more options for how individuals can work within the construct of an organization gives you more potential talent to draw from and allows individuals to make a decision that works for them,” she says.

Assess—and be ready to prove—your progress

Bergland believes that the public has become more jaded about aspirational DEI statements—the all-important words you likely labored over that describe what your organization hopes to achieve. But those words must be backed by action and change.

“People are more interested in what you’ve actually done: What metrics have moved, and what difference your efforts have made,” she says.

Be prepared to provide transparent data and specific information about what you have accomplished. Bergland suggests organizations look at assessments such as the Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Benchmarks (GDEIB) to self-evaluate their progress. The GDEIB contains fifteen different inventories or checklists in four different groupings.

“The checklists are best practices of high-performing organizations in the DEI space, yet they are laid out in a developmental and progressively maturing manner,” she says.

Broaden your DEI definitions 

Bergland adds that she’s seen some organizations shift the focus from race and ethnicity to other forms of diversity such as gender identity, neurodiversity, different abilities, and age. This can be a positive move, so long as the original goals are not lost.

“While part of me applauds that as our issues around diversity are broader than race/ethnicity and folks in these other groups have also been marginalized, my concern is that we still have so much work to do regarding systemic racism,” she says. “Especially as entrenched as it is in areas like housing, healthcare, and criminal justice—just to name a few.”

Organizations may also be unable to support this work because they don’t have the core competency or mission focus to work on these systems. Bergland recommends organizations keep race-related DEI issues in the mix instead of a one-and-done approach.

“Successful organizations will keep a very strong focus on race while they broaden to other diversity topics,” she says.

If your DEI workplace efforts are expanding to other areas, such as whether your organization should be involved in social justice, you will need to get senior leaders and/or your board to have conversations around their responsibilities and roles.

Robinson believes that organizations are just scratching the surface of what diversity, equity, and inclusion work can and should include.

“In a truly people-first organization, everyone feels a sense of belonging and the ability to thrive with support from their organization,” she says.

Spending time and effort on DEI builds trust 

Trendy topics might make good talking points, but to really deliver on DEI goals, leadership needs to ensure the organization is solidly covering the basics. Being intentional in your aims and process helps both people and organizations drive the necessary changes. None of this is easy, or quick, but with sustained, consistent effort, you will build real trust with your workforce—and the wider world.

About Salo

At Salo, we empower people and companies to do purposeful work by matching senior HR, finance, and accounting experts with organizations that need their help. Looking for help in shaping your DEI efforts? We have consultants with experience. Contact us to learn more.