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Building a Successful DEI Strategy Requires More Than “Passion”

Written by Sadaf Parvaiz

After the murder of George Floyd there was a 55% increase in DEI roles according to The Society of Human Resources Professionals. As someone who has been in the DEI space for almost two decades this was encouraging to see companies begin to invest in this area in the wake of such a tragedy and societal pressure. Unfortunately three years on we see that for many organizations the investment in DEI was more performative as the economy started to shrink and DEI roles were the first to be eliminated. Furthermore, those who were appointed into DEI roles were not supported or set up for success leading to high turnover and burnout in the profession. According to Revelio labs, the attrition rate for DEI roles was 33% at the end of 2022, compared to 21% for non-DEI roles. This work is heavy and can be lonely and often people in DEI roles are dealing with their own lived experiences which can impact their own resilience and capacity to continue to do this work.

I am often asked how I have been able to do this work for so many years and there are some lessons I have learned along the way. They are helpful for any organization and DEI professional to think about as they take on this work to ensure that the work is sustainable.

I used to think that my success as a DEI professional would come when a company no longer needed a DEI professional to do this work. That the company would be at a point in its journey that DEI would be “part of the DNA” and just part of how the company operates. But would a company ever think they don’t need a Chief Financial Officer or budget? Would a company ever not monitor their sales and track their growth? I have come to learn that DEI cannot be something that is tossed aside when times are tough but rather it is a part of the regular operations and health of the organization like finance and marketing.

While every organization needs to start somewhere on their DEI journey, the ones that have built their DEI strategy using common building blocks that I call the “STACKS” approach have seen greater success and have been more sustainable despite leadership and economic uncertainty.

STACKS Model for DEI Strategy

Systems approach

Consider the impact to the employees’ career trajectory and ensure equitable outcomes for all. This work is often time consuming and tedious and not always visible to most of the organization but can often have the most impact. Examples include:

  • Review entire talent life cycle for bias and inequities in criteria or selection process
  • Policy and pay equity review
  • Leadership opportunities are distributed equitably
  • Transparency in processes and decision making

Tone at the top

This work cannot be solely owned by the DEI leader or HR function. Senior leadership needs to be visible and vocal about their commitment. For example:

  • Senior leaders are connected to DEI activities as mentors and executive sponsors
  • DEI is a critical priority for the overall business strategy
  • Senior leadership/Board – makes external public commitments and pushes wider network/society to collectively address DEI issues

Accountability and Metrics

When DEI is seen as part of the overall business strategy then it needs to be measured and monitored for progress similar to other components of the strategy. This is where data collection and reporting are crucial. Being backed by data to support the existence of inequity or gaps has been very impactful in progressing support for DEI initiatives and prevents pushback. It can help to take the emotion or subjectivity out of the discussion and help focus on what might be causing these gaps. Strong accountability and metrics can include:

  • Clear KPIs against I&D goals and operating units are measured on progress as part of business plan
  • Self Identification demographic data with high completion rates and inclusive categories to make informed decisions
  • Personal DEI development goals for all employees
  • External benchmarks and awards to understand best practices and areas for improvement

Sample Diversity Metrics: promotion, retention, composition, representation etc.
Sample Inclusion Metrics: Employee survey sentiment, completion of Self ID

Culture change and competence

While having a strategy and measuring progress against goals is critical we also know that it’s the day to day experiences of your workforce that will impact their sense of inclusion. Even the most equitable policies and systems need to have people and managers that operate in an inclusive manner. This is something that needs to be built up as a skill and will require investment and support. Some options to consider:

  • Creating psychological safety by acknowledging societal events impacting your employees
  • Provide skill building, Inclusive leadership and self awareness as part of leadership development
  • Recognize, reward and reinforce inclusive behaviours so everyone understands that this is highly valued

Knowledge and awareness

Unconscious bias training as a stand alone intervention has been cited as ineffective in having an impact on behaviour. However when DEI and unconscious bias training is part of a larger strategy and eco system of DEI interventions it can be much more valuable. When an organization takes the time to provide clarity of DEI concepts and terminology it can help build a baseline level of awareness of DEI challenges and needs of others. Key concepts include:

  • Unconscious bias
  • Allyship
  • Psychological safety and belonging
  • Diversity, equity, inclusion
  • Microaggressions

Structure and Governance

Successful DEI strategies do not leave the work for people to do “side of the desk”. Having proper structure and governance provides the continuity to sustain the work no matter what the political or economic climate. This is where you can tell if an organization is serious about making progress in DEI.

  • DEI Council consists of representation from across the organization
  • Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have a clear focus, take an intersectional approach and are supported with time and resources
  • DEI function is well resourced, has a dedicated budget and appropriate access and influence at the senior leadership/board level

DEI work continues to evolve and become ever more complex in the global context. DEI professionals and organizations committed to creating a more equitable workplace need to acknowledge that there is no “one size fits all” approach and that this work is nuanced by a variety of factors. There is no silver bullet but by adopting the STACKS approach I believe you can deal with these complexities in a more sustainable and effective way.

This article was developed as part of CICan’s 50 – 30 Challenge Ecosystem partnership with ISED. Interested in learning more?  We encourage you to visit our website for resources, personalized one-on-one support and training to support your organization on their EDI journey. Keep up to date by signing up for our mailing list.

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