First, let’s define what exactly is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I):
Diversity is the representation of all our varied identities and differences (race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, tribe, caste, socio-economic status, thinking and communication styles, etc.), collectively and as individuals. (Source: Ford Foundation)
Equity recognizes that not all individuals have access to the same opportunities due to structural or systemic barriers (glass ceilings, as an example). Equity means giving a boost to the folks that have historically been held back, to level the playing field.
Inclusion builds a culture of belonging by actively inviting the contribution and participation of all people. It’s going beyond getting “in the room” or a “seat at the table” and actually being heard.
Diversity can boost productivity, innovation, and profit, but only if the organization’s efforts to increase diversity are continuous and focused on both equity and inclusion as well.
Leaders must embrace the idea that there’s always more to learn and do—no matter how much you’ve accomplished, approach DE&I with a beginner’s humility. It’s easy to pat yourself on the back and claim you’ve done enough, but that can easily develop into complacency.
Here are our tips for effectively building DE&I in your organization:
Stop worrying about saying the wrong thing
In the era of cancel culture, we choose our words very carefully, especially in digital spaces like social media and through emails. We’re hyper-aware of potentially offending someone or risk saying the wrong thing.
Instead of worrying so much about offending someone, make it clear that as a humble leader, you’re open to being “called out”. If you are approachable and demonstrate an openness to unlearning and relearning, people will come to you. If you make a mistake, be prepared to own the responsibility, apologize, and communicate how you’ll do better.
We all have to get comfortable being in the wrong. We’re human, and we make mistakes. If you learn from it, you can overcome these problems and gain some takeaways. There’s no one size fits all way to handle mistakes, but in general, practice humility and listen more than you speak.
If you’re not sure, take responsibility
This applies to your organization and your commitment to improving as an individual. We often see organizations single out employees who identify with equity-seeking groups to drive DE&I initiatives. Let’s make it clear: it’s not the equity-seeking group’s responsibility to lead or teach, even if they’re most passionate about these issues. Tasks associated with these initiatives are typically added on top of their existing scope of work and often without compensation, which can lead to burnout and frustration. If you want things to change, get your entire workforce involved. Chances are, other folks in your organization are interested and want to boost DE&I initiatives too.
As an individual, when you don’t know something on the topic of DE&I or the intricacies of oppression, take responsibility for filling your knowledge gaps. This could be done through reading, watching documentaries, or asking someone who is informed and knows more than you do for insight and advice. However, if you ask for someone’s help in educating you, accept that they might say no. At a fundamental level, education is a service that requires energy and emotional labor, so don’t be surprised if a DE&I professional asks for compensation. If this is something you and your organization are serious about, prepare a budget for the consulting services of DE&I professionals. If it’s a friend who declines, respect their rejection and find another way.
Accept that you’re going to make mistakes
Yes, it’s true. More likely than not, you’ll come across friction at some point of the learning curve and get called out for it. And that’s okay. It’s why committing to continuous learning is so important. When it gets difficult or you get challenged on your dedication, persistence is the answer.
Management consultants Korn Ferry have laid out the most common mistakes in diversity and inclusion. First, don’t assume the root cause of any problem without taking the time to understand all parties and viewpoints. Another key mistake worth highlighting is focusing on solely existing representation instead of the talent pipeline. Despite greater overall diversity, the C-suite often remains the same. Organizations must understand and investigate what structural and attitudinal barriers exist that are deterring equity-seeking individuals from rising in an organization.
So, are you ready to start planning your DE&I initiatives? Use these as a guideline to get things on the right track:
- Focus on impactful action: Stay away from performative action. If you communicate a message of support externally to consumers or internally to your team, include tangible goals for improvement to keep leadership accountable. Then begin working towards those goals and maintain open communication throughout the process.
- Listen to your equity-seeking employees: Start by asking. Assumptions can be dangerous! Learn directly from members of the communities you’re trying to serve in these initiatives, and listen to what they want. They probably have ideas to make the workplace better and more inclusive for them, and at the very least can help identify problems.
- Engage your entire workforce: Change requires a collaborative, committed effort by everyone in your organization. When identifying employees to lead DE&I initiatives, be cognizant of the added workload and pressure.
- Stay humble: Once you’ve admitted to yourself that you’re not an expert, it won’t be so disheartening when someone calls you out. Maintain that mentality and you’ll start to see DE&I not as a daunting problem, but as a world of opportunity for learning, perspective, and growth.
Start fostering DE&I in your organization today by reaching out: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Evelyn is the Marketing Coordinator at Envol Strategies. She’s passionate about telling stories and building community through marketing. Her goal is to create tangible impact through digital content creation.