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How Companies Can Push Past Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lip Service to Enact Meaningful Change

The social justice protests of recent years spurred many companies to make public statements supporting diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). But new research into the state of DE&I efforts at companies shows that the real work has only just begun.

Just 49 percent of employees say their companies have DE&I improvement strategies, according to my company’s Pulse of Talent survey of almost 7,000 workers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and four other countries. About 20 percent of workers polled globally say their companies lack strategies to boost DE&I and 31 percent don’t know if their companies have them. That likely indicates the companies don’t have DE&I strategies or, if they do, they’re not highly effective.

The situation in the U.S. is only slightly better with 59 percent of employees saying their companies have strategies to boost DE&I, 26 percent who don’t know if their companies have them and 14 percent who say their companies lack them.

Making workplaces truly diverse, fair and inclusive has never been easy given inherent biases in everything from how companies source talent to how people interview to how people see themselves. But DE&I is more necessary than ever given renewed awareness of racial, gender, sexual orientation and other inequities.

I believe that most companies want to do the right thing, but many may not know how to start to change long-held practices that perpetuate bias and inequity. My experience is that all companies, of any size in any industry, can improve DE&I starting with five core strategies:

1. Secure top-down and bottom-up commitment.

For too long, DE&I has been left to one person or one team, often in human resources. This doesn’t work. You need champions at every level of the organization to push change forward.

This starts with leadership voicing support for DE&I initiatives and creating a runway for employees to drive efforts forward on the front lines. These individuals will carry out the mission because they connect with more people, day in and day out. At my workplace, we got this started by assembling a 21-member Global Diversity Advisory Council. It includes employees from all levels of the company, including the C-suite with our president as an advisor to the council.

2. Get data.

You cannot improve at DE&I until you take full stock of where you are. Gather qualitative and quantitative data. Listen to employees in focus groups discuss the state of DE&I at work– do they feel a sense of belonging? If not, what do they need?

Anonymous surveys provide a safe forum for employees to be honest. Be transparent with employees about how you will use the data. Encourage leaders to share, show vulnerability and they’ll encourage others to do the same.

3. Identify opportunities to create equity.

Data may reveal gaps in such things as women or people of color in leadership. But policies and processes perpetuate inequities and changing them will help bridge those gaps, too.

For instance, we looked at our job descriptions and found that the use of words like “strong” spoke more to men than to women. We dropped requirements for years of service because it measured time versus skills. We also found that white men applied if they had just a third of job requirements but that Black women didn’t apply unless they had almost all of them. By changing job descriptions, we boosted the opportunity for Black women to apply.

4. Lead with proactive acts of inclusion.

Being more inclusive starts by recognizing biases that work against inclusion. We all have biases, often because of how we were raised. We counteract biases by watching and changing our behavior.

Calling out microaggressions is also a proactive act of inclusion. I once led a meeting on DE&I efforts. One of my male colleagues got so excited about the initiative that he interrupted me and started explaining what I’d already said. I listened, then I pointed out that his action made me feel inadequate. He held no malice, quite the opposite. Instead, he was unconscious of his bias and his behavior. Calling out microaggressions is important so that everyone learns to identify them and how they make people feel.

5. Individualize learning.

Meet people where they are. If your organization thrives with collective learning, great. But if you have people in different time zones, working different schedules, give them multiple ways to access learning, including in micro-segments, which can be as short as three minutes. Allow for mistakes. That’s what learning is about.

Changing long-held practices and beliefs is a long journey, not a sprint. But nothing happens without a start. Eventually, DE&I will become part of your DNA– and that is truly the only way organizations can create meaningful and sustainable change.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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