2020 illuminated the injustices so many of our colleagues and neighbors have faced for years. Witnessing the murder of George Floyd, a global pandemic and several tragic events since has generated widespread acknowledgement that better is possible – and necessary – within ourselves, our communities and our workplace structures.
At Pivot, we are focused on building a more diverse, inclusive culture – and we are not alone. Companies across all industries have increased diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in recent years. But the effectiveness of these endeavors has been murky at best. Creating sustainable, meaningful change requires leaders to take an honest look at their organization’s past and present; we cannot move forward without identifying and learning from mistakes.
In the spirit of learning and growing, here are five takeaways from a recent panel hosted by Twin Cities Business with three experts who have decades of experience leading DEI efforts at several organizations, large and small:
- Bukata Hayes, VP of Racial and Health Equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota
- Sophia Khan, VP and Chief DEI Officer at Allianz Life
- Patricia Pratt-Cook, SVP of Human Resources, Equity and Inclusion at St. Catherine University
1. Define your “why.”
In the moment of reckoning accelerated by the events of 2020, more consumers, stakeholders, employees and potential hires started asking companies what they were doing to effect change. From creating new roles dedicated to DEI, to encouraging difficult conversations in the workplace, many organizations acted quickly – but often without dedicating enough time to fully examine their motivation for acting.
To develop tactics that will inspire lasting change, leaders must first articulate why they want change in the first place and then communicate why it is a priority to employees and other stakeholders. This requires:
- An authentic assessment of what has or hasn’t been done in the past
- A realistic perspective about how long it will take to successfully implement change
The panelists recommended hiring a consultant, if budget allows, to help objectively assess your current situation and develop a plan of action. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach,” Bukata emphasized. Do the work uniquely necessary for your company based on your needs and aspirations.
2. Openly discuss your flaws and ambitions.
By staying silent, you risk losing both talent and profits.
Consumers are increasingly interested in company DEI initiatives. Though it’s a relatively new concept to embrace, there is more pressure for corporations to take stances on social issues. Customers want to support businesses that act on their values.
People also want to work where they’re valued and included:
- With existing employees, leaders should get comfortable admitting they don’t have all the answers. To build and keep trust, commit to listening – and hearing – employee feedback. If employees hear you say you haven’t always responded to situations correctly but are focused on being more intentional moving forward, they are more likely to engage and help develop solutions.
- In discussions with potential employees, be honest about your current culture. If you overpromise on an accepting, inclusive environment that doesn’t yet exist, new hires will feel betrayed and will likely leave. During interviews, tell people what you’re doing to improve and ask if they’re interested in joining a company where they can influence progress.
3. Maintain a long-term perspective.
Significantly shifting systemic processes and behaviors to prioritize diversity and inclusion cannot – and should not – happen overnight. DEI is a constant work in progress with no quick answer or singular solution. Don’t be afraid to try different tactics to determine what works best.
- Internally, incorporate activities such as dialogues, educational events and published statements on current events – and then ask for feedback to see what resonates most with your employees. You won’t please everyone all the time, but you also won’t get anywhere without trying.
- Externally, reconsider how you describe open roles. Using the same language that has attracted the same groups of people year after year is not going to resonate with people outside of those groups who have the right skills but not the “right” experience. Instead of requiring specific titles or years of experience, define the attributes you’re seeking. Eventually, your employee population will start to reflect a deeper, more diverse pool of talent and ideas.
4. Make it personal.
“If you know who your people are, you’ll know what their needs are,” Sophia summarized. You can accomplish this most effectively in two ways:
- Engagement surveys: Review the questions you’re asking to ensure they’re allowing people to tell you what you really need to know. If you’re not asking questions to understand who your employees are and what’s important to them, what is the purpose?
- Checking in: Get to know your people! “We have to step back and remember the obvious: Ask people how they are and what they care about,” Sophia said. “They don’t have to answer, and you don’t have to agree with their answer if they do. But we need to remember that our employees are humans – and this includes managers.” She also noted that there is nothing wrong with scripting a simple “How are you doing?” message for managers to ensure they remember to ask their direct reports.
Once you can accurately identify employee needs, do everything you can to meet them. People want to bring their full selves to work. Can you offer more flexible working arrangements? Better mental health coverage? Customize your offerings to what will help your employees be their best selves.
Thoughtfully welcoming and encouraging everyone’s different values and perspectives ensures your employees feel seen, heard and valued. We cannot ignore the fact that everyone brings different values and perspectives into the workplace.
5. Consider alternative measurement tactics.
As with any new business initiative, leaders are eager to measure DEI progress. But this work is unlike any other – so the measurement tools should be as well. Unfortunately, we don’t have perfect options, but new ones are in the works. For example, the U of M School of Public Health’s Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity is developing a new multidimensional measurement for structural racism.
In the meantime, the panelists recommended replacing standard quarterly business model measurements with less-quantitative tactics, such as behavior observation and anecdotal feedback. Monitor employee and leader feedback, and consider putting accountability measures for DEI efforts on performance reviews and linking progress to compensation.
Commit to authenticity with Pivot
All experts expressed cautious optimism about the effects of the trending focus on DEI strategy. Patricia succinctly captured their shared hesitation: “Unfortunately, a lot of organizations are still doing what I call ‘DEI light.’ This means they’re more engaged in the activities than in thinking about the structural and systemic issues that exist within their institution – the real issues to address if they’re going to say they have a welcoming environment where people from all backgrounds are valued and respected and have a true sense of belonging.”
At Pivot, we recognize that we have many opportunities to learn and grow in these areas. Knowing that better is possible, we focus on progress, not perfection, to achieve purposeful, productive change.
The better we understand and work to overcome our own shortcomings, the better prepared we are to help clients recognize and overcome theirs.
Wherever you are in your journey toward a more welcoming workplace culture, there’s never a bad time to pause and reflect on your motives and outcomes. The road ahead is long; setting your leaders and employees up for success is critical.