Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
June 3, 2021

Three Ways Your Organization Can Advance DE&I

As various social movements have heightened the focus on diversity issues worldwide, more and more organizations are creating senior diversity leadership roles as one way to help effect sustainable change. We recently hosted a virtual roundtable to gather some of these diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) leaders across Canada to discuss best practices — and barriers — for DE&I efforts. Here are some of the key takeaways from this discussion that may also assist your organization.

1. Start with data

Where should organizations begin with DE&I? The diversity leaders we spoke with advocated for clarity in the current state of the organization as a foundation in understanding the journey. “Starting not from assumptions but reality is important,” said one diversity leader. “Data closes the gap between perception and reality.” Data can help organizations identify “hot spots” where candidates with diverse backgrounds are not getting hired, are not getting promoted or have higher-than-average turnover rates. 

While many organizations track gender data, other elements of diversity have been more challenging to track due to various data policies. Some companies have created a self-identification process; others are waiting to ask for more data until they know exactly what they’re going to do with it. One leader summed up the quandary: “Do we need to know to be inclusive? Or are we not being inclusive by asking?” Another leader noted that their large organization asks employees to consent to disclose additional information such as ethnic and racial background, but limits access to individual data to only five people in the organization; only trends are shared at the business unit level to protect privacy with materiality thresholds. There is an argument for publicly sharing aggregate DE&I information to drive accountability: “What gets measured gets managed, but what gets disclosed gets really managed,” said one executive. 

2. Walk the walk as leaders

Like with any other major organizational shifts, tone from the top is critical. However, pronouncements from senior leadership can ring hollow without a consistent change in behavior to support the objectives. Grand gestures aren’t necessarily indicators of embracing DE&I according to some heads of diversity. Some signs of progress are more subtle: “A win to me is when the executive team brings it up before I do,” said one diversity leader. Others point to the CEO or other C-level leaders openly acknowledging their own missteps as another indicator of positive change. “Success is when the leaders understand why it’s important and do it themselves,” said one diversity leader. “Forty percent of our mid-level leaders and above are part of an allyship program. I’m no longer the face of it. The functional leaders are stepping up to play their part.” 

3. Create an environment of psychological safety

People make their best contributions when they can bring their full selves to work. “It’s about ensuring that everyone in the organization feels that they can achieve their full potential,” said one diversity leader. “If people don’t feel comfortable speaking up, what are you losing? It hurts your competitiveness.” Psychological safety is critical to inclusion and overall employee engagement. One member of the roundtable said they asked employees questions related to this topic (e.g., do you feel safe to speak up?) and found a gap between men and women, as well as between racially diverse groups and non-racially diverse groups. Especially in a virtual working environment, leaders need to make a dedicated effort to create avenues for people to express their opinions openly — examples include virtual office hours, checking in more frequently on team dynamics and leading by example.

Final thoughts

Improving DE&I is not a check-the-box exercise. However, taking impactful steps now such as leveraging data to simplify the conversation and obtain clarity on where your organization stands, setting an example as leaders, and fostering an inclusive culture can help build momentum over the long term.

Our next roundtable on DE&I will involve a select group of CEOs and will be geared toward understanding their priorities, opportunities and how successful strategies are being implemented. Stay tuned for more practical insights from that discussion.