Are your DEI efforts having the right effect? 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) has finally emerged as a top priority for businesses everywhere and rightly so. Not only is there a social and human imperative – which is about social justice and ensuring that all individuals have access to equal opportunities – but an economic one as well. We are at a point in time where businesses who successfully employ DEI efforts in their organizations stand to improve market share and the ones who fail to do so risk being left behind.

Unfortunately, despite the stakes, DEI efforts don’t always have the intended impact. In fact, research shows that the majority of organizations that invest in DEI are likely to be unsuccessful. This means that the billions of dollars spent by organizations on DEI are likely to have little to no impact. According to a recent piece in the New York Times, “while businesses targeting diversity are flourishing, diversity is not. 

Why do most DEI efforts fail? 

Achieving DEI goals takes more than publishing a DEI pledge, hiring people to achieve representation targets, or implementing policies and mandatory training. To achieve meaningful change and fully realize the benefits commonly associated with DEI, you need your workforce to embrace a DEI mindset, support minority groups, and help those groups feel like they belong. 

When organizations fail to understand the complexity of DEI and simply go through the motions, it can lead to Performative Diversity or Performative Allyship. This is what happens when a non-marginalized group (corporate leadership for example), professes support and solidarity with a marginalized group in a way that either isn’t helpful or actively harms that group. To make matters worse, non-marginalized groups can even receive recognition for these efforts (for example, a badge they can add to their website that implies effort), even if that effort misses the mark. 

What are some common ways that performative diversity is showing up in organizations today? 

  1. Setting and communicating aspirational but unrealistic public pledges without providing teams with the tools or resources to act on them.
  2. Promoting yourself as an equal opportunity employer but not updating any of your hiring practices to remove systemic bias.
  3. Running training programs on unconscious bias or micro aggressions and not changing any of your internal policies for workplace harassment and compensation. 
  4. Mandating that people act in more inclusive and equitable ways but failing to understand what gaps and barriers (or deeply ingrained beliefs) are getting in the way. 

Actions such as these tend to create the opposite impact that companies intend; they foster distrust, resentment, and even active rebellion. The takeaway from all of this is to engage your entire organization in building and rolling out an authentic and meaningful DEI strategy. The critical goal we should be chasing is not to hit our targets for diversity, but for our employees, colleagues, and peers to feel safe, engaged, and a sense of belonging at work. 

Belonging is the crucial part of the big picture

Belonging is quickly becoming one of the most powerful measures in the DEI space. In fact Glint’s research shows that employees who feel they belong are six-times more likely to be highly engaged. Other research by BetterUp, shows that focusing on belonging at work can result in a 56% reduction in turnover.  

Not only is feeling a sense of belonging at work important – it’s something that doesn’t always happen automatically as a result of DEI efforts. Contrary to what many people and DEI experts believe, inclusion and belonging are related but are two separate things. Diversity is a fact, equity and inclusion are choices, and belonging is a feeling. What that means for your employee experience and DEI strategy is that, if you’re not focusing on helping people feel like they belong, your DEI strategy isn’t helping you engage or retain the talent that you’re trying to reach.

Belonging benefits everyone 

The best part is that focusing on boosting feelings of belonging doesn’t just help underrepresented groups, it actually helps everyone in your organization. When you help people feel comfortable being their authentic selves and feeling that they belong at work, you’re more likely to foster connection, collaboration, and the types of prosocial behaviours that lead to productivity, engagement, and better mental health.  

For example, imagine what a greater focus on belonging could do for those struggling with mental health as they return to a dramatically different workplace after COVID. The Center for Disease Control and the National Center for Health Statistics report that FOUR in ten adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression over the course of the pandemic, a leap from ONE in ten in 2019, a symptom often made worse by feelings of isolation. It stands to reason, then, that focusing on belonging is both a compassionate and effective way to support all of your employees, whether your main focus is on DEI or it is related to wellness or engagement.

If you are looking to learn more about how an environment of psychological safety, inclusion, and belonging  can enhance your Employee Experience and Business Strategy, we’d love to connect for a discovery discussion. Send us an email to find a time.

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