The First Five Steps of Your DE&I Journey 

As leaders look to make right on their promises to actively improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace, they must do what many of us find uncomfortable: start a journey without fully knowing the final destination or the exact route to get there. 

 Leaders must do what many of us find uncomfortable: start a journey without fully knowing the final destination or the exact route to get there.

Thankfully, the question these days is not whether to ingrain DE&I values into organizations; but rather, how to do it. So it was with a research non-profit that enlisted our help.

Their initial goal was to determine the equity and inclusivity of their grant and scholarship distribution process as well as to determine the diversity of the candidates it awarded. In the course of considering this initial goal, our guidance shifted focus to the larger context – the cultural conditions required to enable their goal and how to possibly address the gaps between their DE&I intentions and their current reality.

The following five steps represent our recommendations to them and any organization looking to embark on a DE&I journey of their own.

  1. Start at the beginning: You can’t improve tomorrow without understanding today.

DE&I’s overarching call to action is to look at the systems that underpin discriminatory mindsets and behavior. To improve the outcomes of a system, you must first understand the context in which it operates.

In our client’s case this meant looking beyond the equity and inclusivity of their grant award process to consider whether their organization, in its current state, was set up to support their goal of equitable fund distribution. This DE&I self-inventory included looking at the ways their mission, staff diversity, and application review criteria impacted the equity of the grant process overall.

  1. Anchor purpose in intentionality, accountability, and commitment: A DE&I mission statement clarifies your intentions, formally states your goals, and focuses your effort.

Awareness of a goal is not enough. However poignant, awareness doesn’t organically evolve into productive action. Productive action requires commitment and planning. Before launching into disparate DE&I interventions, it’s best to articulate your intention for the effort, its alignment with your purpose, the impact it will have on your organization, and the important milestones that represent progress.

Even though our client was ready and willing to pursue DE&I in spirit, the process of creating a DE&I mission statement helped them frame and re-think the implications and scope of their goals. Pausing to take this step back brought perspective. It enabled the nonprofit to consider the changes DE&I work would bring to their organization and how they wanted to engage their research candidates and the community moving forward.

  1. Encourage courageous conversations that spur action: Transparent connection enables the understanding that leads to meaningful action.

Many of us are uncomfortable being vulnerable – especially at work. But without vulnerability, DE&I conversations won’t be productive and the flickers of insight those conversations spark won’t live beyond the moment. Improving the status quo hinges on having difficult conversations that flag uncomfortable truths and offer us opportunities to learn from them.

Many of us are uncomfortable being vulnerable – especially at work. But without vulnerability, DE&I conversations won’t be productive and the flickers of insight those conversations spark won’t live beyond the moment.

Our client had the courage to review their grant application process, share the findings, and admit that despite a desire to be equitable and inclusive, the process wasn’t set up to ensure that reality. Thoughtful discovery revealed that application reviewers were mostly white and that the grant application didn’t ask the right questions to identify underrepresented groups. Importantly, this led to discussions about how to level a playing field they hadn’t realized before was not level.

  1. Identify the gaps: take stock of the paths to access and opportunity: Inconsistencies indicate where you need to operationalize the mission of equity and inclusivity.

To get specific about how your organization will close its DE&I gaps, you need to understand where the gaps are. The goal is to ensure that access and opportunity paths are consistent across all employees. This will require improving or creating programs, processes and systems that enable consistency – from structural access like promotion tracks and insurance coverage to cultural norms like who gets a seat at the table and when meetings are scheduled.

When our client considered the research grant experience from the applicants’ point of view, it became clearer that some universities offer more resources for student researchers than others. This inspired the establishment of a mentorship program to close that gap and help underrepresented students navigate through the grant application process and through their term of research.

 The hard look at the application review process also reinforced the need for diversity on the review board itself and emphasized the need to ensure that all relevant university programs, particularly in historically black universities, had adequate and current information about the non-profit’s grant opportunities.

  1. Use data to push past assumptions and enable meaningful progress: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

The only way to understand if access and opportunity are consistent among employees is to collect data. Without facts, you risk mistaking your intention for reality. The goal is to understand how various demographic groups – who likely perceive access and opportunity differently – experience their work.

Without facts, you risk mistaking your intention for reality.

Not collecting enough and the right kind of applicant data, exposed two unknowns to our clients. First, they realized they were unable to discover if grants were awarded equitably. Second, they realized they gained no  insights into how the various demographic groups experienced the application process. Was it fair? Would they try again? Recommend it? These realizations, however disappointing in the moment, gave the client a meaningful benchmark from which to improve.

Just start

The work of culture change is never easy but as the Roman philosopher Cicero said, “More is lost by indecision than the wrong decision.” We know this is true when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Perhaps even more so in the midst of this pandemic-induced reset period: More people are leaving jobs and holding out for work environments that see, respect, and support who they are and how they want to live.

Though the world is not yet the equitable and inclusive place it could be, as long as we have leaders who are willing to seek truth, take small steps and challenge the status quo, the promise of diversity is within reach. And as long as their organizations have the courage to own unpleasant realities, admit mistakes, and listen to new voices, both business and society will benefit from the innovation and growth that diversity of perspective has long proven to deliver.