A lack of diversity in the workforce often has systemic and cultural causes — and is therefore not a quick fix. To change this, organizations should measure how effective they are at creating an inclusive culture where all employees feel they can contribute authentically. Start by asking whether your business strategy clearly articulates why D&I is vital to its execution. Unless D&I is seen as an enabler of the wider business strategy, and is embedded in everything the business does, it will remain an afterthought. Hold workers at all levels accountable for demonstrating decency and respect in their interactions, without exception. Offer training and development on core skills, including conflict resolution, problem solving, active listening, and empathy. And be sure that the company is using objective skill data to identify high-potentials, deploy talent, improve performance, and facilitate career progression.
In my experience, many companies seeking to improve diversity and inclusion (D&I) in their organizations consistently make the same mistake. They look at addressing the symptoms of discrimination, rather than the root causes.
Executives assess demographic data about their company and make decisions about their D&I success by comparing it to a benchmark. If the numbers are low, they seek to “solve” the problem via talent acquisition or by fast-tracking promotions. This may boost their demographic figures temporarily, but the improvement typically doesn’t last. This is because they have artificially altered the employee demographic before assessing why it was skewed in the first place.
Unfortunately, the root causes of a lack of diversity are often systemic and cultural — and therefore not a quick fix. To ensure lasting change, organizations should measure how effective they are at creating an inclusive culture and workplace where all employees feel they can contribute most authentically.
I believe there are six key organizational, systemic, and cultural elements that must be examined, diagnosed, and transformed to achieve sustainable improvement in D&I. Start by asking:
1. Does the business strategy clearly articulate why diversity and inclusion is vital to its execution?
In my experience, most D&I officers attempt to force a connection between their diversity agenda and the business — and need to prove to the business that diversity makes sense. This is the wrong way to approach it. If the benefits of D&I aren’t immediately apparent in your business strategy and agenda, you face an almost insurmountable problem.
For instance, most company strategies will focus on improving innovation or increasing market share — and D&I should be a key component in enabling this. Increased diversity allows for a variety of viewpoints to solve problems. Increasing market share often means expanding your customer base into new areas, which employees from a variety of backgrounds can help identify and capitalize on.
Unless D&I is seen as an enabler of the wider business strategy, and is embedded in everything the business does, it will remain an afterthought.
2. Do the spoken and unspoken norms and practices of the organization adequately support inclusive behaviors?
Company culture is made up of two things — spoken policies and hidden codes. Employees may make unspoken decisions — for example who gets included in important meetings or who is ultimately hired — based on others’ respective backgrounds. These behaviors are more likely to drive the outcome of inclusion than any formal policy.
That’s why you must identify what’s happening day to day. For example, a company may have a flexible working policy, but managers may personally see those putting in extra hours as going “the extra mile” (as Goldman Sachs’ CEO said in response to reports of staff working 95-hour weeks).
Gallup research suggests that 70% of company culture is influenced by leadership, so it’s most important that senior leaders hold people accountable when their actions run counter to company policy. For example, if employees who regularly work weekends are being promoted faster, that isn’t a flexible working policy that’s inclusive of all employees.
3. Are workers at all levels held accountable for demonstrating decency and respect in their interactions with colleagues, clients, customers, vendors, etc. — without exception?
This is about following basic principles around how people should treat each other. Exceptions are often made. For instance, managers might be disrespectful when communicating with staff, or ignore bad behavior among high-performing team members.
It’s important to hold people to the standard that’s been set — calling bad behavior out or taking disciplinary action where required. This standard must apply to everyone — including leadership. Clients and vendors that staff interact with cannot be expected to deviate from the standards you set, no matter how much business they bring in.
Without a zero-tolerance policy toward bad behavior, you risk proliferation and a lack of trust in the D&I policy itself. This displays the organization’s lack of an inclusive culture — and workers will leave.
4. Do all employees understand the impact of the words they use and the behaviors they display to their colleagues?
Social intelligence doesn’t mean always knowing the right thing to say. It’s about being open to learning about different cultures and norms and asking questions when you don’t know something. If you slip up and are called out on your mistake, it’s important to acknowledge the error and apologize. Aim to understand what was harmful and use this to avoid repeating the misstep.
Employees should also feel empowered to tell people when they’ve crossed the line, to ensure a comfortable working environment for everyone.
The role of organizations is to help people learn how to have these conversations. It’s not just about building a greater understanding of cultural differences; it’s about giving people the tools they need to have difficult conversations, both in terms of how to ask difficult questions and how to respond to them. A little bit of grace and empathy can also go a long way if people are making a genuine effort, but sometimes get it wrong.
5. Does the organization have a mandatory development program for all employees to build and deepen their inclusive skills?
There are some core skills that help to drive an inclusive organization — including conflict resolution, problem solving, active listening, and empathy. If people have proficiency in this core skill set, and activate those skills in their work, it will lead to a more inclusive environment.
While many companies have mandatory training on product knowledge or compliance issues, it’s less common for companies to have mandatory training in these skills. Try adding a development program with five to eight core inclusive skills to your compulsory learning and hold people accountable for demonstrating these skills in their roles.
6. Does the organization use objective skill data to identify high potentials, deploy talent, improve performance, and facilitate career progression (rather than relying on subjective assessments that have bias embedded in them)?
When companies can measure the professional and technical skills of employees, they are able to make more objective and intelligent decisions about someone’s ability to perform a job.
Many organizations still use the 9-box model to assess someone’s past performance and potential. Since this is a subjective measure, managers will often assess someone as having higher potential based on their exposure to the person or their rapport.
To reduce the chance of bias in these decisions, start looking at real data about the skills people have acquired, including their proficiency, the rate that they are acquiring new skills, and their durability and transferability. This can help you determine someone’s potential and suitability for a role more objectively, and can help foster a more inclusive culture.
Once companies begin to understand the root causes of their D&I problems, their diversity symptoms should improve along with the health and performance of the company.
Janice Burns is the Chief Career Experience Officer at Degreed, where she develops and implements talent management and development programs. Prior to Degreed, she was Chief Learning Officer at Mastercard, as well as Group Head of Human Resources for the Global Products and Solutions organization and Chief Diversity Officer.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.