A great deal of noble and important work has been done on DEI in recent years, but we have hit a ceiling.
That’s largely because diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives tend to select a core set of visible demographic minorities, segment people into these groups, and assume they define the workplace experience. In reality, of course, individuals are made up of a multiplicity of identities. A Black employee can also identify as LGBTQ and be a caregiver for an elderly parent. A white male employee might have a physical disability and work visa considerations.
(Gabrielle Novacek shares what DEI has meant to her in the aftermath of a terrifying medical diagnosis. Watch the video to find out more.)
By relying on conventional demographic categories, companies reinforce two unintended consequences: creating a majority-versus-minority mindset that fuels divisiveness among the workforce and ignoring huge cohorts of the workforce who could benefit from DEI in the workplace. Leaders simply can’t expect a system built for the homogeneous workforce of yesterday to continue to be successful for a new and diverse generation. To deliver a step change in DEI, companies need to attack the problem from an entirely new perspective. They must:
First, companies need to take a step back and reframe the way they talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. They must start with a new basic premise: that they will understand the needs of every individual, look for patterns of difference that cut across the whole organization and matter the most in driving positive outcomes, and devise solutions that holistically address those differences. When viewed in this light, it also becomes apparent that DEI programs aren’t just for employees traditionally viewed as minorities. DEI programs are for everyone.
Second, companies must redefine who should be the focus of DEI efforts. Demographic factors (like age, socioeconomic background, and immigrant status), life context (such as caregiver status or being part of a dual-career household), and physical and mental differences (such as physical disability, neurodiversity, chronic illness, mental health challenges, or even different personality or problem-solving styles) can all play important roles in shaping who employees are when they come to work and how they experience the workplace.
What’s more, needs can also differ over time for each individual. The needs of someone entering the workforce fresh out of college will change as she becomes a new parent or assumes a big leadership role. These are the kinds of factors that create the multiplicity of identities that DEI frameworks must serve.
For example, a company that has historically offered benefits and policies to working mothers can reach a much broader segment of the workforce by redefining diversity to target caregivers—individuals (including men and nonbirth parents) caring for children, an elderly parent, or an ailing spouse. The key is to recognize patterns in the ways employees’ needs meaningfully intersect, even when their circumstances differ.
Third, companies should seek to detect patterns in the data and develop innovative solutions that address these needs. The goal is to push beyond the standard, pragmatic, technical solutions (offering paid maternity leave to women or creating an employee resource group for LGBTQ individuals, for example) to meet people’s emotional needs (“I want to feel in control”) and functional needs (“I need predictability in my schedule”). When these needs are met, employees experience a true sense of inclusion in the workplace.
To get there, companies must think differently when developing solutions:
As we emerge from the pandemic, many organizations are seizing this moment to fundamentally rewrite the rules of the workplace. Using this approach, organizations can finally unlock what we believe to be the bold intent and aspiration of DEI at work: enabling each employee in the organization to thrive, which ultimately fuels long-term, sustainable business advantage for the company.