DE&I: Finding perspective and a path forward


Across U.S. firms, boardrooms and executive teams are focused on advancing their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts. Our society is in the midst of ensuring that these principles of fair treatment are recognized and instituted, and businesses must respond as well, or they will lose opportunities to advance their business goals and attract and retain talent.

To do this, businesses need to understand and address five major DE&I pressure points:

  1. Social unrest and injustices shared by media channels have increased the pressure and tension to act.
  2. Society is demanding more transparency and greater accountability in addressing inequities.
  3. Investors are requiring CEOs to assign more diverse leaders to executive teams and boards.
  4. Consumers are making purchasing decisions and supporting brands with strong DE&I values.
  5. Employees want to work on diverse and inclusive teams where everyone is given equal opportunity to thrive and belong.

Organizations must take a comprehensive approach to DE&I and create long-standing and systemic change. While increasing the pool of candidates from historically under-represented communities, running unconscious bias training workshops, and including DE&I in your value statement might be a start — it is not enough.

Leaders who may feel unprepared and challenged by how to successfully create and implement DE&I practices within an organization are not alone. In a recent survey conducted by Grant Thornton, more than 50% of surveyed human resources leaders indicated that their companies are at the early stages of their DE&I strategy.

While 60% of HR leaders believe their organization provides a safe place for employees to speak out on matters, only 40% of employees feel that is the case based on recent Grant Thornton State of Work employee surveys.

How can you get started as a leader and what should you consider as you approach a holistic approach to DE&I? First, think of DE&I as a business imperative and weigh the risks of action and inaction. How does it fit into your organization’s culture, business goals and client value propositions? Then consider these steps to guide you:




Take stock of where you are


What would the headline be if you were asked what your company’s commitment is to DE&I? If you are unclear or unsure, that is a place to start. Would the answer be different if asked this by a client, or an employee, or the media?

“The most detrimental DE&I action a company can take is no action at all,” said Rashada Whitehead, the national managing director of Culture, Immersion & Inclusion at Grant Thornton. “Taking an honest assessment of your organization’s culture is a great place to start. How does DE&I fit within the framework and fabric of the organization itself?”

Working on a DE&I effort is not easy. It is multi-faceted and getting it right takes hard work and “truth telling.” Truth telling is the idea that you share where you are, where you want to go, and what you see as challenges to get there.

Companies don’t need to go far to obtain statistics that support the fact that organizations with more diverse leadership teams are twice as likely to exceed financial targets, three times more likely to be high-performing and six times more likely to be innovative. Organizations with more inclusive cultures bring different backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences to the workplace.

There is no better barometer of how you are doing on ensuring DE&I at a business than determining your program’s effectiveness from employees within your organization. Use employee surveys to ask direct questions, use the findings to host employee listening sessions and dig deeper. Create a psychologically safe environment where people feel they can, should and will be appreciated for telling “their truth.”

Examine your communications — are they open and transparent? Admit where you are on the topic, where you may be challenged and what your hopes and aspirations are. Seek opportunities to hear from others, encourage ideas and be open to criticism.




Develop a DE&I strategy


DE&I needs to be embedded into a company’s mission statement. However, DE&I goals will not be met unless they are lived out every day, through every interaction, and through every employee. A company should be willing to review every aspect of the business and consider what can be done to create or improve diversity, equity and inclusion.

DE&I is a journey, and that journey takes time. It requires companies to analyze their 1) brand, marketing and social media presence, 2) talent management — sourcing strategies, hiring practices, development, promotions, rewards and policies, 3) business relationships — clients and vendors, and 4) social responsibility — how you engage with the communities you work in and give back.

It is important to understand the difference between the terms “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” and to give each concept meaning internally. Organizations may define DE&I in many ways, but there are well-understood definitions of these terms in the business sense:

  • Diversity is the whole of who we are — the backgrounds, attributes, beliefs, insights and stories that make us unique individually, and as a team.
  • Equity is about achieving fairness in opportunities, advancement, roles, rewards, and access to tools and resources to help individuals thrive.
  • Inclusion describes creating an environment that conveys a deep sense of belonging, where everyone is valued, respected, and heard, and where accomplishments are celebrated.

A company can have a highly diverse employee population, but if there isn’t an inclusive culture, or there are inequities in pay and promotions, those could be indicators that the company doesn’t have a successful DE&I effort.




Manage the data


In a recent CFO Survey conducted by Grant Thornton, only 47% of organizations represented are collecting diversity data. If your company isn’t doing this, now is a good time to start, and this data collection should capture data at every phase of the employee life cycle. A good dataset starts with sourcing and hiring, acceptance rates, performance ratings, client assignments, advancement and promotion, compensation, rewards, and retention. This way, a company can determine where it is losing ground in attracting, retaining and advancing under-represented talent.

If you are lacking progress in diverse representation, try to understand the reason someone declines an offer, or why someone leaves or if they are stuck at a particular level or role. Those ensuring DE&I goals are met should ask how those individuals’ career tracks, assignments or leadership influenced the outcome. Which leaders make ensuring diversity a priority and have the results to show it, and which ones do not? Asking these questions can help companies get to the root of these issues and find alternatives to improve the outcomes.

Even the most thorough analyzing and planning can be undermined when followed by a lack of action on the results. That doesn’t mean acting on every need or request. But ideas that are adopted should be tied to the input provided by your employees. Solutions that aren’t right for the organization should be able to be explained as such.

Don’t over-promise, as DE&I efforts will be closely watched by all your stakeholders. Decide the top two objectives that need to be achieved based on the greatest impact to your people and your business. Companies should engage working teams to create solutions, and leadership must take ownership in implementation and communication. Progress should be reported periodically to keep employees apprised of wins and challenges.




Hold everyone accountable


Employees are responsible for treating each other with respect and holding each other and the organization accountable for a culture where DE&I is celebrated and lived out. Management has the added responsibility of being role models for expected behavior, and ensuring that every policy, practice and procedure supports its diversity, equity and inclusion goals.

As you consider your approach and aspirations in creating a successful DE&I strategy, here are a few tips: 1) define expectations clearly, 2) celebrate progress, and 3) be transparent in sharing challenges and setbacks.






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