Creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace is a worthy goal. Here’s how to get started.
You might have a laudable goal of creating a more diverse workforce, one where employees from all backgrounds and walks of life thrive, and where you equip them to function at their best.
Studies show that such workplaces outperform their peers. But creating a workplace that succeeds in building diversity, equity and inclusion can be challenging.
How can you set yourself up for success? We’ll look at concrete steps you can take to implement DEI practices in your retail operation. But first, let’s define what we’re talking about.
What is DEI?
Organizations define the D, E and I in DEI differently, and your company may want to hone your own definitions as you create and refine policies.
But, generally, the three can be described as:
This refers to the dimensions and traits that differentiate groups and people from each other — and the similarities those within each group share. Factors like race, gender, age, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation and disability may come to mind most often. But diversity also includes educational background, military service/veteran status, neurodiversity, family structure and language.
In a DEI toolkit for employers, the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia, defines inclusion as “the extent to which each person in an organization feels welcomed, respected, supported and valued as a team member.”
“In such an environment, every employee tends to feel more engaged and is more likely to contribute to the organization’s business results,” according to SHRM. “This type of environment requires people from diverse backgrounds to communicate and work together, and to understand one another’s needs and perspectives.”
SHRM has a good definition for equity, too. “Equity in the workplace refers to fair treatment in access, opportunity and advancement for all individuals. … This includes identifying and working to eliminate barriers to fair treatment for disadvantaged groups, from the team level through systemic changes in organizations and industries.”
An oft-used analogy goes like this: Diversity is being invited to a party; inclusion is being asked to dance. In this comparison, equity would be offering dance training and giving everyone the footwear they need to be a star on that dance floor.
The Greensboro, North Carolina-based Center for Creative Leadership, which offers DEI training, says in an undated article on DEI best practices that although it comes second in the abbreviation, equity is critically important. “Our belief is that without equity, efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are laudable, but not sustainable.”
“People enter the world of work and advance through their careers with unevenness of advantage, opportunity, privilege and power — so what is ‘fair opportunity’ is not the same for everyone,” according to the Center for Creative Leadership. “When organizational leaders express their motivation, as well as acknowledge any barriers, for countering inequity; set clear goals toward greater equity; and then take action, they signal a commitment that becomes the foundation of the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts.”
The business case
Studies have shown the financial benefits of workforce diversity:
- Diverse companies have 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee, according to a 2022 survey from Built In.
- The Boston Consulting Group found diverse management boosts revenue by 19%.
- Gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers, according to a McKinsey & Co. study. Ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to do the same.
- Built In also found that for every 10% increase in gender diversity among senior executives, companies earn 3.5% more in earnings before interest and taxes.
There are other benefits, as well. A Global Diversity Practice study found that organizations that are diverse by gender, age and ethnicity make better decisions.
As a practical matter, with a national unemployment rate at 3.6% in May and companies struggling to hire, expanding the pool of applicants to include a broader range of candidates can ease staffing shortages.
And there is a softer reason to embrace DEI concepts, a Mr. Rogers-esque rationale. DEI is about making your entire team know you value them and that they belong.
“Fostering overall respect within the organization encourages inclusion. When employees have good relationships, respectful conversations and team accomplishments to celebrate, they feel they belong,” says Michele McGovern in an April article for HRMorning, a news service specializing in human resources topics.
Employees who feel like they belong are likely to stay with you. You can help foster that sense of inclusion with regular recognition, praise, rewards, awards — both from management and at the peer-to-peer level.
There are countless consulting companies and detailed books and manuals that can help you develop and implement DEI programs. We can’t cover everything here, but there are some fundamental steps to consider.
Assess where you are now.
o do this, Ahva Sadeghi, an economist and researcher, suggests determining what data you already track and in what detail, assessing where you stand in relation to other retailers, and finding other retailers from whom you can learn. In a May article for BenefitsPRO, a publication focused on topics related to workplace benefits, she also suggests determining what resources (personnel, financial, etc.) you can invest in your DEI efforts.
Set specific goals.
This applies to succeeding at any goal, right? Saying you want to increase your pillow sales isn’t enough. How much are you going to grow them? By when? What efforts are you going to make to do it? Same with DEI.
In a May 2020 article for the Harvard Business Review, David Pedulla, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University, wrote about “Diversity and Inclusion Efforts That Really Work.” One of those efforts, he says, is setting goals and collecting data over time to track progress and make course corrections. It’s important, Pedulla adds, to share that information with key stakeholders to increase accountability and transparency.
McGovern looked at some companies that have set themselves up to succeed in their DEI goals, including Discover. The financial services company established detailed, measurable goals, such as “increase the representation of women and people of color at all management levels to 50% and 40%, respectively, by 2025,” “increase representation of Black and Latinx at all management levels to 15% by 2025” and “use our full platform of jobs, supplier spend, charitable contributions, products and more to advance equity and motivate others to effect change.”
Discover also follows what Pedulla recommends in terms of being transparent about its DEI track record. Anyone can read Discover’s goals and its annual DEI reports at Discover
The Center for Creative Leadership suggests focusing on two or three goals that will give you the best opportunities to change, at least to start. These could fall under a number of key business areas, such as revenue, expenses, employees or suppliers.
For instance, under revenues, you might decide to use multicultural marketing to expand your markets (revenue), create mentoring and developmental programs (employees), and set up enterprise programs for minority-owned and women-owned companies (suppliers), SHRM says.
Put communication structures in place.
Let’s face it, diversifying a workforce and bringing together people of more varied backgrounds and experiences can create misunderstandings and even worse. For DEI initiatives to be effective, they need to include a way for employees to talk about comments, behaviors or policies that counteract those DEI initiatives.
“Companies are embracing the value of diversity and inclusion but not without adversity. Our firms’ consultants reveal that the DEI conversations they have with clients can be emotionally charged,” say Laurie Cure and Virginie Bodescot. “Employees often hesitate to express their negative experiences and avoid the uncomfortable conversations meant for igniting meaningful change.”
Cure is the founder and chief executive officer of consulting company Innovative Connections in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Bodescot is executive coach of Sense Making Consulting in Paris. In a January article for HR Daily Advisor, a human resources website and newsletter, they write: “On a national scale, the political environment also impacts DEI discussions, decisions and the strategic focus of organizations. In 2021, discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement, critical race theory, affirmative action, microaggressions and ‘leading with race’ created controversy and misunderstanding. This is a challenge for leaders and organizations wanting to move forward with conversations necessary to implement strategic DEI action plans.”
Fierce, a Seattle-based training company that specializes in helping companies have more effective conversations, uses a tool it calls a Feedback Conversation. “They train employees to have and accept healthy conversations where one person can ‘objectively call out observed behaviors’ — such as exact instances of shouting, using negative language or belittling — instead of generalizations,” McGovern says. If a conversation isn’t effective, an employee can step up to what Fierce calls a Confront Conversation. “For instance,” McGovern says, “an employee might say to a colleague, ‘I held up my part of the bargain and here’s what’s at stake now. If you don’t change the behavior we discussed, I won’t be able to work with you to meet our goal.’”
Stanford’s Pedulla suggests ways of addressing complaints that might rise to the level of discrimination or harassment. “Employee assistance plans, ombuds offices and transformative dispute resolution systems can play a critical role in not only reducing retaliation but also provide fuel for organizational change,” he says.
And this, too, is fundamental to DEI success, Pedulla says: Companies should not see complaints as threats but instead value “them as insights that can spark positive organizational change.”
Involve all levels of the company.
According to a 2022 DEI report from Chicago-based networking and recruiting platform Built In, 41% of managers say they are too busy to prioritize diversity in their workplace. So, you’ll need to find ways to engage and empower them.
“Often, organizations have experts design programs that are then deployed to the managers. This strategy often lacks a reality check: Does this program fit into the way managers already work, or are managers now required to add something into their already complex days?” Pedulla says. “… Involving managers in the design process can increase buy-in and smooth implementation, making interventions more sustainable and long-lasting.”
Across the board, companies need to give staff the tools, resources and support to “improve their ability to identify and mitigate bias, respect differences, build empathetic relationships, foster allyship, manage conflict and bring out the best in others,” the Center for Creative Leadership recommends.
And, as importantly, you should educate everyone in the company about the benefits of DEI initiatives so that they can support them.