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What Does DEI Really Mean And How Can You Approach It?

As populations become increasingly diverse, the issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace is becoming more important.

We like to think that our workplaces are equitable and that everyone feels empowered and included, but statistics indicate otherwise.

For example, a Culture Amp survey found that only 66% of women felt they could voice contrary views at work compared with 80% men. Another survey from Glassdoor found that 47% black and 49% Hispanic job seekers and employees have quit a job after witnessing or experiencing discrimination at work.

So, while we have come some distance in terms of welcoming women and underrepresented groups into the workplace, this endeavor is still far from over.

The aim of this article is to give an overview of what DEI means in the workplace and point you in the direction of how you can formulate and work towards your DEI goals. 

What does DEI mean?

DEI stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Diversity means all the ways that people are different, be it gender, gender identity, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, disabilities, neurodiversity, socioeconomic status, age, religion, location, or veteran status.

Equity stands for fairness and justice in the way that people are treated. This translates as impartiality and equal access when it comes to processes, programs, opportunities, and advancement. Removing inequities means everyone can reach their full potential.

Inclusion means that everyone has a sense of belonging in the workplace and that everyone feels like they can participate. Inclusive environments are those in which differences are embraced and supported and people feel like they can bring their true selves to work.

Why are Diversity, Equity and Inclusion important?

OK, beside the point that everyone’s human and we should treat each other with the same level of respect, numerous studies have shown the benefits of more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. 

For example, a Boston Consulting Group study found that diverse workforces have been shown to be 19% more productive. Similarly, a McKinsey study found that diverse companies are 35% more likely to experience greater financial returns.

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Credit: Liz Fosslien

From a hiring perspective, a Glassdoor survey found that:

  • 76% jobseekers consider a diverse work environment as an important factor when choosing a new company, and
  • 32% would not apply to a job at a company where there is a lack of diversity in the workforce.

We could go on, but I’ll give a real-world example too.

I used to work for a digital agency and we wanted to hire a new developer. A candidate applied, let’s call him Shaun. 

Shaun’s a skilled developer who happened to be born with autism, and this results in an intense dislike for office environments. Our policy up until that point was that everyone was required to come into the office and sit in their teams.

So, did we turn Shaun away based on his preferences? Hell no! We hired him and let him work from his home. If we’d insisted on him coming in, we’d have missed out on a natural-born developer and hard worker. 

We also changed our policy on remote working so that others could work from home as well sometimes (nobody grumbled about Shaun but everyone appreciated the extra flexibility).

Another example: coffee chain Bitty & Beau’s are never short on hires because they’re not afraid to hire people with disabilities.

How to approach DEI work

When we talk about DEI work, we refer to initiatives to address issues related to DEI and improving the workplace.

This could take the form of running more inclusive meetings, redesigning offices for people of all physical abilities, or implementing DEI training.

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True DEI work means bringing about systemic change in our organizations, and this requires concerted effort. It’s why some organizations choose to appoint Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) to implement and run DEI programs.

Many organizations measure their DEI work using metrics such as representation and retention across different demographics. For example, you could use data from your HRMS to figure out if people from minority groups are staying at the organization for a longer or shorter period relative to the average.

While measuring these high-level metrics are good indicators, as DEI expert and podcast guest, Anthony Clay, rightly points out, they don’t go deep enough.

“You can look at attrition as a data point. When did someone join? When did they leave? How long was that period of time relative to an average? But why do people leave? Because they lack career development opportunities because they don’t have mentors. And all of a sudden it becomes a conversation about career development.” – Anthony Clay.

So DEI work is about peeling back the layers to understand our people and what’s going on in our organizations. From their, you can invest resources into what another podcast guest of ours, Katie Zink, refers to as “winnable experiments” or practical DEI initiatives that you can measure and control.

Toward more Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive organizations

It’s beyond the scope of this article to tell you how to approach DEI in your organization.

But now you hopefully have a better understanding of what DEI really means, I encourage you to read and listen to the following expert resources to help you further on your DEI journey: