DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) isn’t just a buzzword, but a key component of any successful organization, one in which people can bring their very best selves to work.

But how do we get there? How do we move from a commitment to a truly inclusive culture—from a one-off training to a set of habits and behaviors baked into our daily interactions?

To get there, we need to stop thinking of diversity, equity, and inclusion as a stand-alone issue, training, or set of initiatives, but as a feature of any healthy and engaged workplace culture.


How Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Create Thriving Organizational Cultures

DEI training has been around for close to 50 years.

And according to a report by McKinsey, organizations spend about $8 billion per year on diversity and inclusion training (D&I).

Yet there’s little indication of a statistically significant improvement in the representation of marginalized groups as a result.

In fact, research shows that in some cases DEI training actually led to a decrease in the overall representation of marginalized groups.

For example, between 1985 and 2014, among all U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, the proportion of black men in management increased by a scant .03% — from 3% to 3.3%.

The representation of white women in management improved between 1985 and 2000, but has since flatlined for 20 years.

Despite stated commitments to make it a top priority, the technology sector especially lags far behind. For instance, the number of Black workers at Facebook has increased by less than 2% since 2014.

At the leadership levels, things are even worse.

Why is this?

Because focusing solely on improving the numbers misses several issues.

Marginalized employees are not guaranteed opportunities for advancement in the same way as their less marginalized counterparts.

Furthermore, workplace cultures are not always welcoming to marginalized groups. In fact, they can often be hostile.

And these issues can’t be solved by improving metrics alone.


Unpacking DEI

This is where inclusion comes in. What is Inclusion?

Inclusion is the experience or feeling of belonging, acceptance, involvement, and empowerment.

An inclusive organizational culture is a psychologically safe environment that allows people to bring their best thinking and authentic selves to the table.

A focus on inclusion means focusing on the culture — creating a diverse workplace in which employees feel appreciated for their unique characteristics, and are comfortable sharing their ideas and their true selves.

In order to create and maintain truly inclusive cultures, we must begin to consider diversity, equity, and inclusion as interdependent parts of the same whole.

All three are equally important in creating thriving workplace cultures.

So how do they fit together?

Diversity refers to the representation of people from different demographic groups, races, ethnicities, ages, sexual orientations, genders, religions, etc.

It is quantifiable — a number. How diverse is this company? How diverse is the leadership team?

What percentage of the company and the leadership are from non-dominant identities: Black, female, LatinX, Asian, LGBTQ, etc?

Inclusion, on the other hand, is an experience of belonging, acceptance, and empowerment — it is how diversity feels in our everyday interactions.

So, we could say:

  • Diversity is quantitative
  • Inclusion is qualitative

Without inclusion, organizations can’t increase or leverage their diversity. In other words, diversity without inclusion has little chance to stick.

But even with diverse representation (diversity), and the right experiences (inclusion), a key ingredient is missing.

That key ingredient is equity.

Equity means fairness.

It means providing for everyone’s individual needs so that all have an equal chance to excel as high-performers.

Equity is about everyone getting what they need to thrive — without assuming that everyone’s needs are the same.

It means access to opportunity, networks, resources, and support — based on where someone is and where they want to go.

Equity differs from equality in that equality is about sameness — everyone getting the same thing.

While equity strives for fairness.

If diversity is a number, and inclusion is an experience, equity is the conscious use of power to design fair systems of inclusion and diversity.

Unfortunately, most organizational systems are designed in ways that are inherently inequitable, and thus not truly inclusive.

And yet that very unfairness is invisible to those who benefit from its existence. It just seems normal. It’s simply the status quo.

However, too often the status quo is actually a “high status quo,” — a system that benefits those with more rank.

And if we want to get serious about inclusion, then we have to acknowledge that the status quo doesn’t work for everyone.  

So how do we create organizational cultures where diversity, inclusion, and equity work together?

Below are 4 ways to turn your diversity and inclusion commitments into reality, into a workplace culture that works for all.


4 Ways to Improve DEI Efforts


1. Connect DEI to Culture

There’s no such thing as ‘a little bit of discrimination’, or ‘a little bit of exclusion’.

A workplace can’t have just some bias in its policies, bias towards some. Because exclusion, bias, and discrimination are symptoms of a larger culture problem. A culture problem for some has to be a culture problem for all.

Just because you don’t feel the symptoms doesn’t mean you aren’t sick.

For instance, one of the most oft-cited problems employees complain about are gossip and insider-outside dynamics.

1 in 4 workers:

  • Dread going to work
  • Don’t feel safe voicing their opinions about work-related issues
  • Don’t feel respected and valued at work

These are symptoms of exclusion. While people from marginalized groups experience toxicity most, or first, exclusion, discrimination, bias, and hostility are issues that plague the whole culture.

Connecting the dots between inclusion and culture helps create greater relevance for all, and also solves the problem more holistically.

When people see that they too suffer from workplace problems, they are more likely to become part of the solution.


2. Ground DEI in Behaviors and Skills that get Measured

A great deal of diversity, equity, and inclusion training centers on awareness: becoming aware of one’s biases and attitudes, and the lived experiences and realities of marginalized groups experiencing systemic racism.

And while awareness may lead to increased empathy and openness, there is no evidence to suggest that awareness and knowledge alone lead to behavior change.

Awareness, while a critical first step, is not enough for change.

Managing a diverse workforce, and creating an inclusive culture requires learning (and practicing) new skills and behaviors.

  • How do hiring managers interview candidates?
  • How do managers conduct one-on-ones and give feedback to team members?
  • How do we schedule meetings to be equitable for all?
  • How do we talk and engage respectfully with each other?
  • How do we facilitate meetings in which everyone can contribute?

For behavior to change, training has to be grounded in specific, identifiable, and measurable behaviors.

Otherwise, we can’t know what we need to improve. We can’t practice the requisite skills. We can’t get feedback that is tangible and actionable. And we can’t measure our progress.

There are 4 elements to making a new behavior stick:

  1. The behavior needs to be modeled.
  2. The behavior needs to be practiced — over and over again.
  3. We need regular, constructive feedback on the behavior.
  4. Progress must be measured so we can continue to improve through feedback and coaching

These four elements provide the opportunity to break things down, learn from mistakes, and practice new behaviors.

Practicing new skills, getting feedback, and measuring our progress gives us the opportunity to turn awareness into behavior.


3. Design for Equity

Culture and behavior are changed by design.

Despite our best intentions, systems and structures can unconsciously nudge our behavior in other directions.

To make sure your organization is equitable, set up structures that lead to the right choices: a set of clear rules and protocols that don’t rely on subjective (often biased) judgment.

Here are 8 examples of designing for equity:

  1. Create performance reviews that are standardized for all employees so that the criteria of feedback is the same for everyone.
  2. Ensure everyone has an equal voice by tracking speaking time in meetings, calling on people, and noting names next to ideas so that credit can be given
  3. Create a rotational system for office “housework,” and don’t ask for volunteers to do the menial tasks. Assign them on a rotating basis to respect everyone’s time equally.
  4. When hiring, blind yourself to the demographic characteristics of job applicants. Exclude names, photos, and any other identifying characteristics during the review process.
  5. Schedule more inclusively by varying the time, place, and frequency of meetings, allowing flexibility for people who may be caring for children, or other loved ones
  6. Make access to you, the boss, rational and transparent. “My door is open” assumes people feel comfortable knocking on your door, which is often not the case.
  7. Similarly, don’t rely on people to self-advocate for promotion or assignments. Give equal opportunity to all. Make sure that the methods for holding conversations about advancement are the same for everyone.
  8. Research shows that frequent contact diminishes stereotyping and bias. Design opportunities for people to have increased contact with others from different demographic groups. Create rotating teams with diverse members, and assign projects in ways that allow people to collaborate and work those whom they might not otherwise


4. Create Accountability

One of the most powerful ways to make diversity and inclusion stick is to create accountability.

When we know we’ll be held accountable for something, our mastery of that thing improves.

Make accountability an integral part of inclusion at every level.

Create team-level accountability where people can support each other, and hold one other accountable.

Tie diversity and inclusion goals to managers’ performance metrics. Track staff engagement, promotion rate, job satisfaction, and tenure by race, role, and business unit to identify disparities and opportunities for improvement.

Survey the progress of your initiatives by department, and make results public and visible. The scrutiny of social pressure can lead to better behaviors and better outcomes.


Putting it all together

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are interdependent. And to create a thriving workplace culture, all three are needed.

But to get there, we need more than a commitment, more than just a one-off class, and more than awareness of the issue.

In order to make DEI stick, and to create a truly equitable workplace, we should:

  • tie DEI to culture
  • ground DEI in measurable and learnable behaviors
  • design for equity to keep people on track
  • create accountability

And finally, let’s start to embed this into our moment-by-moment behavior, treating it as the core professional competency that it is, and not a stand-alone issue or set of actions separate from our day to day work.