The business benefits of diversity and inclusion efforts will vary by company, and culture won’t be achieved overnight.
Jayson Council, Columbia University School of Professional Studies
A question I often get asked is: When it comes to creating a culture of belonging, how do I start or where to begin? In response, you already have begun by acknowledging the problem. For far too long, companies have remained oppositional or denied the need for change. Industries at large understand now they cannot afford to squander opportunities to do right through implementing effective DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) practices. As Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Understanding DEI work is not new, but it has become the hot subject matter with the recent heightened awareness from the nation’s racial reckoning. Diversity practices began because of the civil rights movement, to give voice to the nation’s historically marginalized communities that were rapidly growing in force. For context, think of DEI like this: diversity focuses on people of varying backgrounds; inclusion ensures those people are fully valued and not merely a quota number; equity allows those people to receive the same benefits with different, but fair, treatment. In combination, DEI ensures there are checks and balances in the workplace regarding belonging.
Recently, I began to utilize an alternative framework to (easily) conceptualize DEI. Look at it from a place of D.I.E. (diversity, inclusion, equity) and replace each letter with three Rs: Representation – Respect – Repair. This simple substitute of terms profoundly provides the opportunity to understand and engage with DEI beyond the limitations of our background status to cover all personal experiences. It allows all ranges of the inclusion spectrum to march forth at once.
Initiating a DEI program is not a sprint, but a marathon. It will require strategic planning and training to remain impactful throughout, both on the macro and micro levels of the company. Many company participants will begin the race with you, all with the intention of getting to the end in a respectable time. Yet, entering the race without proper preparation will lead to a disastrous result that will ultimately affect your company’s social and financial standings.
It is also important to understand a program should be sustainable. Initiatives cannot be simply transactional, reflected by numerical quotas or data points. This critical work will influence and change mindsets, behaviors and performance. Communication and transparency will be of utmost significance to maintain engagement and encouragement throughout the entire company.
As Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth, so eloquently stated, “Everyone has the potential to lead, and leadership is about listening and being attuned to everyone else. It’s about flexibility. It’s about humility. It’s about trust.”
The next step is to engage with leadership. Effective and sustainable practices will require the support of leadership. While they do not need to be experts in the subject matter, they should be informed and confident to take action to correct injustices within their organization. If possible, they should lead by example with calls for training, resource allocation, and utilizing subject matter experts or external support to develop such initiatives further. After all, DEI is an investment for the company.
Two key organizational benefits of having a robust DEI program are:
Dynamic Talent Pools: Recruitment and retention of a talent pool is the bedrock of any company. Intentionality around DEI efforts will help to create authentic and meaningful early impressions of your company, as well as pave the way to reset company culture with a new populace who embrace and expect a fair and equitable work environment. When we discuss marginalized or excluded populations, the focus is heavily on creating entry or breaking barriers to unfair systems. Yet, retention is also critical. Too often, there are not enough opportunities to support and advance marginalized employees.
Enhanced Social Footprint: A DEI program significantly improves company image and reputation. Spearheading change as a solution to a long-denied problem relates your brand as based on fairness, innovation, emotional intelligence, engagement and forward-thinking. Being able to authentically stand behind a different, but improved, set of principles and practices results in a show of community to your employees and your customers.
Intentionality is also key as data is gathered from employees’ stories and experiences. This can occur through establishing focused committees or learning communities, tasked to initiate difficult conversations around how to improve company culture. A well-structured guided discourse can establish a secure foundation, opening lines of communication, transparency and fairness among the employees. Experiences can differentiate a person from another; however, company staff can bond and work better through a shared collaborative training where everyone’s input matters.
Let’s be clear, the evaluations of your current company climate may be surprising to learn and hear. Nevertheless, you must remain engaged and committed, and above all, listen. Listen to colleagues, team members and customers about their experiences. We have learned biases are inherent in all of us and it takes effort to recognize and counter such embedded actions. This is the perfect time to acknowledge harmful truths and commit to change. In today’s culture, it is not enough to be non-racist; you must strive to be anti-racist. That will take inclination and decisive action.
It is important to realize DEI work can help to address the glaring deficiencies and blind spots within a company, and then help to balance (and sustain) an inclusive work culture. To understand the benefits of DEI further, think of the curb cut effect. It is a theory that focuses on targeted universalism, or that by doing right for one group benefits many groups. The curb cut is a cut or ramp in an elevated curb allowing easier passage between the street and sidewalk, and originally implemented to make streets accessible to accommodate the physical limitations suffered by some of our disabled populations. Yet, we all utilize the ramp in different forms – by riding bicycles, pulling luggage, pushing carts or moving large items to a car. An idea to help one group can be a benefit to everyone. We should look at DEI similarly.
Another great resource designed by the Equity Institute focuses on the concept of “Awake to Woke to Work.” This framework is easy to understand because it “calls out” that we are all engaging with DEI from different positions of employment, backgrounds and experiences, but collectively we aim to work together. With this known, the groundwork for an inclusive workplace can begin.
Keep in mind results and/or benefits of DEI initiatives will vary by company and its actions. There is no formulaic timeline as DEI is unique to the company culture and its employees. The earlier a decision is made to improve culture and implement well-planned strategies, the earlier results will begin to appear.
Part of the process in engaging in DEI is also to establish target goals. Do note that targets stemming from conventional metrics will be ineffective as they may still be utilizing the same biases that need to change. DEI practices utilize both quantitative and qualitative analyses that will require nimble, innovative and creative methods. It is ideal to find ways that will curate a personalized experience to your company; that will have a broad “curb cut” impact.
Now that we know DEI is a marathon and not a sprint, let’s just acknowledge how grueling training for a marathon can be. We know that strategic mental and physical preparation is essential for success. Understanding each runner has a unique style of training based on their experiences to date only adds another layer to the race. However, no matter how long they trained, where they are from or how they identify, all runners start from the same spot. This neutralizer allows for a fair race. Starting from the same place is huge. It allows all runners to know that no matter what, we are all here with the same goal, and that goal is to do our best to finish the race.
Diversity, equity and inclusion is the marathon, and WE are the runners.
Jayson Council has spent the past 20 years working to strengthen the nonprofit social and educational sector through strategic development, board recruitment, relationship building, fundraising and, above all, the power of opportunity. He has held administrative and teaching roles at Columbia University, Rutgers University, University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon University.
Convenience Store News is partnering with founding underwriter, Altria Group Distribution Co., and supporting firms The Hershey Co. and WorkJam, on a new convenience store industry initiative around diversity and inclusion. This new platform is a multi-touch digital and print program that focuses on the business case for greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion in the c-store channel and is designed to be a catalyst for discussion, innovation, engagement and action.