Walking the Walk

Five ways HR leaders can design an equity program that delivers value to employees long after the term stops trending.

By Pearlie Oni

The business case for diversity and inclusion (D&I) has been well established. Diverse teams are more creative, more productive and, all in all, more lucrative. In fact, McKinsey’s 2019 Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters report found that the most diverse companies are more likely to outperform their less diverse peers on profitability—and the greater the representation, the greater the performance.

For years, HR leaders have sold D&I programs to the C-suite using dollars and cents, with the results being placid, slow-moving, ill-funded programs meant to boost diversity numbers and nothing more. These types of programs have not moved the needle on inclusion, with McKinsey noting that while overall sentiment on diversity is 52 percent positive and 31 percent negative, sentiment on inclusion is markedly worse, at only 29 percent positive and 61 percent negative.

Diversity and inclusion issues in the workplace did not manifest themselves on the day George Floyd was killed by the police, nor did they spring fully formed from the resulting protests, riots, and societal unrest. Diversity, inclusion, and equity have always been a human issue, not a business issue. Here are five ways HR leaders can design an equity program that delivers value to an organization’s employees long after the term stops trending.

1. Listen, don’t talk. Diversity and inclusion is a broad term, but make no mistake—the conversations that yield successful diversity, inclusion, and equity programs are nuanced and unique to each organization. The first step is starting these conversations: Speak to employees and ask them to identify the issues.

What keeps employees of color from feeling heard, validated, and accepted? What keeps the women in an organization trapped beneath the glass ceiling? In what ways has the organization failed to create a culture that celebrates diversity?

Be prepared for these conversations to be uncomfortable and sometimes messy, but they are necessary. At Redpeg, before launching the first employee resource group (ERG) geared toward women in the organization, there were focus groups with women from different departments and levels within the organization to help identify pain points and brainstorm solutions the proposed ERG might offer. Afraid that people will not speak up? Survey staff anonymously and use the data gathered to inform the program strategy.

2. Design, don’t just build. As the function responsible for creating equity programs, HR leaders should consider themselves architects and developers. But before they can lay a single brick, they will need to sit down at the drawing table to design a plan that fits their organization’s particular needs, per the knowledge gained through conversations with the team.

Putting together an ERG is not going to work for a company whose specific pain point is lack of mentorship, for example. Likewise, making an outside diversity hire is only going to aggravate existing cultural issues if current employees have expressed that they have been overlooked for promotion. At RedPeg, design-thinking tactics from the “Experience Design” department were leveraged to create a bespoke D&I program that includes an employee experience journey map.

HR leaders should put as much time in the strategy of the program as they do in the execution, taking into consideration the company’s unique employee make-up, their desires, and their needs.

3. Measure, don’t count. It is tempting to evaluate the success of a D&I program against the number of minorities and women working at an organization, and tracking those numbers is certainly an important component. However, the goal for a diversity, inclusion, and equity program should be to improve the work lives for the minorities and women a company is already employing and for the diverse employees it hopes to employ one day. Therefore, success should be measured in the happiness, engagement, and empowerment of employees, not in how many of them there are. At RedPeg, the success of the D&I program is measured by how happy and engaged employees are through anonymous, quarterly surveys.

4. Be about it, don’t just talk about it. Performative allyship—being more concerned with the appearance of making a difference than the act of making a difference—will tank any equity program. Changing an organization’s logo during pride month or granting employees a day off for Juneteenth while doing nothing to actually change the internal culture that fosters inequity will do very little to improve the day-to-day lives of employees, even if it earns brands a pat on the back from their customers and clients. If the leadership team plans to show support for minorities by being vocal about social issues on their brand’s social media platforms, they should be prepared to keep that same energy while conducting internal meetings and creating HR policies and organizational procedures.

5. Don’t be scared, just do it. Having the conversations necessary to foster meaningful change will be awkward at first, especially if an organization, like most, is used to sweeping discussions around inequity under the proverbial rug. Asking employees to reveal their workplace anxieties, fears, and resentments as they relate to their race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities will be difficult for sure, but HR leaders should not allow fear of vulnerability, fear of making mistakes, of saying the wrong thing, or of not getting it right the first time keep them from trying.

It takes time and consistent effort to build a culture of trust and transparency, and mistakes will be made. When that happens, apologize, adjust the approach, and move on.


Pearlie Oni is director of employee experience for RedPeg Marketing.

Posted October 15, 2020 in Engaged Workforce

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