How 2020 Accelerated Conversations on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

February 03, 2021

Contributor: Jordan Bryan

Key mistakes to avoid to promote diversity equity and inclusion in the workplace amid a changing climate.

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While there have been many points in history where society reflects on expectations of diversity and inclusion, the summer of 2020 has presented a real opportunity for change. As employees across the globe engage in discussions of racial justice, leaders are seizing this moment to consider their roles and opportunities to advance diversity, equity and inclusion at their organizations. 

Kasey Panetta, Gartner Senior Content Marketing Manager, interviews Lauren Romansky, Managing Vice President of the Gartner Human Resource practice, to learn the biggest mistakes organizations and executives need to avoid to truly transform the organization.

Listen to interview

For the full interview, listen to the podcast or read the transcript that follows, which has been edited for clarity and length. 

Listen to podcast: Advancing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: What Organizations Get Wrong

It feels like a bit of an understatement to say that there has been a lot happening with the pandemic, the protests in the U.S. and the global economic crisis. How has this affected diversity programs?

Unprecedented seems to be the keyword of 2020, and it certainly applies here, too. The heads of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that we’re talking with feel like it is three crises packed together. There’s the health crisis, first of all, and no one has ever led through anything quite like that before: It’s disrupting how we work together, how we engage with our customers and suppliers.

And then, very quickly, we’re experiencing the ensuing economic crisis: It’s completely changing business plans, and our expectations. And then, more recently, this racial injustice crisis, and many of these injustices have been there all along. I think that the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others have brought those conversations to the dinner table and to the office. This has created an awakening of sorts with leaders, some of whom may not have engaged in these issues directly before.

We’re seeing many of these HR leaders find that they have a lot of the same levers to push and pull to try and affect change as they always did. They may be trying to change tens of thousands of employees globally, but while they own the strategy, they know that the strategy will live out and be realized in the business.

What these leaders are seeing in this unique moment is that the barriers to change, and to the leaders’ readiness and willingness to engage that have always been there, have softened or even just dropped completely. And, in fact, heads of DEI, who used to be pushing for change, are now receiving so many inbound requests for plans and actions to do so now.

How is this different from other movements, like the #MeToo movement? How is it similar? 

In 2017, especially, we experienced a lot of #MeToo, and I think there are some similarities for sure. One being the awakening component, where with a lot of the stories of women who were coming forward it wasn’t like all of that happened just in that moment. These are things that had been happening in a consistent, toxic way that were overlooked or kind of pushed aside. And in that there are many similarities now with what we’re all recognizing around race.

One of the key things that makes it different is that Gen Z is really in the workforce right now in a way where they weren’t four years ago. We’ve seen in some of our polling that it really is the youngest employees who are most passionate about this, who see race as something that they want organizations to engage in, have plans for and really aspire to work for organizations that value diversity.

As we look at those sentiments and we hear through our conversations with HR leaders, we think that generational response is going to be a real difference as we think about the staying power and opportunity for this to be a moment that drives really extended, consistent change.

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What are younger employees looking for that maybe millennials or baby boomers aren't?

We don't really know just yet. And we think as Gen Z enters the workforce, they don’t really know just yet, either. Through discussions we’ve had with chief human resource officers and HR leaders, I think the biggest difference is in intention. In previous years and decades before, if you meant well, it would be OK.

If the organization’s intention was that they cared about diversity and inclusion, you could communicate that through your values, and employees would see that and connect with it and find engagement and dedication. I think the reality is with Gen Z, the intention is not enough: they want to see results, and they want to see action to back it up.

They’re also very vocal. As you think about how many stories we’ve heard in the past few years around college campuses and the kinds of change measures that college students have been taking, these students are now in our workforce. Gen Z is talking about expectations, petitions, targets and about real diversity in the leadership bench. You don’t just need to have diversity, you have to have inclusion to actualize it.

Are leaders so afraid of misstepping that they opt to do nothing? 

Absolutely. It’s a scary topic for a lot of executives for a lot of communications leaders for a lot of marketing and HR leaders. I think that’s because there are components of DEI that are politicized and deeply polarizing. We’ve seen heads of DEI, wherever possible, depoliticize by changing the lexicon and vocabulary that is being played with in a political environment or more broadly in society.

They try to distill this conversation around values and business decisions that are unique to their organizations. They can talk about innovation, collaboration, customer service, growth, sustainability, and all of these terms are not political at all. These are the objectives of the organization, and as we think about different organizational values that boards and C-suites have committed to, there are ways to translate this and open that conversation with confidence and competence.

We’ve heard time and time again that the worst conversation to have right now is the one you don’t have. I think organizations that don’t engage on this topic may not realize that they’re making a decision by not engaging.

It’s certainly a hard decision to figure out where your organization stands and how to communicate that in a way that doesn’t polarize employees or customers, but by not engaging, you are also polarizing employees and customers as well. Something that feels specific to this movement is that a nondecision is absolutely a decision and something that leaders are going to have consequences for.

What other mistakes are organizations making at this very sensitive juncture in time?

Inaction is the No. 1 mistake. If you’re not talking about this or not thinking through your organization’s role and where your leaders can take hold, I would urge you to start.

Beyond that there are several mistakes we see as we look through strategy or plans moving forward. The first is not being intentional about labels and language for DEI strategy or program to take hold. It has to resonate with stakeholders who read it or hear about it from somebody else. And for many organizations, this means rethinking that common vernacular diversity and inclusion, which is so easily reduced to that commonly accepted but sometimes baggage-laden acronym of DEI.

We’ve seen organizations talk about equity, talk about belonging, engagement, innovation and other words that are attached to their specific business context. And while it’s absolutely true that we definitely need workplace diversity, we certainly need inclusion. If you’re specific about which part of that equation matters the most right now, it’ll encourage participation and fend off some of that skepticism that a lot of employees are having about these diversity and inclusion initiatives.

“ It takes an intentional focus to unbias those talent processes and management of teams to make sure that all your employees are having an equitable experience”

Another mistake is thinking about a dedicated diversity and inclusion function will solve it for you. We’ve talked to many CEOs in C-suites thinking about hiring a head of diversity and inclusion. We think that could be a wonderful idea, and there are certainly many, many things that could keep a talented person busy in that role. But HR leaders who think installing that head of DEI will solve all problems is a mistake.

It really is the entire leadership team’s job to reconsider those objectives and the team’s objectives to really achieve that systemic change. If you think about tens of thousands of employees globally needing to change, there’s no way one person or a small function is going to take care of that. It’s going to have to be owned collectively.

The third mistake is not clearly and specifically shifting those actions and accountability to the business. Frequently HR leaders take this on as something that’s close to culture, close to change, close to employee experience, but they don’t step back and fully install that ownership into the business leaders.

I think a lot of HR leaders are actually quite anxious about that right now, feeling like, “Gee, if I ... if I tell everyone what they need to do right now, they’re going to tell me I’m not a good partner. I don’t understand the business or seeing the trade-offs. But if I don’t tell them what they need to do I’m going to be fired because I didn’t move the needle.” And so the best way to do that and manage that tension is to get that ownership into the hands of business leaders.

Another common mistake is stopping after unconscious bias training. Unconscious bias training has been hugely popular across the past few years and for good reasons. We hear from our clients all the time that it builds a framework and vocabulary to talk about these challenging issues.

It authorizes leaders to do it in the workplace, but we know for so many reasons that unconscious bias training doesn’t change behavior. It doesn’t actually create a different employee experience when that training is over, so HR needs to think harder about pushing into those talent processes, into those systems, that underpin decisions and really focus on the foundational trust in that manager-employee relationship.

None of these mistakes means less work; they all frequently mean more work for more people at the organization. We’ve seen a lot of organizations have the realization that this isn’t something that a three-hour training or a new sourcing technology, or recruiting is going to solve.  

What have organizations done well?

There are definitely a lot of bright spots. We’ve seen several organizations who really had the communications piece down while many leaders stutter-stepped around whose decision it was or how to make a decision of how to respond. Many organizations we work with developed decision trees, committees and values-based decision criteria to decide when and how they would respond.

Not surprisingly, we see this a lot in diversity and inclusion, those organizations that are able to do that quickly, have a bit of a first-movers’ advantage in that it also allows those organizations to have a little bit less skepticism as you think of those who lagged further behind. I think those organizations have already kind of gotten themselves in a tricky spot because now there’s more skepticism about the intentions and commitment.

The other thing we’re seeing is a lot of really, really great work by employee resource groups (ERGs), sometimes referred to by different names such as affinity networks or business resource groups. These groups of underrepresented talent who support each other also in many organizations are aimed to really change the business. They are agents of change, advising senior leaders as well as HR on what they can do to help create a more diverse and inclusive environment.

We’ve seen so many great examples of especially virtual ERGs who are able to provide sessions where employees can share what they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing, what their experience is outside of work, as well as inside of work. And we’ve heard so many stories about how these have created connections between senior leaders and employees helping to change hearts and minds of leaders in terms of where moving the needle on diversity and inclusion fits into that priority scheme, as they see and hear directly from employees at their own organizations about what this means to them and how it’s going.

DEI has been covered in Gartner research and has been a focus for some organizations for many years. Why does it matter so much?

It has always mattered because of innovation, sustainability of employees and the customer base, and it’s close to customer experience and being empathetic. But I think more recently we’re seeing a broader call toward stakeholder capitalism. There are more and more influences into what an organization is there for and what the organization is responsible for.

Lastly, it’s also exquisitely transparent now, and it’s just so fast. So in all of the ways that I think diversity has always been important in terms of driving the business outcomes we need, it’s just faster and a much higher-stakes table now. You don’t just need to have diversity, you have to have inclusion to actualize it.

And I think the word equity comes in because that’s what this is really all about. I don’t think anyone that I work with on these topics is there because they just think we should have people of different genders or backgrounds doing a thing. Instead, we want that equitable experience.

Everyone wants to drive toward a true meritocracy. It just so happens that we’re unlikely to get that in the world in which our organizations are operating. It takes an intentional focus to unbias those talent processes and management of teams to make sure that all your employees are having an equitable experience.

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