Diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners Lily Zheng, Dr. Shindale Seale, and Natasha Kehimkar joined Mathison co-founder Arthur Woods to discuss what organizations can do to build a successful DEI strategy for 2023.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies and interventions are not one-size-fits-all. There are many strategies and practical tactics to create change, but you need somewhere to start.
How should leaders think about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies that are right for their unique organization?
Lily recommends that leaders ask, “Why does my company need DEI policies, processes, and support? What problems is it solving? What challenges are we facing?” Leaders need to look introspectively at their organization to identify problems before they create an action plan of solutions.
If a new leader sees somewhere that a best practice in DEI is to have mandatory bystander intervention training and decides to add that to their strategy, they aren’t solving a problem.
Dr. Shindale Seale states that many organizations come to her mentioning that they need DEI, but that there’s an overgeneralization of a DEI professional’s efforts, which causes overwhelm.
In business, it’s commonplace to focus on getting things done, but DEI is one of the aspects of business that continues to shift: there is never one solution to a problem.
Throwing every DEI tactic on your roadmap is a straight line to failure because you don’t know where to prioritize or allocate your resources to create meaningful change for the people in your organization.
To that point, Natasha says “you [need to] ask yourself, if we were going to be shifting our Go-To-Market strategy, would we do it by bringing in a consultant and have them do training? I don’t think so.”
A shifting strategy requires problem analysis and a structured roadmap: “training by itself does not work.”
Is the Term “DEI best practices” misleading?
The resounding answer here is yes. As with any discipline, it depends.
Lily shares: “I don’t believe in best practices. I believe in better practices. Every DEI intervention is an experiment. It’s a guess. It’s essentially saying this is my understanding of the problem, this is my attempt at making a solution.”
They used the example of the best practice to anonymize resume information. When you look into the data behind the tactic when you anonymize people’s names and information, fewer people from marginalized groups get hired.1
They mentioned that that happens because organizations using resume anonymization services generally value difference more (there’s a selection bias at play), and when the differences are removed, their organizations become less diverse by this practice. The truth is that every strategy has a contextual shortcoming like in this example.
So, DEI practitioners need to be thoughtful, measure outcomes, and have good data collection to accurately show progress (this is what Mathison does!).
There are unintended consequences of the best practices we put in place that we have to be aware of. When we read about best practices or hear about them on a call, we lack essential context in understanding the whole story.
Natasha Kehimkar speaks about the necessity of time: leaders must understand that the time horizon should be at least a year to gather enough data, create initial changes, and review those progress over time. DEI is not a metric that should be expected to improve on a monthly or quarterly basis.
How do you define success and failure in DEI?
Lily responds that there can be an assumption that DEI leaders have a 100% success rate.
There is difficulty and the inevitability of failure in DEI work: “even the best practitioner in the world is going to fail.” They say that “we have to be open to continuous learning that’s grounded in data” and they don’t see many people doing that.
Dr. Seale follows up that one of the issues, in general, is that most organizations have a very bad relationship with failure. She believes that when a plan doesn’t work, we should iterate, adjust, and pivot. When they have a goal in stone it can be tough to pivot.
The definition of failure is what prevents organizations from seeing the impact they wish to make with their DEI programming and the organization overall.
It’s important to determine what inclusion means for your organization through surveys, focus groups, and ongoing conversations. She says that “When you’re looking at how to build metrics about your organization, the definition of success and failure needs to be specifically defined.” If that isn’t specifically defined, there may be misalignment in the vision, which could lead to tragic outcomes that greatly impact the culture of an organization.
To develop an impactful DEI strategy, Lily urges leaders to ask all stakeholders what metrics matter to them in terms of inclusive behaviors. They said leaders should do the hard work to distill the information, measure it, and continue to execute those metrics.
Lily states that “People are hungry for sound bites. DEI is not sound-biteable.”
Natasha follows that sentiment by saying that DEI should be ingrained in the organization’s policies and procedures. DEI needs to be in a company’s DNA.
How do you balance the need to slow down with organizations that move fast?
Dr. Seale responds that you can't compel anyone to change. You can provide tools. But people need to have the courage to change to speak to the negative influences they experience. The short answer: it’s not possible to find a balance between moving fast and moving slow. What you have to do is surface the consequences. Your pace conflicts with the values you’ve stated as being important to your organization.
Lily shares that “haste is the enemy of anti-bias.” Speed is an intentional choice with intentional tradeoffs, so we need to understand how one might compromise the inclusion goal if we don’t take the time to slow down. Lily believes in building systems, not changing people. Companies should set up their organizational systems to make it hard for people to be toxic and to not enable that toxicity.
Natasha asks that if we think about DEI as an ultra-marathon with no finish line, what can we do more quickly without compromising outcomes? To show progress, we may be able to tweak a practice here or there and commit to longer-term programs.
What policies are most effective at early-stage companies?
Many early-stage companies are focused on finding the right team members, but there are benefits to building diversity, equity, and inclusion into your organization’s founding framework.
Here are the policies and tactics our panelists recommend:
- More visibility: Founders/CEOs need to be visibly supportive of DEI. Optics are important for creating a culture of inclusion.
- Inclusive dress code and religious observance policies
- Neurodiverse hiring programs
- Performance management. Consider how you handle performance management. Small organizations should think about who is impacted more than others when it comes to how we evaluate performance. Analyze whether we are making choices that are more instinctive instead of data or patterns of behavior
- Intentional hiring practices. Be more intentional about how you hire - Natasha urges leaders to hire veterans. The first sets of decisions you make about hires foreshadow how your company is going to grow. She mentions that Lisa Rosser brings companies together to think about how they develop Veteran recruiting and retention programs. Since startups are typically fast-paced environments that require strict deadlines and limited resources, veterans have experience working in those environments. That would help accelerate the pace of accomplishment in a company.
- Focus on how a culture scales. Startup founders hire people that are more like them. But it’s important to focus on integrating differences and having that culture scale over time. Early-stage companies should build their culture based on inclusive principles, because the culture of the company when it’s less than 10 members, scales to the point where there’s an inclusive culture or one that can be toxic and homogenous.
- Consider intersectional diversity. When we think about building better representation, it’s important to have thoughtful conversations around intersectional diversity.
What’s on your 2023 DEI wishlist?
- Pay transparency is a major priority. It’s going to require shifts in the way people managers have stepped into and educated themselves about pay equity.
- Improve the way we handle conflict. When an executive team isn’t dealing with a conflict in their immediate teams, it perpetuates. Healthy conflict is necessary for successful outcomes.
- Pushing decision-making power across, through, and down. The more people have a role in decision-making, the more trust they have in the company.
- Do a DEI assessment and collect data. Develop at least one metric or outcome metric for the year. Mathison has a tool called the Equity Index that assesses a company's hiring and talent processes, identifies where potential bias exists and helps you develop a full DEI roadmap based on these findings. Their system guides you in setting goals, tracking improvement, assigning owners, and reporting on progress.
- HR advocates. HR professionals at the company should focus on advocating for inclusive systems and processes.
- Pay equity. Align pay across the board for groups that have been underpaid without the loopholes and caveats.
- More visible diversity. More front-facing trans workers and workers with visible disabilities
- Extend DEI beyond the workplace. See leaders and their families complete extensive DEI training and education that goes beyond the circle of workplace influence.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work is ongoing. But, there are strategies that we can use to make systems in our companies more inclusive. Lily, Natasha, and Dr. Seale agree that DEI work must be grounded in research, your employees’ experiences, and data to create real change.
Mathison helps organizations collect, prioritize, and execute their DEI strategies. To learn more, connect with us here.