Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies have been prioritized for many companies in recent years. Knowing where to start can be daunting for companies looking to implement a DEI strategy.
Workplace cultures that are committed to bringing different voices into conversations have a track record for higher success. According to a study by McKinsey, companies with diverse teams were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
Local DEI experts advise formulating a clear DEI strategy that fits the unique needs of each business.
Why DEI is Important
Developing and maintaining a strong DEI strategy positions companies for prolonged success, according to Dominic Green, director of programs + faculty at Inclusive Communities.
“If your work culture does not support or allow for diverse thought and discourse, your company loses out on innovation, and providing true access to the proverbial seat at the table for all of its employees,” Green said. “Second, this affects employee morale and overall workplace culture.
“What I’ve experienced is that when companies allow for their staff and employees to show up authentically, providing the dignity that all people should have, while listening to their thoughts and ideas, a true culture shift starts to happen that produces excitement in the workplace. Employees begin to take more ownership of the work being done and are proud to be part of the team. DEI work is for everyone. Be open and curious to learn. We are all diverse people and that should be celebrated, not diminished.”
Do the Prep Work
Before diving into DEI strategy development, don’t forget about the work that needs to be done beforehand.
“Some organizations have attempted to address this work without doing the deep explorative work necessary for clear understanding and direction,” said Marisa Hattab, Douglas County diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. “Having clarity around your ‘why’ and ‘what’ impact you desire to make from the beginning significantly impacts how you build the work, pinpoint, and identify who should lead the job, and develop strategic direction.
“There’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to this work. Many organizations need to assess where they are and what issues they’re attempting to address before jumping straight into developing strategy.”
Erik Servellon, vice president of operations and development for Tri-Faith Initiative, recommended businesses look beyond “checking a box” and identifying what makes DEI important for their company.
“In this discovery process, a second and just as important question is for ‘who’ this strategy is for – internally to improve the quality of life and work for their employees, or, to communicate externally to customers or stakeholders that certain values matter, or both,” Servellon said.
Hattab recommended setting aside the appropriate funding for DEI work. That could mean hiring a DEI-specific consultant that can help with data-driven decisions and perform a DEI audit, and then hiring a DEI officer and appropriate support staff that can oversee the strategy’s development and manage other ongoing efforts.
“Cultivating trust and collaboration is most important,” Hattab said. “Trust is necessary to influence change. The truth is that DEI work does not start or end with just the DEI team.
“The work of DEI is everyone’s responsibility, ranging from the CEO of an organization to frontline workers. We all must collectively work together to ensure we are creating workplace environments that are psychologically safe, healthy, and equitable for all to have equal access to opportunity.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska (BCBSNE) has been engaged in DEI work for nearly three decades. Three years ago, Jay Warren-Teamer stepped into the role of director of diversity and inclusion to lead the enterprise’s efforts. She said the key – especially at first – is listening.
“The most difficult thing was deciding where to start,” Warren-Teamer said. “The beautiful thing about this work is that in most cases, doing something is much better than doing nothing at all.
“I spent the first six months taking stock of current DEI work happening within the organization – and doing lots of listening. As I developed our strategy, it was critical to hear from and understand what our employees saw as bright spots, what were opportunities for improvement and what they would like to see BCBSNE do in the future. Once I had a picture of our current state, I took that and combined it with employee feedback to determine our strategic focus areas.”
She said that taking baby steps is okay, too.
“I’d encourage companies to start small and focus on doing a few things really well. It’s also important to identify your champions early,” Warren-Teamer said. “BCBSNE has six employee resource groups (ERGs) and a diversity and inclusion group that helps to drive the strategy and infuse it throughout the enterprise.”
Creating a strategy that reflects the communities where employees live and work, as well as the various lifestyles they lead, is an important part of recruiting employees that invest in the company for the long term. As people evolve and communities change and grow, so should a DEI strategy. Leaders should stay flexible and be willing to re-work strategy to better represent the people that make up the face of a company.
“Companies must be welcoming to every community to attract the best talent,” said Debra Schrampfer, assistant VP and chief diversity officer at Union Pacific. “Diversity shows up in many ways, and we recognize that our employees are unique individuals.
“Every employee owns the DEI strategy, creating an environment where everyone can see themselves belonging and succeeding. Understand the data – it tells you where the work is and where you need to focus. Companies must understand demographics at every level of the organization, where they are recruiting and what their markets look like.”