How to keep your company's diversity and inclusion efforts from fizzling out

As national conversations about racism and equity continue, companies are looking inward and taking action. But are your diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts at risk of fizzling out? For them to be meaningful and sustainable, they need to be embedded into the core of your business, experts say.

Organizations should treat D&I as a business strategy that will "help your business grow, maybe be more attractive, more innovative, and more productive," said consultant Jocelyn Giangrande. These efforts can help you connect with the community you serve, and they create "the right environment where all of your talents can thrive and contribute, and people feel respected and treated with dignity," she said.

Research has repeatedly shown that diverse and inclusive teams perform better, make better decisions, and foster innovation — which can directly affect your bottom line.

Building understanding

When Giangrande works with executives on D&I, "I always ask them, 'What's the first thing that you think of when you when you think of diversity?' And most of the time, they don't think of themselves as part of the umbrella of diversity," she said. "When you think diversity is about other groups or other people, then it's not integrated through your system."
Jocelyn Giangrande
Diversity goes well beyond the number of people from underrepresented groups. "Diversity truly is everything that encompasses us," said Graci Harkema of Graci LLC. "It's our diversity of thought, diversity of experience, and our diversity of backgrounds. It is everything that we bring to the table."
Giangrande agreed. "If you have more than one person in the room, you have diversity," she said. "When you start to think of it that way, everything you do in your organization is under the umbrella of diversity, and the culture in which you do it is the inclusion. So it should be woven into everything that you do: all your marketing, all your communication, all of your human resources policies, all of your business decisions."
Also, everyone needs to be involved, not just senior leaders. "Everyone needs to be part of that solution," Giangrande said.
As the Auto Club Group AAA in Dearborn was beginning to plan its D&I strategy, the company asked employees what diversity means to them. They conducted focus groups, and the process took time, "but you want to make sure that you end up with a strategy that is uniquely tailored to fit your organization," said Kenneth Mathies, the Auto Club Group's assistant vice president and chief diversity officer.
The process can be uncomfortable. Your organization's introspection might include acknowledging the systemic racism that your employees face — at work and outside of work, Harkema said. "They're coming to work, having to hang up parts of themselves, because they can't be their authentic selves.
"These are tough conversations. And there are times we're going to feel uncomfortable because racism and discrimination is very uncomfortable," Harkema said. But, she added, "That's how you're going to grow. Growth does not come out of comfort."
And you may need to walk before you run. Mathies advised, "You really have to understand that your colleagues may adapt at various rates and speeds."
Training
To embed D&I into your business, ongoing training is essential — for everyone. Leaders in the C-suite and on the board "cannot just delegate this work and not be accountable for being engaged," said Darlene King, executive director of the Michigan Diversity Council and a consultant.
The Auto Club Group has customized courses "to outline the business case for diversity and inclusion," as well as training on topics like unconscious bias, Mathies said. "Sustainability is only going to be achieved by continuing to invest in the education of the employee base."

On an individual level, "this process of employment growth is a journey, which takes time," said Steve Spreitzer, president, and CEO of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion. "Many individuals begin their journey from what is known as a place of unconscious incompetence, with the goal to become unconsciously competent."

Because training brings people together, "every training is an opportunity to get people acquainted in your organization," said Giangrande. "Breaking down those barriers and getting people to know each other and to talk and engage is one of the key steps to help you build that culture of inclusion."

Hiring

"We shouldn't just hire a black person for the sake of checking a box and hiring a black person. The people that we have in our leadership positions need to be the best-qualified people who are aligned with the mission of the organization," Harkema said. But instead of casting a wide net for that person, someone's friend may get considered for the job. "Let's cast our networking to be more intentional and ensure that we're not missing out on some really excellent talent who come from diverse perspectives and diverse backgrounds," she said.
Graci Harkema
Giangrande recalled a conversation at a company she once worked at. She was one of two people of color among about 30 attendees at a leadership development program. While talking, they realized that the two people of color had gotten their jobs the traditional way: "We saw the job posted, we went and applied for it and jumped through all the hoops to get an interview, and then ultimately got selected," she explained. "The rest of the people in the room got their job through their network — someone they knew referred to them." It was eye-opening for everyone involved, and "that kind of information could be instrumental in making sure that you are doing the kind of outreach to connect to some of those communities that you may not get to" if you're hiring mostly through networking, she said.
Boards of directors sometimes lack diversity, but bringing in new board members takes time. In the meantime, Yen Hannah of Engaged Consulting suggested inviting people from elsewhere in the company to board meetings to share their thoughts, rotating the people invited each time. "That gives other people an opportunity to speak and lend their voices across the company. I've seen companies do that, and it's been very successful."
Accountability
Diversity and inclusion should become second nature, but that requires "an environment that is open for people to hold the company accountable," Giangrande said. People need to feel comfortable enough to speak up. Giangrande added that organizations often fail to select the right metrics to track progress.
For an aspect of the business such as supplier diversity, "it is important to make sure that you build transparency and accountability around those efforts," Mathies said. The Auto Club Group's D&I strategy lays out "objectives that are actionable and measurable."
Like anything else, D&I initiatives require adequate funding and resources. But in tough times, they may be the first to be cut, and D&I responsibility sometimes gets bestowed on a leader who lacks the resources to do it. Giangrande said, "Instead of that person having that job exclusively, a lot of times, I see people who already have a position and then diversity and inclusion are added to their responsibility, and so they get swamped."
Companies may lack the internal capacity to handle the depth of this work without outside help. Sometimes, an outsider "may see something that you're not seeing because you're so in it on a day-to-day basis," Hannah noted.
The work is hard but necessary.
"The time is now to create change, and change won't happen unless we are continuous and adamant about doing the work and being the change that we want to see," Harkema said.