Diversity and inclusion: 7 best practices for changing your culture

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) have become necessary missions for most businesses. Research has long shown that diverse teams are more productive, more engaged, and the companies that create them are more profitable. And the murder of George Floyd — and the social unrest that followed — made it clear that taking a stand around social justice is necessary to recruitment, retention, and even the viability of your brand.

Despite the requisite commitment and knowledge, however, creating a truly diverse and inclusive workforce takes much more than locating and tapping a diverse hiring pipeline.

According to a recent study in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), organizations of all sizes have made unprecedented investments around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the past few years. That same report, though, found that those efforts are not finding the level of success companies had hoped for. Much of the disappointment is not with recruitment, however. It’s with employee retention.

“In a lot of organizations, especially in tech organizations, you get a revolving door,” says Stuart McCalla, managing partner at Evolution. “People come in and then they leave.”

That’s expensive and frustrating for everyone involved.

CIO.com spoke to DEI leaders and experts to uncover the best practices for building diverse teams and a culture that nurtures those teams and individuals to stop the churn and get closer to the organization’s overall D&I goals.

1. Set measurable goals and then measure them

“One of the most important aspects of creating inclusive organizations is about measurement,” says McCalla. “Numbers don’t lie.” You can’t really know how well you are doing at building the inclusive environment you want if you don’t set goals and measure your progress against them. Yet, according to the HBR study, 60% of companies report that they have a DEI strategy but gender representation goals (26%) and race representation goals (16%) are infrequently part of it.

These are not recruitment goals. They are representation goals. Maybe you hired a diverse team for entry-level positions. But where are they now? Did they get promoted and build diversity in your management team? Or did they leave because there was no opportunity for advancement, the company culture didn’t make them feel welcome, or there was bias that’s invisible to your management team but crystal clear to them?

You can use data to identify these issues and prioritize where you need to implement programs, offer training, and focus your efforts.

“If you examine the average tenure of an underrepresented group and discover that it’s less than a year or two, aggregate the exit interview data for that group,” explains McCalla. “If 35% of those folks say they left for a better opportunity, 45% say they were unable to progress in their career, and 20% say their manager didn’t understand their experience, what should you focus on?”

Knowing your goals and how you are performing against those goals gives you a workable plan for improving what needs attention.

The HBR study found that companies do collect this sort of data, but it is underutilized. Most companies collect gender data (90%) and ethnicity data (88%). But when it comes to attrition, only 52% of those companies analyze the data by gender and less than half (40%) look at it through the lens of race and ethnicity. And when it comes to tracking who gets promoted? The numbers drop again.

2. Fix your inclusion problems before you recruit

“The intention has to be there,” says Luan Lam, chief people officer at Harness.io. Like many D&I experts, Lam is a strong advocate of starting a company with a DEI plan already in place, setting the tone for every hire past the founders.

“If you set your intention from the beginning, it builds a framework you can fine-tune as you go along,” he says. In this way, DEI isn’t an afterthought, added during a crisis. It is baked into everything from office design to hiring to pay to processes. “That way, there isn’t a lot of cleaning up to do. You set your intention. You put a plan in place. And you execute against that plan,” he says.

That’s great advice for startups. But if your company is not a startup, it is still important to fix your culture before you recruit. You can’t hope that, somehow, the new hires — simply through their presence — will repair your company culture from within.

“Internally organized inclusion efforts often fall informally on people from diverse backgrounds,” explains Cassandra Shapiro, global head of DEI at Reaktor. “That is extra labor for people who are already facing unequal opportunities or barriers that are invisible to people from the majority. So, to have to create inclusion for people that come in after them is additional work. If organizations don’t find a way to formalize inclusion efforts before they start bringing in more people, people from marginalized backgrounds will not be interested in shouldering that burden and will leave.”

Recruiting a team without assuring that they will be included by your culture is a waste of your resources and efforts.

“When people find an excellent position, interview, join, and realize the culture is not making space for them, it is a monumental waste of effort — on both sides,” says Shapiro.

3. Encourage people to tell their story

A great place to start on this journey is to create forums — Slack groups, employee resource groups, events, and educational opportunities — that establish environments where people can tell their stories.

“If we encourage safe forums for speaking up, we can create a sensitive and mature approach to discussing injustice,” says Nichelle Grant, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Siemens USA. “We can create a dialogue that strengthens our organizational culture and builds a more resilient organization as a whole.”

This can be simple to implement and powerful: Invite experts to speak about topics around equity or that throw a spotlight on diverse experiences. Create forums where people can tell their own story and where people are encouraged to listen and respond.

“When you share stories, people automatically sit up and listen,” explains Shapiro. “They find a way to connect their own stories and their own experiences with the stories and experiences you’re sharing. At Reaktor we have open DEI meetings that end up as storytelling sessions. We also do education sessions when there are topics people want to talk about.”

For example, explains Shapiro, “We found an expert on neurodiversity and asked him to speak. The purpose was to educate us on the basics of neurodiversity. But there was also a question-and-answer session where people were buzzing, typing in lots of questions.” That level of interest and curiosity led to Reaktor employees starting a dedicated Slack channel for neurodiversity matters, a safe space for neurodivergent people and advocates to come together. “That is a rich and active place now,” she says.

Creating these channels of inclusion are important for the people who are already there, but they also go a long way towards creating a place that is welcoming to new team members. If a neurodiverse person — or a black woman or trans man — arrives and discovers a Slack channel or an employee resource group already exists with a rich community of like people talking openly to each other, they are more likely to feel welcome.

4. Make leaders accountable to your DEI goals

Managers have an outsized influence on the experience of people on their team so it’s important that they hear these stories around diversity and inclusion, too. Unfortunately, leaders are often the last to hear from discontent team members, especially if they are seen as the problem. Leaders are gatekeepers for promotion, so when they make decisions that are influenced by unconscious bias, it has a ripple effect on the culture.

The HBR story found that for DEI goals to succeed, executives and leaders must be held accountable to them. Yet most DEI plans don’t do this. Only 28% of companies hold C-suite executives accountable for progress against the DEI strategy, 23% for pay equity, 12% for gender diversity, and 5% for racial and ethnic diversity. A mere 7% of companies hold execs accountable for gender diversity in promotions, and 5% are accountabe for racial and ethnic diversity in promotions.

Having a clear process and stated criteria for advancement, too, according to a report from Culture Amp, can move responsibility and decision-making power away from managers so employees believe that bias will not stand between them and opportunities.

“One thing that has been successful for us is to work with leaders and get them ready to hear things that don’t match their current beliefs,” says McCalla. “It can be hard for skilled, competent, successful leaders who have been around to accept the understanding of systemic oppression – how different identities work. It is hard, especially for those leaders. It is an extra layer of complexity and yet this is the leadership skill for the 21st century.”

John Marcante, CIO-in-residence at Deloitte, experienced how hard it is to see the world through a lens that is not your own at an employer-hosted diversity and inclusion event when he was the CIO at Vanguard. “I sat next to a Black executive, and we started sharing stories,” he says. “At the time, my son was learning to drive. We got into a conversation about the stories Black parents tell their sons — especially about keeping their hands on the wheel and not reaching for the glove compartment — as an officer approaches the car. I’ve never taught my son anything like that. It hit me so hard. That was my first understanding that life is very different.”

And understanding how different the lens is for underrepresented groups is a great start. No one can be passionate and engaged in solving a problem they can’t see.

“I think about this as building a practice where I am weaving in behaviors and actions with intention into everything I do, so that it’s part of my job,” explains Libby Maurer, vice president of user experience at HubSpot. “If we’re not doing that, this is just an extra thing on your checklist that doesn’t yield an inclusive environment.”

5. Create ways for people to say what’s wrong

People who experience bias are often hesitant to tell leaders what’s wrong. Overcoming the feeling that nothing will be done about it, that there will be backlash against them, and that speaking up is dangerous to their career is an integral part of living life as an underrepresented group. “Finding avenues for people to speak directly to you while removing any potential backlash that they might feel is so important,” says Shapiro.

Even something as simple as an anonymous Google form where people can say what’s going on can help. Even better? Solicit feedback through anonymous surveys and feedback tools so that you aren’t waiting for someone to experience extreme dissatisfaction before they find the courage to speak.

“We have many listening posts and feedback channels to listen for inclusion issues, lack of inclusion, and a lack of safe environment,” says Maurer.  Without those sorts of listening posts, and even perhaps with them, you will rely heavily on exit interviews to course correct your efforts.

Solicit feedback in those exit interviews and encourage exiting employees to be candid and you will get better data to measure against your goals, change your culture or leaders, expand DEI programs, and clarify systems around pay, equity, and advancement.

“We have an entire system when folks decide to leave,” says Maurer. “So, we can get deep into the drivers for why they made that decision.”

6. Examine the rules and assumption that define your culture

Because life is so different for different slices of the population, it’s important to examine policies and cultural norms that enforce one culture while excluding others. If you have a dress code, ban things like tattoos or piercings, or require people to come to the office at specific times, you may be excluding members of underrepresented communities that you want to hire or be preventing them from bringing their entire self to work, which makes for an exhausting workplace for them.

“How can you encourage people to be authentic if you’re not allowing them to show off their tattoos or piercings and things like that?” asks Adriana Gascoigne, founder and CEO at Girls in Tech. “Do you enable people to be themselves when it comes to their thoughts and feelings? Do you encourage them to generate ideas and come to brainstorms and say what they feel? That is all part of being authentic.”

Most people from underrepresented groups can tell stories about having to change, or hide, who they are to survive or be considered for opportunities and advancement.

“Starting my career at a high-profile social networking company, back in 2008 and 2009, I would go into something I called man mode,” says Gascoigne. “I was climbing the ladder, surrounded by men. The only way I could be respected was if I wore pantsuits, talked in a lower voice, didn’t say anything funny, and was very curt. I had to have lots of slides with numbers and stats. This is very different than who I am as a person.”

Women who fight through that bias to find success are often asked to start all over if they have a child and return to a workplace where maternal bias, the assumption that they are less committed because they are mothers, is rampant.

Overall, women leave the workforce — especially those in leadership roles — in much higher numbers than men. If your data shows a high attrition rate for women, those women know why they are leaving.

“I’ll guarantee you they know why,” says McCalla, as do all underrepresented people who leave. “Maybe you should listen to that why?”

7. Give the DEI leader a seat at the table

In the past five years, there has been a 71% increase worldwide in all DEI roles, according to LinkedIn data. But the HBR study found that work still needs to be done when it comes to listening to the DEI team. It found that 58% of companies have a budget dedicated to DEI but only 21% have a senior role dedicated to this effort. Only 9% have a DEI leader who sits at the same level as other executives. And only 12% of those DEI leaders have a team working for them. The Culture Amp report found that only 34% of DEI leaders reported that they had adequate resources.

Often the DEI role is part of the HR team or an independent person with little say or resources. Empower your diversity people, listen to them, and give them people to help execute against their plan. That will give your DEI effort, according to a recent Time report, “an enterprise-wide mindset and a seat at the decision-making table.”

“Companies can’t just talk about their mission around diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says Marcante. “We have to be adamant about getting the message out that we are committed to diversity — at all levels of the company. We are committed to transparency and equal pay. Actions matter, too. Are the senior leaders sponsoring employee resource groups and diverse talent? Does the diverse talent in the organization get access to senior leaders?” How diverse is your senior leadership team? “That’s the only way we change this.” 

Diversity and Inclusion, IT Leadership, Staff Management, Women in IT