Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are often seen being squarely in the domain of HR; a separate issue to an organisation’s sustainability goals, but the two are inextricably linked. If we want sustainable organisations, we need to be building sustainable talent pools that are diverse and future-fit. This means that DEI is at the heart of business strategy.
To be clear, I am not talking about the business case for DEI – if you still need to ask about that, your business is in trouble. This is about moving beyond that tick-box to making real progress, and being motivated to do this at a deep, intrinsic level.
Most organisations – especially in the context of Covid-19 – are focusing on questions of innovation, sustainability, attracting and retaining diverse talent, creating physically and emotionally safe environments for people to thrive in a hybrid workplace, empathetic leadership, improved productivity and performance, competitive employee and customer experience, ensuring that ethics permeate corporate culture, social impact, ESG, and company alignment with stakeholder and community expectations.
To create the organisation of the future, we need to consider these issues through the lens of DEI – and the vital concept of belonging – so that we broaden the opportunity for all voices to be heard. But what does belonging mean? Well, as Verna Myers put it, diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance. Belonging means you get to choose your favourite song and everybody dances.
Often we have the intellectual buy-in to DEI, but this is where it stays. What we need is emotional and behavioural buy-in too. Awareness is a great place to start, but we need to go further, on a journey of constantly interrogating our assumptions and biases, considering the systemic issues of policies, practices, barriers, structures and systems, to understanding our impact on society and social justice. This is how we become champions and advocates of DEI.
The question, always, is how we do this. How do we embed DEI in business strategy and make it part of every organisation’s DNA? The answer, as with everything else, lies with the leadership. And in this instance, it’s about leaders who are willing to do the inner work – to be on a continuous journey beyond attending another DEI workshop. They need to be agile thinkers who are self-aware enough to be constantly course-correcting.
They must do the work to understand their own biases, and change their behaviour accordingly. It’s a dynamic, continuous process, and we need to bear in mind that our own ideologies are constantly moving and shifting, and need to be managed in the way we behave. None of us is bias-free, and we all need to surface and interrupt those biases.
In South Africa, because of our apartheid history, we often tend to think of diversity as only increasing representation by race or gender metrics. And, yes, this has to have continued and relentless focus. But our country’s Constitution, in Sections 9 (3) and 9 (4), provides that no person or the State may directly or indirectly unfairly discriminate against anyone on one or more grounds. These grounds include race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
This means we have to go beyond gender and race to consider disability, diversity of thought, diversity of lived experience, diversity of personality, parental status, level of education, rank, position.
Intersectionality is the combination of these, cumulative effects within one individual that are hugely complex. This has an impact on the end-to-end employee life cycle from the time and way in which we recruit people, to the way we appoint, onboard, promote, develop, do succession planning and performance management, and exit people.
DEI policies, of course, are a good place to start, but we have to ensure they are being implemented – they, too, are not a once-off, and will need to be constantly improved and updated as we recognise areas they might not have covered.
Policies, however – even the best policies in the world – can’t adequately account for the micro-inequities and micro-aggressions many people face on a daily basis: the subtle ignoring, discounting and humiliation that the aggressors often aren’t even aware they are perpetrating.
We must also have realistic expectations of discomfort as we navigate these issues: DEI is an uncomfortable topic for many, but ultimately, it’s about humanisation. And in order to achieve that, we need inclusive leadership development programmes that produce leaders who walk the talk. Covid-19 has redefined who people want to work with, and it’s a critical part of an organisation’s employee value proposition now to have truly inclusive leaders.
It’s not about creating artificial harmony, or simply having a policy in place that you can add to your integrated reporting. It’s about robust, but respectful engagement with your employee community and other stakeholders in an effort to clearly define what DEI means to you as an organisation, and it’s about creating an inclusive environment where your people can truly thrive, and bring their best selves to the workplace.