diverse work group

As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, we’re publishing a series of articles about how our business has changed over the years. This month’s article focuses on the evolution of the DEI workplace journey.

The  social and technological advancements of the past 15 years (and longer), have changed  how organizations and their employees navigate the workplace. This includes significant strides made in valuing and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Diversity: All About Representation

The DEI movement began with a spotlight on representation. In the 1990s, large corporations like Walmart and Coca-Cola faced class action lawsuits because of a lack of diversity within their workforces. According to this 2020 article by Business Insider, “since 2000, 99% of Fortune 500 companies have paid settlements in at least one discrimination or sexual harassment lawsuit … and that’s not including the cases without a public record or incidents victims didn’t report.”

On the heels of these legal cases, research firms took up the cause. Evidence-based studies emerged to prove that creating diverse workforces was not only morally sound, but a smart business decision. Diversity Matters, McKinsey’s inaugural diversity series first published in 2014, found that top-quartile companies for racial and ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.

Efforts to attract and retain talent from diverse backgrounds included the establishment of diversity recruitment programs, inclusive hiring practices, and blind recruitment techniques to mitigate unconscious biases. Because of these changes, we’ve made much progress in the past couple of decades. For example, the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2021, women held 31.7 percent of top executive positions, an increase of more than 20 percent in 20 years.

Inclusion: Don’t Just Invite Me to the Party; Ask Me to Dance

After many organizations spent years building a business case for diversity and focusing recruitment efforts on increasing representation, they realized that simply getting more underrepresented people in the door wasn’t enough. Organizational systems and processes were designed by and for a White Dominant Culture that values perfectionism over excellence and paternalism over partnerships, and competition over collaboration. These cultures could not value and leverage the strengths of a diverse workforce. The next inflection point in the workplace DEI journey zeroed in on inclusion—providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded.

Affinity Groups and ERGs

Affinity groups are one powerful lever corporations and nonprofit agencies have developed to cultivate inclusion. Also known as employee resource groups (ERGs), these micro-communities bring together employees with similar backgrounds or interests. Examples include women’s leadership groups, religious groups, LGBTQ groups, and caregiver groups.

This 2022 article by McKinsey about effective resource groups notes that today 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have ERGs. The most effective affinity groups partner closely with senior leadership and the DEI function to foster inclusion, improve diversity, and promote external impact.

In addition to ERGs, tools like training and education programs on unconscious bias, cultural competency, and inclusive leadership have helped to drive inclusion in workplace. All these practices are part of an organization’s attempt to create a culture of inclusivity and belonging. When it comes to the success of DEI in any institution, culture matters far more than policies and programs. It is this collection of values, expectations, norms, and behaviors that will make all the difference in the journey toward a more inclusive workplace.

Equity: The Movement Toward Greater Justice

Equity, or the quality of being fair and impartial, erupted in organizations in the wake of social justice movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. In 2020, the global conversation around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and COVID-19 illuminated systemic racism and its impact on every aspect of society, such as healthcare, education, housing, employment, and environmental justice.

The need for greater equity pervades the nonprofit sector as much as the for-profit. Although many nonprofits are mission-minded and serve underrepresented communities, they haven’t always reflected the people they serve, especially within leadership and on the Board. The current call to action for the nonprofit sector is to move beyond the justice component of their mission, evaluate the ways in which white supremacy and colonialism are entrenched in their systems and culture, and get serious about doing the equity work internally—changing from the inside out.

This increased focus on equity has translated into distinct organizational practices addressing systemic barriers and inequities that hinder access to resources and opportunities. These include pay transparency, salary equity audits, and flexible work arrangements. Additionally, nonprofit organizations have recognized how critical it is to collaborate with the communities they serve. Today many actively seek input from diverse stakeholders, in their strategic planning and decision-making processes. Co-creation and participatory approaches have gained traction, ensuring that the voices of those directly affected by the organization’s work are heard and valued.

Beyond DEI: Additional Considerations

DEI is just the tipping point. Today access and belonging are part of the movement. Organizations are striving to ensure that their programs, services, and facilities are accessible to individuals of all abilities. Such efforts include removing financial barriers and providing equal opportunities for participation regardless of one’s background or circumstances. And a new focus on belonging takes the inclusion conversation to a new level; it’s about creating a space where employees can bring their whole and unique selves to work.

Finally, organizations, including their governance bodies, are increasingly holding themselves accountable for their DEI efforts. They are implementing measurement frameworks, conducting diversity audits, and tracking key performance indicators to assess progress and identify areas for improvement. Transparency in reporting and sharing DEI data is essential to building trust with stakeholders and driving long-term change.

Conclusion: Much Progress Made, Much Work to Be Done

Thirty years ago, discussions about equity, inclusion, access and belonging were relatively scarce in the  workplace. A series of historical, social, and cultural inflection points from the past few decades created a significant paradigm shift. Today organizations have moved beyond mere awareness and are taking concrete actions to engage diverse communities, foster inclusive environments, and advance equity. While there is still work to be done, a commitment to DEI has become ingrained in the sector’s fabric, driving positive transformation and strengthening the impact of nonprofits to create a world that works better.

A Framework for DEI Strategy

Your organization is ready to get serious about Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI). But what does that mean? What departments does that include? How do you start? We’ve prepared this visual tool to help you better understand what’s included in a DEI plan and where you can start.

A Framework for DEI Strategy eBook