Ways to Accelerate DEI Progress in 2023 and Beyond

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

January 12, 2023

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) continues to gain frequent mentions as one of the top trends affecting HR in 2023. But are many employers still falling short when it comes to meaningfully advancing DEI initiatives? And is it still a priority at an organization's highest levels?

According to research from Glassdoor, corporate investment in DEI programs - such as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) - reporting of company diversity statistics, and pay gap analysis surged in 2020 and continued to expand through 2021. But last year told a different story with research indicating a stall in progress.

And while 60% of organizations report having a DEI strategy in place, according to the Harvard Business Review in late 2022, many of those organizations still lacked clear or measurable goals.

XpertHR's 2022 survey report of employers across the US revealed findings along similar lines, including:

  • 58% of respondents reported their company has no central budget or HR team dedicated to DEI efforts;
  • 25% said their companies have no DEI strategy at all (and another 34% said they are still in the process of documenting one); and
  • Only 30% of companies are prepared to consistently monitor their organization's DEI progress through metrics.

So what can companies do to put their foot on the gas pedal to accelerate DEI progress not only this year but beyond? Here are some actionable steps your organization can take to ensure its DEI initiatives don't get stuck in neutral.

Level of Authenticity Is Critical

The importance of showing authenticity when it comes to DEI cannot be overstated. Many CEOs issued press statements and internal communications extolling their commitment to DEI in 2020 following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In fact, US companies pledged $50 billion toward racial equity in the aftermath.

But according to a study by Creative Investment Research one year later, only $250 million (less than 1% of what was pledged) had been spent or committed to a specific equity initiative.

"Walk the walk, not just talk the talk may be a cliché, but that's still where we are to a degree."

Sabina Mehmood, Pay Equity Leader at Gapsquare from XpertHR

"It's easy to say something," said Sabina Mehmood, pay equity leader at Gapsquare from XpertHR. "Walk the walk, not just talk the talk may be a cliché, but that's still where we are to a degree."

Employees from a variety of backgrounds increasingly want to see action when it comes to DEI. And that action goes beyond filling out a once-a-year survey.

To show that an organization's commitment to DEI remains top-of-mind and is sustainable, Mehmood stressed communicating with employees at all levels of the organization, even if it means acknowledging the need to do more. "It's ok to say we got it wrong, but this is what we're doing now and will prioritize," said Mehmood. "You can pivot as long as you're explaining what's happening and why."

Ensure It's a Business Imperative

One way to ensure that DEI is a business imperative is for an organization to have its Chief Diversity Officer - or a powerful equivalent - reporting directly to the CEO as part of the C-Suite. Otherwise, it risks becoming a peripheral initiative, according to corporate culture consultant Joy Stephens of New Heights A&L Consulting.

"There is nothing optional about information security or safety compliance. You better show up." Stephens sees DEI as having the same imperative as those other trainings in noting, "You can't pretend it's ok not to be inclusive."

Joy Stephens, corporate culture consultant at New Heights A&I Consulting

The push for this business imperative needs to come from the highest levels and also should include making DEI trainings mandatory, not optional. There is nothing optional about information security or safety compliance," said Stephens. "You better show up." She sees DEI as having the same imperative as those other trainings in noting, "You can't pretend it's ok not to be inclusive."

Stephens added that a message from a senior leader saying, "I expect you all to attend," can go a long way rather than simply saying to employees, "We hope you come."

Companies also should hold leaders accountable to ensure progress is being made. But according to XpertHR's 2022 survey of employers across the US, leaders are held accountable for DEI outcomes in only 37% of companies. And for only 17% of companies does this come in the form of holding leaders accountable for accomplishing specific DEI goals and objectives.

XpertHR's research also showed that slightly less than half of the companies surveyed offer training programs that include education on key topics such as psychological safety or unconscious bias. But the findings revealed that companies offering these trainings achieve tangible benefits.

For instance, 60% of companies classified as "committed" to DEI reported improved employee engagement scores from 2021 to 2022. In contrast, 33% of companies that approach DEI exclusively from a legal compliance and risk mitigation standpoint reported improved engagement scores over that same time period.

Measure Employee Satisfaction Thoroughly

Many organizations seek and collect feedback about the employee experience. But are they digging deep enough to find out if problems exist among certain segments of their workforce? For instance:

  • Are they measuring how people from different backgrounds are experiencing the company culture?
  • Do they analyze surveys by gender?
  • How about race and/or ethnicity?

Measuring these areas will show if there is an underlying problem beneath the surface of rosy overall numbers, which may not be so rosy for certain segments of the organization. It's important to fully understand where the gaps are before being able to take meaningful action.

For example, if 80% of employees report feeling psychologically safe at work but only 25% of underrepresented employees feel that way, that may be a troublesome sign. The same holds true with employees' beliefs about the company's commitment to other DEI areas.

It's also worth measuring not only how many people are attending trainings or courageous conversation workshops, but the impact of those programs. This can be accomplished through post-training or program surveys that ask attendees whether they found the programs effective.

Address Systemic Barriers

Systemic barriers continue to exist for many segments of the workforce. A common refrain among some employers is that they wish to further diversify their ranks but are having trouble finding talent. But that lament doesn't hold up for Sabina Mehmood.

"Don't just say there aren't enough women in tech," says Mehmood. "You may not be looking in the right places." Having a diverse recruiting team helps in this regard as does undertaking specific efforts, such as reaching out to:

  • Women's colleges and universities;
  • Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs); and
  • Diverse professional groups.

It's also critical to understand representation at each level of the organization. For instance, an employer may be doing well with diversity overall but how do the numbers look up the managerial chain?

Companies can address systemic barriers by looking at the challenges facing each specific group. This includes ensuring there are mentoring programs in place so that all employees - including underrepresented employees - have access to promotional opportunities.

Also, don't be afraid to reevaluate what is being measured and adjust as you go. For instance, Mehmood noted that a company can have a great family leave policy, but it's important to examine when people are coming back. "If 24 weeks leave is available, but women are coming back nine or 10 weeks early, you need to find out why," she said. This also applies with paternity leave and other forms of leave.

Improve Inclusion - Really

A big challenge for all organizations when it comes to improving DEI remains the lack of self-identification among employees. While companies should know how many Black or female employees they have at various levels, information is still often difficult to come by for certain groups whose differences may not be visible, including:

  • Individuals with disabilities;
  • LGBTQ employees; and for
  • National origin in some cases.

Individuals with disabilities and LGBTQ employees, in particular, do not always self-identify because of fears that a stigma will attach. With greater inclusion comes more employees willing to self-identify.

But for dyslexic individuals, certain autistic employees and others, for example, it can still feel easier to "stay in the closet," said Joy Stephens. She recommends having an environment where supervisors ask, "What do you need to make this easier?" That way, employees do not feel a need to hide a part of who they are.

ERGs and mentorship programs can go a long way to making people feel more comfortable self-identifying and having a greater sense of belonging. "Generation Z, in particular, expects ample ERGs and is pushing that in the workforce," said Stephens. Other generations are taking note too, and view the existence of a broad array of ERGs as an important element when evaluating employers.

Advance Pay Equity

One DEI-related trend very much on the rise involves pay transparency laws, often cited as a way to advance pay equity. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently signed a law that will require employers in New York State to list pay ranges in job postings beginning in September 2023.

In 2021, Colorado became the first state to require employers to include compensation information in job postings. California and Washington also enacted pay transparency that were effective January 1, 2023, while New York City also requires covered employers to include a "good-faith" estimate of the minimum and maximum salary they would pay for an open position.

"Pay transparency laws will expose a lot, especially for underrepresented employees, women and People of Color," said Mehmood. But she also noted that some companies are already finding loopholes. In response to the New York City law, for instance, the financial services firm Citigroup posted that for a client services officer, it was "willing pay between 0 and $2 million" annually.

After the posting was publicized, the company cited a computer glitch. But the corrected salary posting of $61,700 to $155,290 was still a remarkably wide range. Another employer reportedly posted a position for $50,000 to $145,000.

These developments illustrate the need for employers to embrace pay equity, including incentivizing leaders and holding them accountable. This also means conducting audits to correct inequities and neutralize bias when making hiring and compensation decisions.

Show Appreciation for Other Cultures Through Holidays

Another way employers can show their support for inclusion and equity is by having more paid holidays. Some examples may include Diwali and Juneteenth, though companies may wish to increase the number of floating holidays they offer so employees from other backgrounds are not slighted and have flexibility in how they celebrate.

Rather than harming productivity, Stephens maintains this step will actually give companies that recognize these days a "competitive edge" and help their productivity. Your employees and job applicants will take note, a factor that should not be overlooked in this competitive talent market.

"If you really want to be inclusive, having more holidays that show appreciation for other cultures beyond just words is a great way to do it," Stephens added in noting that recognizing a few more holidays is doable without harming the bottom line. This appreciation also may include ERG events with support from senior leaders in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, LGBTQ Pride Month and others.

Conclusion

Advancing DEI ultimately is a marathon, not a sprint. Accelerating these initiatives takes time. But building steady momentum through the above steps is crucial for an organization to make meaningful progress. Some key questions to consider may include:

  • Are leaders setting a good example and prioritizing DEI initiatives?
  • Do they attend ERG meetings and show support for them?
  • Are the company's ERGs able to provide input to senior leaders?
  • What leadership training programs are being offered?
  • Are you ensuring that the pipeline of candidates at all levels is diverse?

There is no one-size, fits-all approach. DEI is about growth and retention, and ensuring that employees are seeing progress in the form of opportunities, investment and outreach.

"Continue moving away from check-the-box themes and remember there are real people behind these numbers," said Mehmood. And above all, communicate and be transparent in addressing any gaps that may exist.

Additional Resources

DEI: 5 Key Issues Facing Employers

Why DEI Training Still Has Value in the Stop-WOKE Era

Pay Transparency Can't Be Ignored Any Longer