Workplace Support

Understanding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the Workplace

We discuss the fundamentals of DEI in the workplace with an expert.

A photo of Miranda McKie
Miranda McKie
Oct 24, 2022
minute read
A group of Black women sit together at a board room table.
A photo of Miranda McKie
Miranda McKie
Miranda McKie is the Founder and Principal of McKie Consultants Inc., which leverages data and advanced analytics to help clients achieve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion objectives. She has worked on various initiatives utilizing artificial intelligence capabilities to gain insights into systemic barriers impacting marginalized and underrepresented groups.
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Over the past couple of years, every organization has talked about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). We have seen increased job postings, mandates, and commitments across organizations of all sizes. But what is it? And why is it important?

This article will discuss the fundamentals of DEI and walk you through some key components to give you the confidence to start your DEI journey.

What Is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)? 

In the context of a workplace, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is a catchall phrase that outlines the efforts an organization takes to establish a positive workplace culture. 

Diversity refers to the demographics, cultural origins, skills and competencies, ideas, perspectives, beliefs, and attitudes unique to an individual. 

Equity refers to the practices, processes, and policies that help level the playing field. It mitigates systemic institutional barriers employees may experience, ultimately creating a culture where all individuals have equal access to opportunity.

Inclusion is how an organization creates an environment where individuals' unique backgrounds and demographics are welcomed and valued.

When we put these words together; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion — it becomes a very powerful phrase. We indicate that our organization welcomes and values all individuals and will be treated fairly and equitably in all aspects of the business.

What does DEI mean in the Workplace? 

Building and promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is not only the right thing to do; it’s smart business practice. It’s simple, businesses that invest and demonstrate strong Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices perform better. 

These companies yield higher productivity and profitability, retain more talent, and develop more innovative products and services. However, to truly derive the value of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts, organizations must invest in each component.

Why Diversity matters

Research has demonstrated time and time again that representation matters. In 2019, Mckinsey conducted a study on gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity. They found that companies with greater diversity outperformed their peers. Companies in the top quartile of ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed companies in the bottom quartile by 36 per cent in overall profitability — representation matters at all levels of an organization to truly yield competitive results.

Why Equity matters

In order to derive the benefits of diverse talent, we need to create a culture in which diverse talent can be acquired, retained, and progressed. This is where equity comes into play. 

The reality is — we all have implicit bias. It takes time, practice, and significant effort to understand and identify our biases. Bias differs across individuals and is developed based on social constructs, ideologies, and experiences. These biases are consequently reflected in the organizations in which we work. This is why we may see people of colour not being hired or progressing to leadership positions at the same rates as white men. 

To combat these biases, we need to reflect on our organizations' practices, processes, and policies. This may help us understand the institutional barriers that could be impacting employees' ability to access opportunities and achieve their full potential.

Why Inclusion matters

Your organization may have strong representation and robust practices, processes, and policies. However, if your organization does not establish an environment that encourages employees to be their authentic selves and feel valued, you may miss out on accessing their full potential. 

Research has shown that when employees feel included and valued, they demonstrate increased engagement at work. A 2019 Catalyst report demonstrated that 35 per cent of an employee's emotional investment in their work is tied to sentiment towards inclusion. Essentially, the more welcomed, safe, supported, and valued individuals feel, the more committed they are to your organization.

As you can see, we need Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as a collective. To fully achieve the benefits of DEI, we need all three components working together. 

The importance of defining your DEI objectives 

There are so many different aspects of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. As you begin your journey, it may seem overwhelming. Should you start with looking at your recruitment processes? Or pay equity? Or equal access to career progression? 

Often, organizations struggle to get started. More often, they fail to define their DEI objectives. These objectives are very important, as they provide clear direction across your entire organization on key DEI priorities and initiatives that your organization will focus on.

It is important to remember that DEI is a business function and does not operate in isolation. Therefore, when determining your DEI objectives, you should consider your corporate goals and understand how DEI initiatives can help support them. 

For example, let’s say your organization has a corporate goal to provide the best customer service. How does DEI play a role in supporting this goal? 

We know that representation matters, and employees that reflect the community they serve may offer better customer service. This may lead to a DEI mandate that focuses on increasing diverse representation. To do this, you may need to develop objectives that focus on diversifying your talent pipeline, establishing equitable talent acquisition processes, and conducting unconscious bias training programs. 

Aligning your DEI mandates to strategic priorities will help you develop more practicable and actionable initiatives. 

How to build a more inclusive and diverse workplace 

Once you have defined your DEI objectives, it’s time to start actioning. However, before you start implementing all of your ideas, it’s important to understand the root cause of the problem. Many organizations get really excited about their DEI journey and start implementing initiatives without truly understanding the problem they are trying to solve. 

Let’s say we are trying to hire more diverse talent. We may first want to understand: 

  • What is the current demographic breakdown of talent at our organization?
  • Do particular demographics have higher turnover rates? 
  • Which demographics are applying for jobs? 
  • Are certain hiring managers only hiring a particular demographic? 

We can run surveys, analyze human resources data, and run interviews and focus groups to capture this information. These activities will help us understand the problem before jumping to a solution. Ultimately, by understanding the problem, we will develop specific and actionable solutions that will address the root cause and help us avoid developing “tick-the-box” solutions that do not yield high-value outcomes.

The impact on mental health for employees at all levels

As organizations embark on their DEI journey, they also need to consider mental health support for employees. According to the Canadian Mental Health Organization (CMHA), one in five people living in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year. Additionally, the pandemic and social injustices in society have increased stressors for employees at all levels of an organization. 

Recently, we have seen the "great resignation" unfold, in which people are leaving their jobs at higher proportional rates due to increased stress and experiences of burnout. However, this problem is more prevalent for organizations that do not have robust DEI objectives and initiatives in place. 

For example, organizations that lack empathy for understanding employees' unique needs can impact mental health. A 2021 Harvard Business Review survey found that employers' that lacked flexibility in their return-to-office policies negatively impacted mental health for 41 per cent of respondents. 

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and mental health go hand-in-hand, and they can directly impact one another. Employees not only demand but deserve a mentally healthy workplace. Robust Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives can help your organization create a culture that promotes well-being and mental health. 

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program is a marathon, not a sprint.

Investing in organizational-wide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives is an innovative business practice. DEI is more than just a conversation topic. It's a business function in everyday operations. Successful DEI programs consider and align with organizational strategic objectives and avoid “tick-the-box” strategies by focusing on understanding the root cause of the problem.