Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

The DEI Journey—5 Stages of Progress

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have continued to evolve since they swept through the business world a few years ago. They now go beyond any one initiative, program, or single effort. More than just a “thing” we do, DEI is becoming a part of who we are, giving shape to the fabric of our organizations and solidifying our commitment to a new future.

So, it makes sense that, rather than a destination, DEI is more of a journey that requires us to think about current cultural implications, apply organizationwide self-reflection, and act with intentionality. Let’s explore the five stages of that journey and how you can find your way to making, and showing, meaningful progress along the way. But first, it’s important to remember the “why” of DEI—and what it really means to people and the organizations we serve.

The Heart of the DEI Journey: Universal Human Values

Amid legal and political conflicts, the heart of DEI, and what it means to people and their organizations, isn’t always at the center of the story. So, let’s pause and consider that here.

When we think about DEI, let’s remember one overarching idea: At its core, DEI is about universal human values, like fairness, respect, understanding, and appreciation for people who are different from ourselves. It’s about creating an inclusive environment where people feel appreciated, enjoy a sense of belonging, and have a feeling of psychological safety and well-being. Keeping this at the forefront of our minds as we commit to advancing DEI gives our efforts true purpose and meaning that can help transcend the challenges you may face along the way.

Your DEI Journey Can Help You Thrive in a Competitive Environment

And it doesn’t just benefit people. DEI has increasingly become a major organizational differentiator in today’s competitive and sometimes volatile business environment. Speaking with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Shelley Zalis, founder and CEO of equality services company The Female Quotient, offers these thoughts on why DEI holds more business importance than ever before: “Research shows that diversity plays a key role in innovation, creativity and a positive bottom line while also inspiring more effective solutions to complex problems. … Bottom line: We must create work environments that support everyone. … Only then will businesses successfully retain the talent they previously struggled to keep.”

This assertion is echoed by research from Deloitte showing that belonging, a critical part of DEI, “… can lead to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, a 167% increase in employer net promoter score, 2X more employee raises, 18X more employee promotions, and a 75% decrease in sick days.”

So even as the business landscape evolves, DEI continues to create benefits for organizations, making them stronger, more adaptable, and resilient in the face of change—factors that resonate with stakeholders like leaders, boards, and shareholders.

5 Stages in the DEI Journey—Taking Action and Showing Progress

We’re in a world where there are heightened expectations for delivering on DEI. It’s no longer enough to say you value DEI; you have to be able to show you’re making demonstrable and concrete progress. Understandably, that can feel daunting, but there’s a way to break down the journey to show progress at each stage.

Let’s look at how to align this macro thinking with the micro reality of your organization. While every organization is unique, here are five general stages that can help shape your journey and ways to demonstrate your commitment at each interval.

1. Setting Your Ambition

This first stage is often the hardest because it requires recognition that there’s work to be done. But it can also be an incredibly unifying step. Start with holding listening sessions with your employees and managers to ensure their ideas, thoughts, and concerns are considered. If you then articulate your intent in a thoughtful and sensitive way, employees, customers, and other stakeholders are likely to appreciate your desire to create meaningful change. Central to success at this stage and throughout is a strong, enduring, and unwavering commitment from leadership.

Questions to ask:

  • What level of commitment does your organization have in starting the journey toward a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce?
  • What are you trying to accomplish and why?
  • Are your leaders ready to be the voice that carries your commitments forward?

Showing your progress: Begin creating awareness. Acknowledge that you’re taking the first steps. Work with leaders to articulate your aspirations, and be honest and authentic in explaining your reasons for wanting to bring about change.

2. Assessing and Diagnosing

This is the time for gathering and examining qualitative and quantitative data. Start with considering what you learned in stage 1, and then take a deeper dive. Collect and evaluate workforce data (i.e., advancement differences, pay equity); employee opinions on your organizational culture; and policies and practices. At this stage, you’ll determine where you are and how far you need to go to meet your aspirational goals.

Questions to ask:

  • What is your starting point?
  • Have you taken steps already (what worked and didn’t work)?
  • Based on your metrics/data, what key areas will you need to address?
  • What input have your leaders, managers, and employees provided?

Showing your progress: Explain that you’re doing your due diligence to better understand where you are and how far you need to go. Also, be open and transparent about the challenges you’re facing.

3. Creating Your Plan

Set your goals, strategies, and tactics, and establish meaningful metrics, with the intent to create (or improve) a concrete, multifaceted program that lays out your approach. Aim for the program to be realistic, appropriately resourced, and integrated across the organization, and have a clear implementation plan that will work in both the short and the long term.  

Be intentional with your choices in a way that will be authentic to your organization. Managers will be pivotal to your success, so include them from the very beginning, and ensure you take their input and ideas into account.

Questions to ask:

  • What barriers are you facing, and how will you overcome them?
  • What are your stakeholders’ expectations?
  • What can you implement immediately, and what will take more time?
  • Is your plan designed to evolve over time?

Showing your progress: Provide highlights of your plan with a well-articulated explanation that summarizes critical points and outlines how you’ll evaluate your progress at major junctures. Be open to adjusting your plan depending on the feedback you receive.

4. Moving on Implementation

As you move forward on the implementation of your plan, don’t let the enormity prevent you from taking small, positive steps. Consider the current culture of your organization and the expectations of your stakeholders. Then pick a starting point and build from there. As you execute on the plan, continue to set (and reset) priorities for the near and medium term. Make it clear that DEI is everyone’s responsibility, not just a function of HR. Engage managers in the rollout, as they’re your organization’s most powerful influencers, and ensure your efforts (such as training, employee resource groups (ERGs), mentorship, sponsorship) are integrated throughout the organization.

Questions to ask:

  • What steps are you taking to address any resistance?
    • Is your choice of employee training relatable, sensitive, and actionable for daily work situations?
    • Are you providing managers with the tools and guidance they need to implement inclusive management practices?

Showing your progress: Establish communication channels to explain what you’re doing and why. Use a feedback loop to get input from managers and employees at all levels. Empower leaders to be the voice of progress, and ensure they’re modeling positive behavior and demonstrating a commitment to self-discovery and learning.

True commitment to DEI requires continuous improvement by reassessing strategies and initiatives as the organization grows and as the world changes. —Ella F. Washington, CEO of Ellavate Solutions and author of The Necessary Journey in HBR

5. Striving and Growing

At this stage, you’re ready to evaluate your progress. Start by considering what you’ve learned, and take steps to refine your plan. You’re aiming for a sustainable effort that can live and evolve through internal, cultural, and societal changes. If you’ve achieved your goals, it’s time to set new goals.

If not already part of your original plan in stages 3 and 4, next-level work may include:

  • Creating an ongoing system for tracking/interpreting meaningful metrics,
  • Ensuring accountability by tying performance/rewards to DEI goals,
  • Reinforcing continuous learning through annual training,
  • Providing inclusive management practices with manager-specific education,
  • Acting on recommendations from ERGs,
  • Revising recruitment and advancement policies/processes,
  • Working toward pay equity throughout the organization, and
  • Creating connections to your community.

Questions to ask:

  • What has moved the dial toward greater progress?
  • What pitfalls have you discovered along the way?
  • Do your employees believe you’re advancing DEI in a meaningful way?
  • Are your managers getting the support they need to advance DEI efforts?
  • What adjustments do you need to make?

Showing progress: Tell your story. Explain where you started, where you are now, and where you want to go. Acknowledge setbacks and mistakes. They’re part of the journey and how we all learn and grow. Celebrate successes, even if they’re incremental, and cultivate a collective pride around your accomplishments.

Throughout all five stages, remember that DEI isn’t meant to exclusively benefit just one particular group. It’s for everyone because everyone deserves to be respected, treated fairly, and have a sense that they’re appreciated and they belong. In this way, DEI becomes integrated in the employee experience. And when that happens, your DEI journey can help you carve a pathway toward greater collaboration, innovation, resilience, and exciting possibilities for the future.

Natasha Nicholson is the Director of Content Marketing at Kantola Training Solutions, an innovative eLearning company focused on DEI and harassment prevention. In her role, Nicholson oversees content strategy, production, and thought leadership, as well as shares insights on topics such as talent management, inclusive workplace culture, and DEI strategy. Her work has been featured in VentureBeat, HR Dive, HR.com, Talent Management, and Chief Learning Officer. Before joining Kantola, Nicholson served as Content Director for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and held an executive editor role with Communication World and Catalyst magazines.

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