Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace isn't new, but how it's implemented continues to evolve and change. Some might consider this organizational framework a nice-to-have at work, yet research shows (again and again and again) that DEI isn't just a humane solution—it also drives better business outcomes.
If you're new to DEI and haven't made it a priority in your workplace, don't panic. You have to start somewhere, and your beginning might be reading this entry-level guide to DEI in the workplace. You're taking the first step to making the world (and your business) a better place.
Below, we'll walk you through everything you need to know about DEI in the workplace, including what it means, why it's important, how to implement DEI practices, and the best DEI activities at work.
What Is DEI in The Workplace?
DEI stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and it's an organizational framework created to improve fairness and equality for all people. While it's designed with everyone in mind, it tends to focus on special groups that have historically been marginalized and discriminated against.
DEI in the workplace seeks to promote this fairness and promote diversity in the work environment. Employees from all walks of life should be safe being their true selves, and employers should recognize (and value) the differences between workers.
Everyone should have equal access to job positions, promotions, and leadership—regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, disabilities, mental health, or sexual orientation.
And that's just from a do-the-right-thing perspective. From a logistical standpoint, a more diverse and inclusive workforce also tends to be better at problem solving and think of creative solutions to everyday problems. That's because they bring a mixture of thoughts and experiences to the table instead of one homogenous, agreeable idea.
But it's not about things just being fair. It's also about employees feeling a sense of inclusion and belonging. They should feel like they have a community of like-minded individuals at work—a group, a collective, an organization, and friendships.
What is Workplace Diversity?
Workplace diversity refers to your organization's hiring, retention, and cultural activities. It involves building an inclusive workforce and teams with ethnic and cultural diversity. When we hear diversity, we tend to think:
- Socioeconomic status
However, it's much more than that. Diversity should include education, experience, talents, interests, personalities, and behaviors. Your goal in defining diversity is to bring varied professionals onto a team or project to complement each other's strengths and weaknesses.
Imagine hiring a team of economics graduates from John Hopkins University. You might employ a mix of Asians, Hispanics, blacks, and whites, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have a diverse team—you may have only touched on a single element of diversity. They likely all had the same teachers, learning opportunities, and exposure.
Consider professional experiences and personalities. You need leaders, doers, thinkers, and planners. You want introverts and extroverts with varying opinions and thoughts.
What is Workplace Equity?
Equality and equity aren't the same thing. Equality means that everyone has access to the same resources and opportunities. For example, equality is paying all of your marketing associates exactly the same amount regardless of their experience, skills, schooling, or performance.
Instead, you want equity. Equity in the workplace means that everyone has fair access to opportunities according to their needs. For example, someone with diabetes may be allowed food at their work station and extra breaks to test their blood sugar, or a new parent might get parental leave to bond with their baby and adjust to their brand-new life.
Equality would demand that if one person gets extra breaks or snacks, everyone should get it—even if they don't have any health struggles. And if a new mom gets time off after having a baby, everyone should get time off, even if they don't have a new little one at home.
You can see how that doesn't make the workplace (or the world) a better place. We want equity in the workplace, not necessarily equality.
What is Workplace Inclusion?
Inclusion in the workplace means everyone has a place and a community. In some situations, that might be ensuring the new intern has a friend group and someone(s) to eat lunch with. Other times, it's making sure your remote employees have an equal opportunity to talk and share ideas in meetings, even if they're the only ones not in the physical room.
Inclusion can often be harder to identify and improve than diversity and equity. You can use a lot of hard numbers and statistics to at least get a ballpark figure of other elements of your framework, but you'll need to rely on surveys, in-person feedback, managers, and critical observations to gauge inclusion efforts.
Inclusion involves offering flexible work options for someone who might need to work from home or at different hours of the day. It's celebrating diverse holidays and traditions at work, even if just a small number of employees observe those special days. It's providing things like gender-neutral restrooms and nursing rooms for new moms.
It's all about making an inclusive culture that's safe and welcoming for everyone.
Sometimes, You'll See DEIB...
DEIB adds "belonging" to the DEI equation. Belonging shares a lot in common with inclusion, but it adds a little something different. Belong refers to your employees bringing their authentic selves to work—and being accepted and celebrated for it.
It's something you can see, hear, and feel. It's walking into a team meeting and seeing everyone participating. It's seeing groups of employees hanging out after work. It's watching an intense ping-pong match between the head of engineering and the head of marketing.
Often, you know belonging when you see it—and you can also see when it's not happening.
Why Is DEI Important in the Workplace?
Most of the workforce spends the majority of their waking lives at work. They wake up, work for most of the day, return home for a short period, sleep, and repeat. Whether that's what we want or what's best for society, that's the reality.
However, that time spent at work doesn't have to feel like purgatory. Employers can create DEI initiatives and priorities so that everyone feels safe, comfortable, recognized, and appreciated at work.
Done correctly, a diverse workforce can make work a home away from home that fosters employee engagement, improved productivity, a thriving workplace culture, and increased revenue.
If that's not motivation enough, there are additional statistics that prove DEI isn't just good for people—it's good for business:
- Cash Flow: Diverse companies tend to earn 2.5x higher cash flow per employee.
- Productivity: Inclusive teams have 35% higher productivity.
- Performance: Companies with more than 30% female executives are more likely to perform better than companies with 10% to 30% female executives.
- Revenue: Companies with diverse management teams have a 19% increase in revenue (on average) compared to less diverse teams.
- Decision-Making: Gender-diverse teams make better business choices 73% of the time.
That's just a taste of what DEI efforts can do for your business. However, there are other statistics that show DEI in the workplace still has a long way to go:
- Gender Pay Gap: Full-time working women's wages are just 83% of full-time working men's.
- Discrimination: 24% of Black and Hispanic (or Latinx) employees have experienced discrimination in their workplace.
- Harassment: Women have filed more than 78% of all sexual harassment charges sent to the U.S. EEOC between 2018 and 2021.
- Bias: Candidates with "distinctively Black names" have a far lower chance of hearing back from companies after application compared to applicants with "distinctively white names."
- DEI Reports: Just 79 Fortune 500 companies publish annual reports demonstrating DEI progress.
How to Implement DEI in the Workplace
Implementing DEI in the workplace isn't an overnight initiative. It takes thoughtful planning, commitment, buy-in, and long-term practice.
Often, well-intentioned businesses make the mistake of rushing into DEI initiatives. They throw darts at the DEI board and hope something sticks. Unfortunately, going in without a plan can sometimes do more harm than good.
Your good intentions need to be backed up by a good plan. Here's how McKinsey recommends approaching DEI in the workplace:
1. Find the Root Cause
Discover opportunities for your business to improve. You might not need more diversity or belonging—you might need more handicap-friendly ramps to access and navigate your offices.
Don't start coming up with DEI initiatives and ideas until you can find the root problems. Survey employees and gather anonymous feedback to get their thoughts. They will likely share insights you and your management teams weren't aware of.
Now, it's time to prioritize. You can't fix and improve everything at once. While that'd be nice, it's just not possible. Instead, pick your highest problem areas with the most potential for change and start there.
Remember, DEI isn't an overnight process. This is a lifelong pursuit. Be patient and take your time. It's a marathon (maybe an ultra-marathon), not a sprint.
2. Clearly Define Success
Create key performance indicators (KPIs) to monitor and measure your success. How will you know if your DEI initiatives worked? Going on feel just won't cut it—you need quantifiable observations and behaviors. Set a timeline for when you'd like to see these changes take effect.
For example, if you want to improve workplace diversity, that will start with your hiring processes. Set quarterly goals for how'll you achieve them. If you lack specific skills, genders, or ethnicities, make it a priority to look for these individuals during the recruitment process.
3. Hold Leaders Accountable
Diversity, equity, and inclusion can't just be HR or executive initiatives. You need buy-in, participation, and commitment from everyone in a leadership position.
Hold your leaders accountable and help them give DEI attention and not just lip service. That involves setting micro-goals and priorities and regularly reporting on progress. It means making informed decisions during the hiring process and having a good reason for hiring every individual.
Leaders should be able to answer the following:
- Why did you hire this person?
- What does this person bring to the team?
- How does this person improve your team's diversity?
Part of this accountability also involves providing your leaders with the resources, budget, and training they need. You can't expect them to become DEI professionals without education and follow-up.
4. Design the Right Solutions
Plan DEI initiatives and activities that target the root causes you identified in Step 1. Resist the urge to execute good ideas without proper planning. You should be able to tie every DEI activity to a root cause and a desired outcome.
Talk to your employees, and see what solutions they'd recommend. If vegetarians want more inclusive snacks in the breakroom, find out what they'd actually like to eat—don't just guess or go with your gut.
5. Track and Make Changes
Track progress towards your KPIs on a recurring basis. Report on DEI regularly and make it a priority discussion item in leadership meetings.
Next, use the data and findings. If you're far behind on a certain goal, identify what might be missing and find ways to create change. You might even find a new root cause to target that should take priority over another one.
Don't be afraid to course-correct and change your direction.
5 Best DEI Activities and Initiatives for the Workplace
Identifying the problem is just the beginning—now, it's time to do something about it. Your DEI activities and initiatives represent your actions to cause change.
Below, we've compiled a short list of potential DEI activities. Feel free to use these as inspiration as you build your own DEI program and solutions.
1. DEI Goal Setting and Tracking
Make the DEI goal-setting process interactive and inclusive. Involve all departments and levels of employees to join the conversation. Let them voice their concerns and observations, and empower them to play a part in change.
You could do this through surveys, focus groups, and group meetings. Make DEI efforts a normal part of your conversations, and bring up your progress during regular all-hands meetings.
2. Formal DEI Training
Some employees roll their eyes when they hear it's time for annual DEI training, but it's a good blanket practice to provide high-level education. You can supplement this learning with firesides, panels, lunch and learns, and more.
Instead of going with a boring, check-the-box compliance training program, use a service with a bit more heart and energy. Ethena provides a revolutionary approach to DEI training with (dare we say) enjoyable content that's educational and exciting.
We won't say it's binge-worthy, but it's certainly better than the dry stuff your employees are used to watching.
3. Diverse Holiday Celebrations
Use a diversity calendar to celebrate various holidays and celebrations throughout the year. Christmas and Easter are great, but not everyone is Christian. Why not try to make everyone feel recognized and included.
That means if you have Hindu team members, you might celebrate Diwali. And if you have Hispanic employees, you could recognize holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
4. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
Encourage employees to form and participate in ERGs. These can be incredible micro-communities within your business, especially for minority groups and those that might not feel represented.
There is strength in numbers, and ERGs can help your employees feel recognized and seen. It also gives employees an opportunity to voice thoughts and concerns collectively with like-minded individuals. The leaders of the ERGs can take this feedback and transmit it more cohesively to your leadership teams.
Remember, diversity and ERGs aren't just about the things we typically see. While you can undoubtedly form ERGs for certain ethnicities, genders, and age groups, you could even create them for religious associations or hobbies—such as coding, painting, or music.
5. Book Club
Book clubs can help participants learn about different walks of life in more comfortable ways. There are plenty of DEI books that can expose readers to new ideas, and then you'll be better prepared to have thoughtful and engaging conversations.
Some options include:
- Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
- Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
- Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Pérez
- The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff
Make DEI at Work a Priority
Building a diverse workforce takes long-term commitment and intention. There's no one-size-fits-all solution for improving it—you'll need to figure out what your employees need and provide relatable resolutions.
However, there's one area that improves performance, engagement, retention, and satisfaction across the board: employee recognition.
Recognition programs create a sense of inclusivity and belonging among your employees. Whether you're celebrating a top-notch performance or a 3-year anniversary, awards and feedback can be a game-changer for morale and engagement.
Want to see what an end-to-end recognition program can do for your workforce? Schedule a demo with one of our experts to get a personalized walkthrough of our platform and solutions.