The responsibility of Human Resources (HR) has been rapidly expanding. One of these increased responsibility areas for HR has been to advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplaces and implement inclusive HR practices. This comes as no surprise; recent studies show that DEI is becoming increasingly important to current and potential employees (Washington Post, 2021; Glassdoor, 2020). DEI is not just a “nice-to-have” but a critical business imperative for organizations to be able to attract and retain talent.
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As DEI is a multi-dimensional and new topic for many individuals and organizations, it might sometimes be daunting to know where to start. As a result, kicking off DEI initiatives might get continuously postponed even if its importance has been agreed. But rather than waiting for a perfect moment, it is important to get started, implement small changes, iterate and keep improving. Advancing DEI is not a project to be accomplished but a continuous journey. While DEI change needs to be embedded into every company function, HR can act as a catalyst for change. Here are five things for the HR function to consider when kicking off DEI work in organizations.
1. Facilitate awareness building
When you kick off DEI work in your organization your first step should be to start from awareness building. DEI topics are likely to be completely new to some of your employees. Therefore it’s important to make time for conversations about these themes, create alignment on what the basic terminology means, and what DEI means for your organization. HR’s role can be to support and facilitate the awareness-building stage. However, the actions, such as training can be hosted by someone else, e.g an external DEI professional.
When it comes to driving effective DEI change, it is critical to ensure leadership commitment. A common stepping stone when kicking off your organization’s DEI efforts is that leaders try to delegate the responsibility to individuals or certain teams, without committing to learning about these topics. Considering this, as HR often operates as a change agent, they can have a crucial role in supporting leadership commitment e.g. by explaining the business case of DEI in organizations. This can ensure that leaders of your organization are committed and knowledgeable about the urgency and imperative to advance DEI and their own role to educate themselves.
2. Include the whole organization
Advancing inclusion needs both structural and behavioral actions and it won’t be achieved if either of these is missing. Structural actions can consist of developing the organization’s processes and policies, such as equitable pay or inclusive communications. The behavioural side on the other hand consists of an individual’s actions as a large part of inclusion is built by daily interactions between people in the workplace. Considering this, it’s important to ensure involvement from the whole organization, not just HR, to build inclusive organizations.
Each individual and department can play a part, whether it is as managers, allies, or promoters. There is often a misconception that advancing DEI should be the responsibility of a certain person or team. If DEI is left for one dedicated person or team, progress will be limited or not even possible. Not to mention, it can easily become overwhelming and energy-consuming for the people appointed to do the job.
Ultimately the long-term goal is to have a separate team or function for DEI, similar to marketing or product development. It might not be realistic for all organizations in the very beginning though. Based on the Culture Amp 2022 Workplace DEI Report, only 39.7% of organizations have a dedicated DEI role. Considering this, it’s common that the HR function might be the one taking responsibility in the beginning before a dedicated DEI lead is appointed.
However, before creating this function, do evaluate whether your organization is ready to appoint a DEI lead or to establish a DEI task force. If it’s not yet the right time to appoint a DEI lead, you can consider establishing a DEI task force and support them by getting the needed resources to make an impact.
3. Listen to what matters to your employees and then take actions
The HR function’s role is becoming more and more data-oriented. Data has an extremely important role in DEI work as it can support in identifying your organization’s strengths, development areas, and hence the most urgent priorities.
HR can assess the current state of DEI in critical areas, for example, through data or facilitated discussions. DEI data can consist of e.g. employee demographics data, inclusion data, or e.g. reviewing existing policies or processes. Remember that assessing the current state is not only about numbers and data, it’s equally important to open up the dialogue to discuss the topics inside your organization and create safe spaces to share experiences and different perspectives.
When you have assessed the current state and examined employee perceptions, it’s time to take action. To make progress on DEI, it’s imperative to set goals, owners for DEI-related targets and determine processes for tracking the progress. This is an opportunity for HR to support in defining goals and actions, especially ones linking to the HR function responsibility areas, such as onboarding, recruiting, and performance management.
4. Support managers in becoming more inclusive leaders
It’s a common misconception that advancing DEI is just about focusing on developing processes and practices. While this structural side of inclusion is important, individual managers can play a large role in building an inclusive culture. Based on an HBR (2020) article “What leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether individuals report feeling included.”
Becoming an inclusive leader is the role of every manager and the work cannot be outsourced. However, offering sufficient training and discussion opportunities is one of the key elements to guiding managers toward change and this is where HR can support. Helping individual managers to recognize the need for education and coaching them to grow as leaders can drive impact in organizations.
5. Support long-term culture change vs quick fixes
With DEI it is easy to start focusing on quick fixes rather than identifying long-term strategic solutions to address equity and inclusion. Quick fixes might create some progress in the short term. However, to promote longer-term organizational and culture change, the approach needs to be pragmatic. Focusing solely on quick fixes can also result in an organization appearing performative.
Undoubtedly, it can be challenging to communicate what are the priorities and what resources are needed. The role of goals and roadmaps becomes important here as long-term strategic work needs proper planning. Thus HR can take a role to facilitate the planning work and ensure that the ideas are translated into tangible actions. This important priority is one in which external DEI consultancy can be of relevant help to your organization.
While HR functions play a critical role, don’t leave your inclusive practices solely to them
The HR function can play a huge part in embedding DEI as part of all areas throughout the employee lifecycle from recruitment to offboarding. In addition, HR can play a crucial role in supporting the organization and its leaders in defining priorities and goals for different functions, making it a strategic priority.
While HR can advance DEI it’s essential to note that DEI strategies should also focus on other functions including e.g. customer service, product development, marketing, etc. DEI is a business strategy, not just a people strategy. To reach your full potential as an organization, start implementing DEI company-wide.
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