Building a truly effective D&I initiative

Establishing a strong diversity and inclusion program takes time, effort, and, above all, commitment from top leadership.
By Amanda Abrams

Building a truly effective D&I initiative
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The power of a diverse and inclusive organization is well documented. Studies have repeatedly shown that companies with a diverse employee base are more successful. And there has always been an ethical argument for employing a range of people and ensuring that their contributions are valued.

Leaders who might be reluctant should understand the business value of a diverse company. The evidence is there: Deloitte found that organizations with inclusive cultures are three times more likely to be high performing; according to a Harvard Business Review study, companies with above-average diversity earned 19% higher revenues from innovation; and a McKinsey report showed that companies in the top 25% for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have high financial returns.

Both workers and consumers are closely examining which companies prioritize diversity and equity and which give lip service to it at best, according to recent Deloitte research.

Creating a strong D&I program means much more than just hiring a specialist to oversee it, though that is a great first step. Experts say that building a genuinely effective diversity initiative requires time, effort, and, above all, dedication.


The best D&I initiatives aren't simply an add-on to a company's other activities and objectives; they're baked into the business's strategic plan. And the way to achieve that, say professionals who specialize in the field, is by ensuring the commitment of its leaders.

"If you don't start from the top, you can't have a successful D&I program," said Ken Bouyer, EY Americas director of inclusiveness recruiting and a member of the AICPA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion. "The CEO and others on the board need to be communicating why this is important. It needs to be woven into the strategy."

To ensure that there's alignment at the top, a firm can form a D&I council composed of a handful of senior leaders to oversee the strategy, explained Jennifer Brown, who heads a New York City-based consulting firm focused on strengthening businesses' diversity efforts. "These initiatives can't just be grassroots — they need positional and organizational power."

The council serves as a governing body, while a company's D&I team, or the human resources department in a smaller organization, implements the strategy.


That strategy needs to start with a clear examination of the organization's strengths and weaknesses.

"There needs to be qualitative and quantitative testing for the organization itself and also for members or stakeholders like the board of directors, evidence-based assessments of their cultural competency," said Robb Lee, chief marketing officer for ASAE, the Center for Association Leadership, which advises associations and their leaders.

Assessments can come in different forms. Leaders need to examine strict metrics, like recruitment and retention rates of racial minorities, and salaries across the organization. They can also use engagement surveys and a variety of tech tools to examine more amorphous characteristics like inclusion and workplace atmosphere.

But leaders also need to make an effort to solicit direct, qualitative input from employees in focus or affinity groups or one-on-one interviews. Those conversations might be more frank if conducted by an outside consultant; otherwise, workers might not feel free to be fully honest about their less-than-positive experiences.

And that honesty is important, Brown said, because many executives and managers don't realize — or don't want to admit — that their organization has a problem. But numbers don't lie. And employees' earnest testimonials of feeling that their contributions aren't recognized may sway the most blindered leader.


Know this, however: Soliciting employee feedback creates an anticipation that the company will do something to address problems that were uncovered.

"When you do a survey, the immediate expectation is that you'll do something to change the culture," said Leah Smiley, president of the Indianapolis-based Society for Diversity, a professional licensing body for D&I professionals.

So leaders should use assessment results to make a plan of action and, while doing that, begin with obvious steps, such as communicating with employees about the process, as a parallel priority.

A company that takes diversity seriously, though, doesn't rely solely on D&I personnel or outside consultants to develop those new policies. Instead, managers throughout the business should be communicating with one another about what works for them and could be duplicated.

That research-based approach should extend to gathering information from outside the company as well. Today, a trove of information is available on best practices that have been employed throughout the United States and around the world.

"There are some very progressive solutions that have been used that organizations are ignoring, and they're wasting their time, money, and talent," Smiley said. "We don't have to make stuff up anymore. We can use solutions that've been tried and found to get better results."


Training has its place in the range of solutions, but be sure to integrate training organically so that it doesn't seem inauthentic and a temporary fix for your organization's D&I problems. For D&I efforts to be successful, they must be integrated consistently into the various components of the organization, not just training. Also, businesses should not stop at unconscious bias training but should consider incorporating training around other topics like courageous conversations, inclusivity best practices, and even understanding and combating microaggressions. When administered properly, D&I training is a great way to help change behaviors and to get all employees on the same page and using the same vocabulary.

Smiley advocates that C-suite leaders also undergo training simply to enhance their comfort with talking about concepts related to diversity. "Right now, some people say, 'I don't want to talk about that because I might say the wrong thing,'" she said. In fact, they may never get it 100% right — and that's OK. Training can help them feel less anxious in an unfamiliar landscape of race, gender, or sexual identity dialogues.

The workplace demographic that may benefit the most from training, though, is management.

"Though it can be challenging, thoughtful and example-grounded manager training is where your inclusion efforts have the best chance to lift the values of the organization as a whole." That's one of the recommendations made by Project Include, an initiative launched by eight IT leaders — all women — to boost diversity and inclusion in the tech field. Managers have the power to amplify or stifle minority voices; their communication skills and grasp of nuance set a tone for their entire team; and the climate they create can directly affect retention numbers.

Of course, said Ellen Pao, one of Project Include's founders, "It's hard to convince someone about the importance of D&I who doesn't believe in it."


And that's where accountability comes in. Holding managers and other leaders responsible for their actions is a key part of that.

"An effective diversity and inclusion program will continuously monitor progress quantitatively and qualitatively: looking at the numbers, comparing the current ones to benchmarks, and assessing progress toward those objectives," said Dean Sparlin, a board member with the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, which trains D&I professionals.

That's the evaluation part: Examining whether outcomes have been met; if not, why not; and then redesigning policies to make them more effective. It's a feedback loop that should be constantly occurring.

After all, said Brown, the diversity consultant, "You can't really rest on it being 'the right thing' to do."

Ultimately, of course, it all comes back to an organization's CEO and senior leadership: Do they genuinely value diversity and inclusion, and do they demonstrate that to the entire staff?

They should, Brown said. "The world is changing. Employees, recruits, and customers are paying attention."

About the author

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at

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