DEI post-2020: a return to ‘business as usual’?

For obvious reasons, 2020 was a year of much introspection and reflection for many employers, but did it lead to lasting change? Although the benefits of embedding the three pillars of ‘DEI’ (diversity, equity and inclusion) within a business are now well established, doing so successfully and consistently continues to be a challenge for many organisations. 

Inclusive Employers, founders of the annual ‘National Inclusion Week’, recently expressed concerns that many employers struggle to ensure that inclusive behaviours are entrenched as an “everyday reality”, and that any top-down action on inclusion goes beyond performative action or mere lip service. A recent report by the Financial Reporting Council (“FRC”) also highlighted that, although the Black Lives Matter movement prompted many organisations to review their approach to inclusion and make organisational changes, momentum still needs to be sustained two years on. 

The current political agenda may also be pulling employers in a different direction. Liz Truss’s brief premiership saw a move towards ‘slashing red tape’ for ‘growing businesses’, with plans being announced for the removal of reporting requirements (including in relation to gender and ethnicity pay gap reporting) for businesses with less than 500 employees, and there being a possibility of this being extended to businesses with less than 1,000 employees in the future. Here we see a government prioritising “freeing” an additional 40,000 businesses from “future bureaucracy and the accompanying paperwork” that it identifies as “expensive and burdensome for all but the largest firms”. With the political uncertainty over recent months, it is impossible to say whether this approach is a momentary regression or represents a possible longer term trend.

Why should we care? 

For any employer that wants to truly maximise the potential of their workforce, ensure talent retention and encourage innovation, DEI must be prioritised. Over the past few years we have shared a number of pieces on the importance of these concepts, but as a brief reminder:

  • ‘Diversity’ focusses on the ‘who’, i.e. the makeup of a workforce and understanding, accepting, and valuing the different personal, physical, and social characteristics of the people within it. Its benefits are, by now, well established: improving diversity of thought, reducing the likelihood of ‘group think’, and ensuring the workplace is a more accurate reflection of society at large, to name a few.
  • ‘Inclusion’ focuses on the ‘how’, i.e. the creation of a work environment and culture that empowers all employees to participate in and thrive at work. Inclusion, in other words, is what brings together a diverse workforce and motivates people to stay.
  • ‘Equity’, the often overlooked third limb of ‘DEI’, focusses on ‘action’ and remedying the fact that certain minority groups may be disadvantaged in comparison to others. Equity goes beyond equal treatment and requires thoughtful consideration of what changes should be made to policies, practices and working environments to ensure that all groups are able to reach their full potential, and may necessitate treating certain groups or individuals differently in order to do so (for example, through mentoring or sponsorship programmes, or targeted recruitment measures).  
Keeping up momentum: from ‘lip service’ to leadership 

So what can employers do to consistently maintain focus on DEI? Taking inspiration from this year’s National Inclusion Week (‘Time to Act: The Power of Now’), employers need to take impactful, continued and persistent action rather than relying on tokenistic efforts. Some examples of this could include:

  • Driving change forward independently. It is ultimately up to leaders to ‘be the change they wish to see’, and push forward their own diversity strategy in a proactive and market-leading manner, irrespective of what competitors are doing or wider societal engagement. This could, for example, take the form of an organisation reporting on its gender and ethnicity pay gaps even where not strictly required to do so.  
  • Ensuring change is meaningful and well-considered. Employers should recognise that employees are able to distinguish between measures that are performative in nature, and those that originate from a genuine desire to drive change within an organisation. Adding a rainbow to your company logo for Pride Month is meaningless if you are not also training employees about LGBT+ issues and how to be an effective ally. Any diversity targets should be ambitious but also achievable, and should be acknowledged as being part of a wider strategy rather than a tick-box exercise or a quick fix. 
  • Being consistent. As we have identified previously, discussions around DEI should not be focussed solely on the DEI calendar. Look beyond Black History Month or World Menopause Day and hold regular, targeted conversations about different diversity-related topics on an ongoing basis. Employers should seek feedback (for example, through smaller focus groups) if unsure about what topics should be addressed next.
  • Not relying solely on your diverse colleagues to drive forward change. Too often members of under-represented groups are tasked with setting the agenda and controlling the conversation, and often the majority of participants in these conversations are from minority groups themselves. Leaders should ensure that the DEI agenda is prioritised, and embraced by all colleagues, and that any training programmes are participated in by multiple stakeholders. The FRC recently identified this as an effective way of co-creating a “culture of fairness and psychological safety for all employees”. 
  • Education, education, education. In relation to race and ethnicity in particular, the FRC’s recent report identified that the “fear of saying the wrong thing” has become a “roadblock” to action. It is likely that this analysis is applicable to other strands of diversity too. Regular training sessions will help employees to learn more about their diverse colleagues and how to avoid the common pitfalls, and will reduce levels of anxiety. 
  • Setting an example. Ensure that your employees are aware that at times it will be necessary to take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach, and empower your workforce to call out discriminatory behaviour. Reduce anxiety around this by giving your employees examples of how speaking up, calling out or calling in bad behaviour has led to positive outcomes in the past.