In a challenging business environment with uncertain economic forecasts, many companies, particularly in the tech world, have announced layoffs and budget cutbacks. In the midst of these conditions, large-scale Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have become less common, and there is often closer scrutiny of DEI efforts for practical results. Organizations that have pledged to make an ongoing commitment to DEI now face a crucial test that employees and other stakeholders are observing closely. How can they continue to fulfill their commitments to DEI while still responding to changing economic conditions?
1. Nudges: High-visibility initiatives often fall short in weaving DEI into everyday workplaces. Steady, consistent follow-up with specific suggestions for practical steps that employees can take are a low-cost way of moving from inspiration to implementation. For instance, these nudges might include suggestions for creating more inclusive meetings, managing teams with both virtual and in-person members, or serving as an ally to colleagues locally or abroad who might otherwise find their contributions excluded. We recommend a five-dimension framework for structuring such advice to cover a range of inclusive behaviors: Learning About Bias, Building Key Skills, Working Across Boundaries, Becoming a Champion, Getting Results.
2. Teambuilding for Key Projects: Even organizations that are cutting back still have mission-critical projects that are crucial for their future viability. Rather than making DEI something “extra,” we recommend focused support and facilitation for such teams to ensure that they are able to both diverge and converge effectively—that is, maximizing their creativity through drawing out various ideas and experiences, and then integrating different perspectives and aligning around solutions that everyone is committed to achieving. Visible successes by diverse teams, which can stumble if they fail to master either divergence or convergence, will underline the value of diversity in a way that goes beyond corporate policy statements or executive pronouncements.
3. Talent Cycle Focus: While companies may have slowed down or even temporarily stopped hiring, they are usually continuing to train and develop, assess, promote, conduct succession planning, and so on. It is important to retain a focus on DEI goals through the various stages of this talent cycle, even including outplacement to ensure that one group is not disproportionately impacted for the wrong reasons. For instance, when newer employees and contract workers are laid off, they often include a higher percentage of members of underrepresented groups or people far from headquarters who could ultimately help their organizations prosper in expanding demographic segments and high-growth markets.
4. Executive Coaching: Executives have a lot on their plates, especially now. In the midst of urgent meetings, projections, spreadsheets, and contingency planning, it is often difficult to remember to keep inclusivity front of mind as well. However, sustained executive attention is a crucial ingredient for DEI progress, and executives play a key role in setting the tone for workforce engagement, both in terms of employee retention and discretionary effort. Are your executives continuing to serve as positive role models for inclusion in a way that keeps their people engaged? Targeted investments in coaching, using survey tools with a 360 component for gathering feedback, can help remind executives of the commitments they have made to foster DEI, and to identify specific actions they are willing to take to “walk the talk,” particularly during difficult times.
5. Storytelling: While this last point may sound superficial or superfluous, authentic narratives carry symbolic messages that tend to “stick” in employees’ memories in a way that more abstract messages do not. Finding and sharing inspirational examples of inclusion and its effects is another way to keep employees engaged with DEI. Sample narratives could include:
The five recommendations described above are by no means the only possible ways to maintain an emphasis on DEI in difficult times, but each is grounded in practical experience and decades of research. We recommend that organizations consider what will work best for them based on their own history and their previous DEI commitments and actions. Inclusion has tremendous value in good times and in more difficult ones, and finding ways to “stay the course” will ensure that this value is fully realized.
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Dr. Gundling has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He has lived in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan. Dr. Gundling holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of six books, the latest co-authored with Dr. Cheryl Williams, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.