How to develop a defensible DE&I programme

Diversity, equity and inclusion schemes are attracting a lot of criticism, some of which is valid. Employers would be well advised to ensure that their DE&I efforts are beyond reproach

A3 Illo Web
Illustration by Kellie Jerrard

In January, several social media provocateurs, including Elon Musk, blamed the door blowout narrowly survived by Alaska Airways flight 1282 on the emergence of corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) programmes. Their baffling conclusions joined a long line of grievances to be aired against such schemes, particularly in the US, where anti-diversity sentiment is building.

But not all criticisms of DE&I can be dismissed as shrill political posturing. In some cases, the most ardent advocates of diversity are growing frustrated with the ineffectiveness of their own firms’ work in this area. 

Too often, organisations will establish a programme and then fail to give it the care and attention it warrants, according to Kelly Thomson, a partner and employment law specialist at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain.

“One issue I see time and again is organisations treating their DE&I programmes as a siloed part of the HR function,” she says. “If you haven’t invested in DE&I and treated it as a core business priority, it will be an uphill struggle.”

Some companies may not be sure of what they want to achieve and rush to implement a DE&I scheme simply because they think they must show that they’re doing something. Too often, the focus is on limited efforts to increase the representation of certain minority groups in the workforce – an approach that can easily backfire. 

That’s the view of Paul Anderson-Walsh is the co-founder and CEO of the Centre for Inclusive Leadership, a consultancy specialising in DE&I. He explains that firms concentrating on making themselves more diverse tend to overlook the importance of inclusivity. 

In their haste to form a diversity policy, companies will often fail to see DE&I as a holistic project, he says, adding: “They think that, by ‘double-clicking’ on a certain aspect of diversity, the more inclusive the organisation will become. That just isn’t correct.”

When employers focus too much on one factor, it can create a counterproductive sense of “them and us”, according to Anderson-Walsh. This could end up alienating the very people such schemes are meant to benefit.

The common pitfalls of diversity schemes

Another reason why DE&I programmes falter is that business leaders are often led to believe that investing in diversity will lead to performance improvements – a claim that has scant evidence to support it. 

“Under very certain circumstances, diversity does improve performance. But, on average, there’s absolutely no effect,” says Kaisa Snellman, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead business school. “If organisations are implementing diversity programmes on the premise that this will improve corporate performance and it doesn’t, they’ll think there’s something wrong with their programmes and dismantle them.”

The organisations that have avoided criticism are those that have communicated in lots of different ways to lots of different people

Employers seeking to avoid such pitfalls should therefore adopt a more rigorous approach. As well as ensuring that there’s support for such initiatives at all levels of the organisation, they must set appropriate objectives and establish clear plans for achieving them, Thomson advises.

“Sometimes in DE&I, there’s an inclination to throw a target at the wall without any clear data on where you’re starting from, so it’s an aspirational goal but potentially also unrealistic or not stretching enough,” she says. “It’s therefore important to apply some data discipline.”

French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi has set itself clear diversity targets and monitors its progress to adjust key performance indicators where necessary. Hermann Trepesch, the firm’s global DE&I director, explains: “We’re always looking for evidence to see what we’re doing well, so we can replicate that in other areas. Crucially, this is about finding out what isn’t working as well.”

Sanofi is seeking to achieve several DE&I targets by 2025. These include ensuring that women make up at least half of its senior leadership team and spending €1.5bn (£1.3bn) with suppliers considered to be small and diverse businesses by 2025. It’s also aiming to improve the diversity of people participating in its clinical trials.

As well as setting appropriate targets, organisations must also focus on some of the less tangible aspects of diversity, such as the extent to which employees feel they can be authentic. This means creating an environment where people don’t have to mask who they are, says Anderson-Walsh, who believes that this approach can motivate workers to go the extra mile.

“If your business relies on people’s discretionary effort, you have an inclusion need, because inclusion is what unlocks that effort,” he argues. “If you think about inclusion as generating belonging, that belonging then activates volunteerism, because people feel valued.”

Tracking progress on DE&I

Once a firm has planned its DE&I programme properly, its HR team must ensure that the work stays on track. To this end, Sanofi has enlisted the help of its employee resource groups. They serve as in-house consultants and will hold the company to account for any pledges it makes, according to Trepesch.

“They act as a barometer that tells you whether the things you’re saying are translating into real action,” he says. “With this always-on feedback loop informing you if something isn’t working, you can make adjustments.”

Effective communication is also vital from the outset in ensuring that all stakeholders understand the aims of the programme. Regular progress reports will then help a company to avoid accusations of so-called social washing – a shallow marketing ploy similar to greenwashing, whereby firms proclaim their DE&I credentials without being truly committed to change. 

“The organisations that have avoided criticism are those that have communicated in lots of different ways to lots of different people,” Thomson says. 

The way a company talks to customers about its diversity efforts, for instance, is likely to vary from how it addresses potential recruits or investors, even if the underlying message is the same, she adds.

“Organisations can get into trouble if there’s a disconnect,” Thomson warns. “You might focus too much on talking about DE&I to your customers, for instance. Employees could then feel that they’re only hearing about this in external publications, which may make it seem to them that you don’t really care about the issue. That’s often accidental, because there’s a tendency to assume that your own people know what you’re doing.”

While the success of a DE&I programme can partly be measured by recruitment targets hit, that’s clearly only part of the story. Retention rates are equally important, as are less tangible cultural factors.

“Organisations need to know that it’s a complex puzzle that can take time to get right,” Snellman says. “It’s important to maintain long-term goals and not give up if you don’t see results straight away. The programmes that will prove much more successful are those that aren’t just geared up for quick wins.”

Although DE&I initiatives have become yet another a political football in the culture wars, some of the more constructive criticism they are attracting is justified. Employers that are serious about achieving meaningful, lasting change would do well to heed it.