Young business professionals in a boardroom meeting

Has the Spotlight on DEI Made an Impact?

Over the last two years, DEI has held the spotlight in ways never imagined when it comes to employment and workforce engagement issues. Has this sustained, high-profile attention on DEI had a real impact on workplaces?

To get an answer to that question, Tential partnered with ARA—an organization committed to attracting, retaining, and advancing women in technology—and held a panel  discussion on the current state of DEI on March 9, 2022. The State of DEI: Where Are We Now? was hosted by Tential’s Chief Digital Officer, Anna Frazzetto and featured three c-level executives who are sought-after experts in the DEI and human capital spaces:

  • Ginnette Harvey, Founder & CEO of Harper & Gray
  • Asfa Malik, Founder and CLO of GrowthMinded Consulting
  • DeLibra Wesley, CEO & Founder of National Recruiting Consultants

Right from the start of the panel discussion it was clear that while things are changing, as a society we are still learning how to discuss thorny and complicated issues like DEI. The tension and level of discomfort that can arise when DEI issues come up has created more fear and caution than some might expect. 

DEI Backlash
The same DEI fears people are speaking to in public places, like town halls and school boards across the U.S., are also manifesting in workplaces. Fears of being shut down, overlooked, or made to feel or complicit or unworthy, are all realities in the workplace today. While early 2020 was a time of loud public support for DEI and social justice for people of color, late 2020 and much of 2021 were marked by public backlash to some of those ideas and to DEI efforts themselves. The tumult around Critical Race Theory (CRT) and surges in book censorship as well as the 2020 Executive Order banning diversity training for government contractors are all examples of the backlash that helped fuel discomfort around diversity discussions on the job. 

Panelist and business founder Asfa Malik spoke to the kind of fear that can be seen in some workplaces around DEI efforts and even around simple moments, such as having a discussion on diversity goals and strategies. Her advice to employers and leaders was to push through, rather than shut things down, when things get a little tough. The goal is to make space for employees to be a little vulnerable and even uncomfortable in the workplace. 

Ginnette Harvey, also a founder and CEO, agreed that giving into fear and discomfort could only hurt the business and its employees: “To keep advancing DEI efforts, we need to normalize and vocalize uncomfortable conversations. We must be willing to continue the conversation. We can’t run and hide from it,” said Harvey.

Focusing on Belonging & Retention
While the extended spotlight on DEI has meant some backlash, it has also generated new ways of thinking about DEI. The panel kicked off by acknowledging that no part of DEI (diversity, equity, or inclusion) will succeed if employees do not have a sense of belonging in the workplace. The fact that a large group of people do feel isolated and disconnected from the workplace is not new. However, the residual effects of pandemic isolation and separation have exacerbated those feelings. Many people have lost any sense of connection to their workplaces and belonging to their teams, which is a contributing factor to record-high resignation rates over the last year. 

To make meaningful DEI progress, businesses can start by building or rebuilding community and human engagement across their organizations. Employees need to have a vested interest in the workplace and their work to feel valued and to feel like they belong. Are there opportunities for employees to get to know each other, learn about what their colleagues bring to the organization, and share passion and interests? Businesses with strong DEI programs have strong cultures where employees are invested and engaged in the workplace. It’s a foundation of empathy and belonging that sets the stage for strong DEI efforts. 

The panel agreed that focusing internally on building a strong culture of belonging is also going to be essential to succeeding in diversity recruitment. Why? Because starting with hiring diverse talent is overlooking the critical importance of retaining the diverse talent you have. Find ways to ensure the diverse and valued talent you have now wants to remain. Do you need to adjust HR policies and guidelines to better support diverse talent? Are there programs or processes that could help diverse talent thrive and grow on the job? Listen to the talent you have and build a strong retention strategy to ensure that when you do engage and hire more diverse talent, they will find a culture of belonging and respect and they will stay. 

Bring Women Back: An Urgent Need
The pandemic and Great Recession took their toll on women in the workplace. Many left or were forced out by circumstances such as needing to take care of family members or children. One of our very own panelists, DeLibra Wesley, also a CEO & Founder, was herself part of the Great Resignation. Wesley left her C-level corporate job and started her own firm during the pandemic so she could be the main caretaker to her terminally ill brother. It was a challenging time that also gave her new perspective as a company head: “I was trying to take care of a loved one and start a new company and that gave me a lot of insight into what it takes to recruit women,” said Wesley. 

The panel agreed that taking time to actively listen to women and hear their needs will be essential to bringing them back into the workplace and retaining them. That same commitment to listening applies to diverse talent pools of all kinds. Companies that commit to actively and regularly listening to the diverse voices across their organizations will gain the insights needed to build a culture of belonging where diverse talent can connect and thrive. 
The State of DEI: In Learning & Growth Mode
The spotlight on DEI in recent years has underscored its importance, and, according to the panel, that has been very good. To elevate and advance those DEI goals and promises, employers will need to continue learning, listening, and growing their DEI efforts. Those that create cultures of belonging where tough conversations are welcome and new perspectives are considered will retain and attract diverse and talented workers who will fuel growth. And that is the point at which the State of DEI will be fulfilled.

To gain even more insights from our brilliant panelists, you can watch the entire State of DEI Webinar here. Enjoy!