Building a DEI Program That Drives Performance

Building a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program must be more than occasional training and a statement that the company is committed to fairness.

With the COVID-19 pandemic deep into its third year and awareness around social justice initiatives continuing to increase, the changes the workplace has experienced—and continues to experience—are startling. Although the virus has acted as a catalyst for some of those changes, organizations are, more than ever, focused on equity, social justice, and fairness.

However, building a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program must be more than occasional training and a statement that the company is committed to fairness. Effective programs weave a culture of DEI into the fabric of the organization’s operations and foster an environment where employees feel respected, supported, and positioned to succeed.

The value of a DEI program extends beyond staff morale, employee satisfaction, and public relations. Ethical behavior and trust correlate to productivity and economic performance. In this way, establishing trust via a DEI program is the right thing to do and is strategically imperative.

A Long-Term Approach to DEI

Every organization is at a different point on the DEI evolution curve. And while it’s important to start somewhere, beware of the following pitfalls:

  • Focusing solely on HR metrics, such as demographic composition, as a measure of DEI success
  • Inviting a consultant or a series of speakers to share their experiences—and considering that alone to be “adequate” training
  • Focusing on definitions and types of bias instead of educating employees on how to recognize and interrupt that bias when they see it effectively

For a lasting DEI impact, organizations must take a strategic approach, relevancy must be established, and the message being conveyed must both have meaning and be tied to the mission and vision of the company.

Self-Defining DEI

Before embarking on a new or reimagined DEI program, organizations should ask themselves what DEI truly means. Ask yourself these two questions:

  • What does having a strong DEI environment mean to your company? How DEI fits into your organization’s mission will differ from why it matters to another organization, so establishing your goals early is important.
  • What DEI topics are most important to your organization? Getting the right people to build your program reinforces your goals and ensures everybody’s voice is heard.

A 2016 Google study found that psychological safety in the workplace was the most important factor in determining how well a team worked together. From a DEI standpoint, this safety means the confidence to speak up, take risks, and be accepted and respected—no matter who you are or your background, you can be yourself at work. When developing a DEI program, it’s critical to have appropriate representation at the table, including groups that have historically been marginalized, and each stakeholder needs to feel like they can share their ideas and honest feedback. Without this, the organization risks omitting key program considerations.

Steps to Positive Change

A strategic approach to building a great DEI program requires functional collaboration across many teams, including human resources, compliance, and the C-suite. When stakeholders can solve a culture problem, the systems, processes, and controls down the line will be better positioned to correct themselves. People begin intrinsically thinking about equity and inclusion all the time—a sort of DEI muscle memory forms.

The pathway to this culture change requires four steps:

  1. Have difficult conversations. To move the needle with DEI, organizations must continually teach and empower employees to have difficult conversations and constructively interrupt bias. Being a DEI ally also includes people accepting that they might need to have difficult conversations about their biases and the microaggressions they might not realize they’re committing.
  2. Articulate risks and rewards. When people understand the rewards and risks associated with speaking up and supporting others, changing habits and having difficult conversations become easier.
  3. Create a culture in which discussions happen openly and productively. An organization’s commitment to DEI should include leadership—from the C-suite down to people leaders—setting the example that DEI matters. A supporting framework of systems, processes, controls, and policies must also be set up to monitor DEI goals and progress and protect people who speak up.
  4. Integrate DEI topics into training, reinforcement, self-study, and communications. A DEI program might be mandated, but it should never feel “forced” by the organization. The best approach is to incorporate DEI principles into the functions of managing, leading, and driving success while giving people the agency to learn on their own.

Authenticity must lie at the heart of all these steps. That can be difficult in our increasingly virtual world, but direct communication—as opposed to, for example, an email or Slack message—on difficult topics often delivers a truer impact.

From Training to Learning

Effective DEI training must often be more than just pushing information out to employees; figuring that’s enough to make the concepts stick. This strategy should include:

  • Practicing the “how”: Give employees a safe space to apply behaviors before they might need to do so daily. Employ training strategies that align with how humans learn. This increases the likelihood that, when an individual is faced with a situation where they feel a colleague is being marginalized, for example, they’ll have allyship “muscle memory” from intelligent e-learning simulation, team discussions, and self-study, among other DEI awareness and communications.
  • Data: The behavioral insights that intelligent DEI e-learning produces offer a way to drive a more focused conversation with your organization. The data can show where microcultures are, what gaps exist, which principles employees understand, which trends are evident, and more.
  • Shaping the ongoing journey: From the data, connect with employees on multiple levels, and then choose the strategies and content that reinforce what people have learned, shore up weak spots, and create learning paths that lead to continual learning and empowerment.
  • Matching training to role and risk: A one-size-fits-all training approach can omit too much while giving employees a reason to tune out. Adapt training to the user, who then feels that the principles truly apply to them.
  • Adaptivity: Set training to adapt to how the user progresses through the course. If, for example, an employee is struggling with a certain inclusion topic, the training adjusts to give them additional help so they can work toward proficiency.

Most importantly, the learner must be central to the DEI training experience. This, combined with appropriate policies and controls, leadership’s continued commitment, awareness, communications, events, and reinforcement of speak-up culture, leads to sustained behavior change where DEI is embedded within your operations and is intrinsically a part of each employee’s day-to-day experience.

Harper Wells
Harper Wells, an industry expert who is passionate about building progressive, outcome-driven ethics and compliance programs, serves as the chief compliance officer at Learning Pool. She oversees the company’s ethics and compliance program and helps more than 1,400 organizations around the world—including leading Fortune 500 organizations—transform their program strategy by leveraging technology and behavioral analytics. Before Learning Pool, Harper spent more than 15 years in compliance, risk, and governance roles across heavily regulated industries. She is an active author and speaker in prominent media outlets and industry events. Harper also chairs the True North Conference, which brings together ethics and compliance professionals to find strategic solutions that maximize impact and strengthen the enterprise compliance function.