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What I learned from talking to 20 diversity, equity, and inclusion experts

Albrey Brown, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Airtable, wanted a fresh perspective in his DEI efforts in 2021, so he talked to experts across industries to find out what they’re thinking.

What I learned from talking to 20 diversity, equity, and inclusion experts
[Source illustration: Jesussanz/iStock]
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I’ve worked in DE&I for nearly a decade, but I know I still have a lot to learn. So to prepare for 2021 I wanted to hear directly from my colleagues on the ground. I wanted to know what their pain points were and how they were innovating anyway.

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I made a list of over 150 DE&I experts. The list spanned industry, company size, and tenure to ensure a broad perspective. I specifically targeted folks who are the owner (for better or worse) of their companies’ approach to DE&I. I facilitated the conversations like a researcher—attempting to stay unbiased, asking open-ended questions, and focused on listening. I started with broad questions such as “What’s your biggest pain point?” or “What keeps you up at night?”, then eagerly went down any interesting rabbit hole that came up. By the end of the month I’d ended up having 27 conversations with 20 leaders. I noticed some common themes and emerging trends. Here’s a little bit of what I learned:

Diversity Equity and Inclusion is outgrowing Human Resources

DE&I leaders are eager to increase their scope and impact on the business. This shift requires bigger teams, stronger relationships with non-HR and recruiting functions, and a new vision for where the function sits within an organization.

Our teams will expand
Team size came up in 15 of 20 of my conversations. A majority of leaders at midsized (companies with less than 1,000) organizations are growing their teams next year. Those who aren’t growing their teams referenced the need for more resources. One leader, at a company with around 800 employees, plans to end 2021 with 5 direct reports. As our function matures, it’s safe to say that the days of DE&I leaders working alone are long gone.

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We will broaden our scope and impact
The scope of responsibility for leaders is broadening to include product, strategy, and sales. A quarter of the leaders I spoke with are setting goals around product accessibility and customer development. One leader is intent on leveraging their company’s lending platform to both educate and equip Black and brown folks with financing tools. In the long run, increasing diversity and inclusion within the customer base is a win-win for both underserved populations and the company.

Progress is the only goal worth benchmarking. Leaders are focused on measuring quarter-over-quarter progress rather than fixating on a magic diversity number.

The compliance (and frankly, risk-averse) nature of human resources, legal, and finance [groups] can be counter to the needs of diversity leaders. Collecting data, adjusting recruiting processes, and the like can be slowed down without partners that are open to taking risks. For example, one leader is in an ongoing battle with Legal to report promotion rates, broken down by gender and ethnicity. Without this vital information, she wouldn’t be able to measure the results of her career development initiatives.

Second, about a quarter of the folks I spoke with don’t report to human resources, opting instead to report directly to the CEO or sit on their strategy and operations teams. I believe we’re about 5 years away from DE&I emerging as its own function that sits in between HR and Operations.

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Metrics that matter

My colleagues noted that they’re having fewer conversations with executives about the business case for diversity and inclusion. Instead, they are defining success metrics. Out with the why metrics, and in with the how metrics.

Out with the why metrics, and in with the how metrics.

The majority of leaders are focused on metrics that quantify the health of the organization, and the strength of their initiatives. Common metrics include:

Frequency, and specificity: Leaders are comparing shifts in representation of women and underrepresented people of color quarter over quarter. There’s also a special interest in breaking down representation by department and paying attention to intersectional demographic data.

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Leadership demographics: Diversity in leadership is a leading indicator of a more diverse company in the future. DE&I departments will be looking at the demographics of directors and above to the rest of the employee population.

Engagement survey data: The majority of leaders use insights from engagement surveys to measure how inclusive their companies are. More than half have added specific diversity-related questions to their annual engagement surveys and report on trends every six months. Questions such as, “Does your manager value diversity on your team?”

Unique metrics that matter

Referral pipeline diversity: Referrals generally have the highest rate of hire at a company. Diversifying that pipeline might increase diversity faster than other channels.

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Total available market of talent: This metric came up in tandem with setting diversity recruiting goals. Leaders are eager to understand the breakdown of the talent market based on factors such as role, level, location, in order to make sure goals are realistic. LinkedIn Insights & the US Census was cited as a way to get that data.

Employee Resource Group engagement: Some leaders are quantifying the impact of their ERGs by comparing engagement survey scores from the entire employee population to scores from ERG members.

Continuous demographic data collection

About half of the leaders I talked to are collecting demographic data from employees and candidates as early as they can. This is a far better strategy from the usual once-a-year employee diversity survey I’ve experienced in the past. There is an eagerness to collect, analyze, and report on progress consistently (my gut says reporting once a month is average). To that end, some leaders ask employees to fill out demographic surveys within their first 2 weeks with the company. Others are asking candidates to self-identify multiple times throughout their interview process.

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Meeting at the intersections

While gender and ethnicity are important, about half of leaders are expanding their focus to the intersections of identity and tracking quantifiable goals and metrics that cover said intersections—for example, one leader was interested in increasing the number of queer women of color at her organization. To track this expanded data set, they are asking employees to self-identify their education level, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, caregiving, and disability status. This is a ton more information than is usually (and legally) necessary, but employees seem keen to express their identity outside of race and gender.

Employees seem keen to express their identity outside of race and gender.

Employee Resource Groups are evolving
Employee Resource Groups are the backbone of a great DE&I strategy. Leaders are leveraging ERGs to rapidly scale diversity and inclusion initiatives. ERG work is being seen for what it is—work. And the scope of responsibilities for ERG leaders is expanding to collaborating with the business, and career development for members.

Abolishing free labor
More employee resource group leads will be getting paid. Justworks was the first company to publicly pilot this practice, and Twitter was quick to follow. A quarter of the leaders I spoke with are paying their ERG leads with either cash, equity, or non-monetary 1-on-1 perks such as career coaching. The vast majority of folks not paying their leaders acknowledged that they are actively exploring how to compensate employee resource group leaders in a fair and equitable way. Whether through intentional recognition, perks, or cold hard cash, ERGs provide a framework for compensating work that positively impacts the company and is typically outside of an employee’s immediate responsibilities.

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Focusing on business impact
In the past ERG initiatives have been heavily focused on members, but DE&I leaders are eager to influence and collaborate with HR, recruiting, and marketing teams. One DE&I leader walked me through the tactics he used to transition his ERGs from expanding their scope. He invited ERG leaders  to strategic meetings and connected them with upper leadership. Only after his leads had a deep understanding of the business did they build their yearly charter. Although this was only one conversation of many, his tactics stood out as an emerging practice that we might all benefit from.

Career growth and development
Employee Resource Groups have traditionally been built around networking. Providing a safe space for members is still the top goal for several ERGs across the industry. But leaders I spoke with envisioned their ERGs as career development hubs. A handful track the success of their program by the number of members that get promotions and raises. ERG leaders are positioned as high potential employees. They are given job descriptions for accountability and are first in line for mentorship opportunities. Instead of scheduling happy hours, DE&I leaders are challenging ERG members to use their budget on workshops and resources that will help them develop their skills.

A new way to think about goals

DE&I goals have always been difficult to set and benchmark against. Leaders have learned that progress takes time and are cautious about setting unrealistic, narrowly focused, goals. Instead they’re breaking down goals by department and focusing on frequent, incremental, progress.

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Progress over perfection
The days of announcing audacious goals (see my own past mistakes here) are long gone. When asked about goals the vast majority of leaders talked about progress being the only goal worth benchmarking. This sentiment makes a ton of sense given the slow progress that’s been made. Leaders are focused on measuring quarter-over-quarter progress in several areas rather than fixating on a magic diversity number. Leaders I spoke to who were newer to their company explicitly avoided setting benchmarks. Instead, they focused on setting up the infrastructure to measure diversity over multiple cycles. Their plan, they said, was to use the historical data to set up reasonable goals for 2021.

Goals are no longer one-size-fits-all. Most of the leaders I spoke with are eschewing company-wide diversity goals and focusing on department and team-level initiatives. One leader described their approach as putting the onus on functional leaders, and their subsequent hiring managers, to integrate diversity and inclusion within their span of control.

To be clear, DE&I is still a top-down effort, but the system is becoming more complex. For example, at one company a VP of sales is expected to set diversity and belonging goals specific to her department. She then works with her DE&I leader, recruiting, and HR, to hold her frontline managers accountable to building progressively more diverse teams. A similar approach is applied to create tailored goals for engineering, product, marketing, and other departments that have unique available markets of talent and challenges.

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Praise for the Rooney Rule
The industry has mixed feelings about the Rooney Rule. That said, every single DE&I leader I spoke with is using some variation of it. They recognize it as an incomplete strategy for recruiting underrepresented talent—but everyone cited it as a useful starting point.

What’s the magic of the Rooney Rule? It’s a measurable and reasonable starting point. It’s built on the core principle that any hiring team that’s serious about diversity should be able to interview at least one underrepresented person before extending an offer to a candidate. Based on my conversations, the rule should be used as an entry point to more sophisticated approaches to building a diverse slate. Once you get hiring managers to commit to it, measure it obsessively, and suggest adjustments to those who don’t hit the goal—agreeing to more innovative recruiting initiatives becomes natural.

As I hope you can tell, I learned an incredible amount from the perspectives of the leaders I spoke to.
I’d like to stress that none of the above should be considered universal best practices. Each has costs, and benefits, and might work better for some companies than others. That said, they are an amalgam of approaches to tough problems from some of the smartest people I know.

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Albrey Brown is the head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Airtable. You can follow and reach out to him on Twitter or LinkedIn.