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Most DEI efforts fail. Here are 4 strategies to ensure they don’t

Although DEI initiatives have been around since the 1960s, progress has been incremental. These steps alone won’t break the negative cycle of doubt, discouragement, and attrition for underrepresented workers, but success is unlikely without this foundation.

Most DEI efforts fail. Here are 4 strategies to ensure they don’t
[Source illustration: Irina Devaeva/iStock]
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Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) rose to prominence in the 1960s, driven by Civil Rights legislation. In the 1980s it was spurred by changing workforce demographics, and in the early 2000s as a business strategy to achieve higher profitability. Now, as racial awakening has brought DEI back into focus, it’s hard to find a U.S. company that hasn’t prioritized diversity and inclusion over the past year.

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While each era helped advance the national conversation, change has been limited, especially at the top of the corporate ladder. The 2020 “Women in the Workplace” study published by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org found that people of color are measurably less represented the closer one gets to the senior ranks of an organization.  This trend is especially alarming among women of color, who make up 18% of entry-level positions based on the study, but only 3% of C-suite-level roles.

Why progress has been so incremental 

Alongside the renewed focus on diversity hiring, there’s a silent undercurrent pushing in the other direction. It’s too little understood and too often a detractor from sustained progress. Yet I have seen it over and over in my career and “lived” it through the experiences of those I’ve mentored.  

The challenges start during the recruiting process, which often is comparatively more difficult for candidates from underrepresented groups and can shape their view of a company and its workplace from the very beginning. Historical underrepresentation in many industries means that diverse candidates frequently have a smaller or nonexistent network of friends and family to provide advice or share experiences about the application process, interviewing, and other aspects of the job search.

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Those who do jump the initial hurdle often reach departments where they are underrepresented. Sometimes there is no one else who looks like them or comes from a similar background. Rather than focusing on conquering the challenges of a new role, their mindshare becomes dominated by blending in and navigating social dynamics that others don’t face.

With more focus on navigating than performing, work can suffer. Growing self-doubt and waning confidence over time can mean that results lag and a self-reinforcing negative cycle sets in. These employees start to receive fewer opportunities, less exposure to senior executives, and fewer chances to learn and improve.

This culminates in missed promotions, lost development opportunities, and a feeling of not being valued. Eventually discouraged, many of these employees leave the organization, either to start over in the hierarchy of another company or exit the workforce entirely.

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The story doesn’t have to unfold this way. There is no simple formula, but some fundamental steps can kickstart progress.

Provide bespoke support for diverse talent before they arrive

In addition to best practices like “blind” resume screening, companies can help candidates navigate the recruiting process by providing networks and support that are often missing. In one approach, members of the Bridgewater Black Network (BBN) serve as guides to Black candidates, offering them a nonevaluative channel for candid questions plus visible reassurance that the company values diversity. These early relationships can also be the foundation of mentor/sponsor programs that extend and expand as new hires progress.

Expand accountability beyond “the few and the willing”

DEI programs often start with a CEO’s declaration and a core team that changes policies, launches training, and improves recruiting practices. Real progress comes from embedding DEI into how the entire company thinks and operates.  

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At Bridgewater, we don’t have a separate risk department. We think of risk as anything that can lead to a bad outcome. Guarding against that is everyone’s responsibility. Similarly, embedding DEI requires clear accountabilities for all leaders, metrics, regular check-ins, and managers who are evaluated on their ability to deliver. 

Take concrete steps to encourage inclusion  

Diversity without inclusion is like an airplane without lift. Unless you actively engage the full range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives in your company, DEI efforts won’t get off the ground. It takes more than training. You have to deeply examine your “cultural cornerstones.” Do they align with a company where people feel engaged, trusted, and secure enough to take risks regardless of who they are? 

Get granular feedback on how people experience specific inclusive behaviors (or lack thereof), then decide on the tough but necessary changes you’re willing to make. Find things that positively impact your employees’ experiences, while remaining consistent with your essential DNA. Make those changes the focus of constant conversations: in your strategy discussions, through company-wide communication, and during reviews. Assess behavioral change and tie rewards to results.

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Enlist employee resource groups

Employee resource groups (ERGs) can be one of the most effective tools in preventing underrepresented employees from feeling isolated. If an employee looks around their division and sees no one like them, ERGs offer a view of the organization across its departments, bringing people from similar backgrounds closer and helping them feel more like an empowered part of the wider company.  

ERGs need to be supported by management and see their roles as a significant part of the organization. Bridgewater’s Women’s Influence Network plays a critical part in mentoring, and the BBN has sponsored numerous conversations on race. Different than clubs and hobby groups, ERGs serve a business mission: fostering inclusion.

Focus Your DEI Strategy

There are layers of detail beneath each of these imperatives. Applications will vary and these steps alone will not break the negative cycle of doubt, discouragement, and attrition. But success is unlikely without this foundation. More companies are starting to increase the sophistication of their DEI programs, and I’m hopeful we’ll ultimately see a rise in the proportion of diverse talent moving up the leadership ladder.

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Alan Bowser is cohead of Americas region and chief diversity officer at Bridgewater Associates.