Companies have long been talking about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI. And, since the summer of 2020, when George Floyd’s murder sparked protests nationwide and internationally, those very same organizations have made public proclamations about their commitment to create welcoming cultures where people can feel free to bring their authentic selves to work.
But is it working? Lever’s recent State of DEI Report found that employer and employee perceptions of DEI aren’t exactly aligned. One example: While nearly all employers believe they’ve introduced new DEI measures over the past year, nearly one-quarter (24%) don’t think any new measures have been introduced in their companies. When there are problems, a third of employees or less feel free to voice their concerns to their HR teams or direct managers. Just 9% feel comfortable approaching senior management with their concerns.
These disconnects can be damaging. “What’s really unfortunate is that when companies seem disingenuous about their value systems, that’s almost, in a way, being worse than being transparent about lack of caring,” says Rosalind M. Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University. “If you are going to say that you care, then you have to follow through, because if you don’t, then you erode that trust even more.”
So, how can companies create environments where workers feel safe expressing concerns about DEI? Experts in the field have some thoughts:
Read the room
Like most initiatives, making things better starts with understanding where you are. “A lot of companies are kind of early in diversity, equity and inclusion, and as a result, their employees may not feel safe to express [their concerns],” says DEI consultant Melinda B. Epler, author of How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace.
Companies need to gather information about how employees currently feel about the climate. And they need to understand that what’s bothering employees might not be what they think it is. Employees may be experiencing microaggressions or feel like their teams are not psychologically safe. Those may not be the most immediate things people report, and they may not be things that others recognize. So, gathering information and opening lines of discussion is crucial, she says.
Having multiple ways to gather feedback and allow people to share their views is important, says Amber M. Arnold, vice president of DEI at public relations agency MWW. Employee surveys that incorporate DEI-related questions are a good way to start. “Most of the time, employee surveys are anonymous, so they feel a little bit more inclined to be open and express how they truly feel about something,” she says. Another useful tool is a Slack channel specifically for DEI discussion and information-sharing, she adds. One-on-one meetings and town halls can also be useful ways to gather information.
Create written processes
Organizations need written processes for employees who want to share feedback, so everyone understands the options for reporting concerns, Epler says. Steps may include approaching a supervisor, turning to HR or a designated representative, and other options if the issue needs to be escalated. The goal is for employees to feel safe when they raise concerns, and not have fears of retaliation. “[An employee] having a one-on-one with a manager saying, ‘Hey, I don’t feel like this is an inclusive team, I don’t feel like I’m being treated fairly’—those are the moments that you really want,” she says. When employees feel safe enough to share those concerns early on, they can be more readily addressed, and a culture of mutual learning can be cultivated.
Start at the top
If DEI isn’t a visible priority for leadership, initiatives are not likely to be successful, Arnold says. You really do need to designate a leader and a dedicated team to do this internal work. It’s not just asking someone to do this on top of their day job, she adds.
Embrace accountability, but allow for imperfection
As companies increase their DEI initiatives, employees may need support in the forms of training, education, and discussion, Chow says. This work can be uncomfortable for people who are learning about what it takes to create a truly inclusive environment.
That’s where communicating clear expectations around behavior and culture within a company is important. “If leadership wants to build a culture that feels safe, then they have to role model—taking risks, making mistakes, owning up to them, and saying how they’re going to change and move forward and learn from that experience,” Chow says. There should be an allowance for mistakes and missteps. But that has to be an exercise in good faith. If an employee is problematic and isn’t willing to learn or change behavior, there have to be consequences, she says.
It’s important to regularly communicate with your team about DEI initiatives and efforts, Epler says. This helps keep the topic on the minds of your team and also emphasizes its importance. And while you won’t always be able to follow up on concerns that are shared anonymously or privately, leaders should be sharing efforts to address broad concerns and let employees know that they’re being heard.