How to Get Started with DEI

While many companies are very much aware of the great need for ensuring that they upgrade their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts and initiatives, one of the biggest challenges they face is not knowing where to begin. The extensive problems relating to DEI are daunting, and figuring out where to start on that can be a serious challenge, especially when the pressure is high and the cost of failure is significant. People love to quote the adage that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, but somehow those people never suggest where to stick the fork in first. While many companies want to start with DEI, it’s important to remember that the first step in any initiative is conducting an assessment in order to figure out the state of the company/employees and ascertain precisely what the needs are. Here are four steps for conducting the needs assessment, and the best part is that the first steps involve reviewing data you [hopefully] already have:

1) Review performance, promotion, and salary data

The very first assessment you want to make is whether people are getting paid fairly and equitably for their work, and whether there are any notable demographic disparities. Review performance, promotion rates (and time-to-promotion), and salary data (separately and together) against different demographic cuts both in general and relative to positions/salary bands. Unless you have made a conscientious effort to avoid these disparities (and possibly even then), brace yourself for some sobering results. It is important to remember that you are running these analyses specifically because you have good intentions and want to make up any differences. As such, be prepared to right a few wrongs quickly if there are salary discrepancies, especially because the people on the wrong end of them are the ones you’re most likely to lose!

2) Review all HR complaints and exits from the last five years

Which kinds of complaints were filed to HR over the last five years? Are there any patterns to them (e.g., demographics, content, time-frame)? While you should certainly take into account how complaints were resolved and whether they were dismissed, the content of the complaints shows how people perceive things to be regardless of the reality. Once the perceptions are determined, compare them against the realities of these complaints (e.g., amicably resolved, dismissed, personnel action). In addition, review all of the exits from the company in the last five years and look for patterns. Do have a look at any exit interviews conducted, but take it with a grain of salt. Prepare yourself for some uncomfortable discoveries as you learn about how effectively your company hires and retains talent. If you found nothing useful in this analysis, it means you either have already been running it constantly, have a rather small company, or have far bigger problems than you realize.

3) Compare your company’s demographics to the population

Here is where you have to start doing some actual research. You likely have demographic information on your employees, but you now need to ascertain the demographic makeup of the hiring pool. For every office that requires people to be onsite, compare the demographics of the office to those of the population within a 50-mile radius of the office. Keep in mind that there are always margins of error, so falling short of exact representation is not necessarily a problem. You will also need to control for the demographics and qualifications of the hiring pool (for instance, jobs that require a degree in computer science are not going to have an even gender split, as significantly fewer than 50% of computer science degrees are currently [March 2021] going to women). For any remote positions, you need to compare against the national population, and possibly account for international data, as well. In any case, it is important to remember that demographic numbers are not the alpha and omega of DEI, and good or bad numbers on this are only one piece of the DEI puzzle.

4) Run an anonymous culture survey

This is one of those easier-said-than-done things, and it is likely you are going to need some outside help for this. You need an assessment of how employees experience the culture of your organization, which includes engagement, inclusion, work-life balance, and other relevant constructs. The challenge, however, is that you need brutal honesty from your employees, and there is no chance of getting this if employees so much as suspect that their responses will not be anonymous. If your company has at least 100 employees, and you didn’t find any surprises, you either keep an amazing pulse on your company or people didn’t feel safe answering the survey. Based on these results, you will have some idea of where your company is falling short on its DEI initiatives (and remember that all aspects of culture relate to DEI!).

By triangulating the results of these four analyses, you will develop a solid picture of the gaps in your company’s DEI efforts. These should be reviewed by C-level management and the people team, and they will need to work together to formulate new strategies and initiatives for tackling these problems. Hiring outside experts can be helpful here, especially for a quick review and a second opinion, as companies rarely have the size/bandwidth to have an in-house specialist/team for addressing DEI challenges. In all cases, having a clear picture of the state of the company’s culture, demographic disparities, and DEI provides a solid foundation for planning a renovation of the company’s infrastructure.

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.