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Roundtable: How to Show Meaningful Progress on Your DEI Journey

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Businesses often frame questions around the impact of DEI commitments as complicated. They are “multifaceted issues,” or “hard conversations,” or worse, “controversial policies.” It’s true that some of these questions require real thought and additional work, but leaders have been innovating, reinventing and solving problems for as long as businesses have existed — and we can no longer allow DEI to be the lone insurmountable challenge. 

Earlier this year, PAN hosted a roundtable discussion among industry experts to address a question that plagues businesses of all varieties: How can you show meaningful progress on your DEI journey?  

Across an informative hour, PAN facilitated a conversation with GLAAD Chief Communications Officer Rich Ferraro, Black Alder Founding Partner and Senior Strategist Chelsea Fuller, and Code2040 Chief Executive Officer Mimi Fox Melton. The group discussed a number of critical topics, including where a company’s DEI priorities should lie, what they anticipate will take center-stage in the year ahead, and how to assess some of the complexities within DEI more simply. 

Showing progress requires a shift in thinking — if businesses want evidence that their policies are working as intended, they need to commit to real change, beyond just the numbers and data. 

Quotes have been edited for clarity. All quotations are available in full and with context in the recording below. 

Understanding the Origins of DEI

Before talking about progress and looking ahead to the future of DEI, it’s important to know where the concept of DEI originated and how it became what we understand it to be today. As equal employment laws and affirmative action took shape at a federal level in the mid-1960s, businesses recognized the heightened emphasis on diversity education and training in the workplace. As Fuller points out, that starting point is different from how we talk about DEI today, but the execution and results are perhaps not as far from the origins as we’d like to believe. 

“We know that there have been many different iterations of HR practices that center diversity, hiring and compliance,” Fuller says. “Typically, they live inside of the HR department at company. That is changing, which is great, but from what I’ve experienced as a strategist in the space, even still a lot of the policies that are about making workplaces more inclusive are actually about protecting the company.” 

Melton agrees, adding that not only are these policies inadequate to truly improve diversity, equity and inclusivity, but they are also ineffective in their own ulterior motives. 

“A lot of companies still approach DEI [with] that lens, and they’re overwhelmingly unsuccessful in their efforts because those of us who are protected by these laws are no longer satisfied with just the status quo and the bare minimum,” she explains. “With the prevalence of social media and the way that technology is accessible to all of us, we no longer need the blessing and the permission of folks at the top of the org chart in order to create change.” 

Change is perhaps the most operative word here, and one whose real meaning has for years been diluted by businesses who would rather talk than deliver. Creating change might start with conversation, but it cannot end there. Businesses must become more intentional — and more honest — about the way they think about DEI, including the goals of their DEI efforts. 

Showing progress requires a shift in thinking  — if businesses want evidence that their policies are working as intended, they need to commit to real change, beyond just the numbers and data. 

Too often on the DEI journey, business leaders become preoccupied with how they externally demonstrate their DEI growth by checking the boxes of quantitative indicators. Data-driven baselines and standards are critical but it’s important to not lose sight of what really matters: the lived experience of the people who make a business what it is. 

Intention and Authenticity

Thomas posed a question to the group that gets to the core of this issue: what do businesses do when they have good intentions but don’t know how best to act? In other words, they want to do something, but they worry about the backlash of doing it wrong. 

Ferraro defines the issue further, explaining that this hesitancy from brands is often a result of evolving consumer expectations.  

“At GLAAD we work with media of all kinds on representation and to tell queer stories that will create and foster understanding and acceptance,” he says. “And we define media today not just as news and Hollywood but as brands… brands are expected to be out on social issues. Not only customers but also employees want to know that the brand that they’re working for or the brand that they’re patronizing has similar values to their own. Consumers and the general public are expecting to see diversity in public communications from [corporations]…but 60% of the brand executives that we polled were worried that an inauthentic execution would lead to a larger backlash than no inclusion at all.”  

But the panelists agree: gone are the days when fear of failure absolves a brand of their failure to try. Doing nothing is also wrong and worrying about the optics of authenticity instead of the action itself is where brands get in trouble. For many businesses, the way they choose or try to present externally will never be the only thing people know about them. People talk — more so when they are unhappy — and the truth will come out no matter how brands try to package it. 

As Fuller explains: “Think about shifting behavior first, then allowing shifts in behavior to shift culture, and allowing that shift in culture to lead to the more substantial numerical transformations.” 

 It may seem easier said than done, but it must be done regardless. So how do businesses start? 

Listen to the Next Generation

Millennials are turning 40. Businesses are ushering in a new generation of the workforce — a group that grew into adulthood amid sharp cultural divisions and widespread demand for positive change. It’s no surprise that they bring high expectations for DEI progress to their workplaces.  

Melton: These young folks coming up behind us have no tolerance not only for inauthenticity but also for silence on these issues that really matter. And it’s wild to see them talk about it because there’s no debate, they’re like ‘You either get it or you don’t.’ This is a matter of survival: your company is not going to be here 20 years from now if you do not get this right. 

Ferraro: The Gallup poll that came out last year found that nearly 20% of Gen-Z self-identify as LGBTQ, that’s one out of five identifying as LGBTQ and that number is growing significantly every time any of this demographic polling comes out. So now is the right time to get ready for that diverse workforce. 

Fuller: It’s a weird kind of tokenism that happens to folks from impacted communities in these moments … if you’re bringing associate or junior level people to have a conversation with the CEO or the head HR person or the president of the company, that power differential is automatically putting people in a harmful position … Discomfort is going to be a part of it, but there is a difference between discomfort and harm and the conflation of those two things is dangerous … It’s going to be uncomfortable no matter what and the discomfort cannot be the measure of whether or not you do it.  

Use Data Effectively

Businesses have grown accustomed to using data as evidence of progress, but its more critical role is as a tool for finding the areas where they are still falling short. Data collection should seek to reflect the reality of work experience — not simply to tell a story of success. If 89% of employees feel DEI efforts are effective, a business better find a way to understand the remaining 11% who don’t.  

Ferraro: In the PR industry, the numbers in terms of diversity are atrocious. As PR professionals, we can start bringing up a new generation who are diverse and who are more fluent on social justice issues. It’s what clients will need and it’s what’s going to make for the strongest PR firms. Hold the PRess released a report two years ago, and they polled all the big PR agencies and shops on diversity demographics. Only 26 out of over 100 gave their demographic info — PAN Communications, I’m happy to say, did give demographic info and also a plan to improve on diversity — but most agencies didn’t even share their diversity information. So not only is it important to look at this but it’s also important to be transparent, even if you’re not doing good, and commit to doing better. 

Melton: Asking your employees what it feels like to work there, what their experiences are, and segmenting that data by race and gender is really critical. It’s a white supremacist concept that data is quantitative only, and I really think it’s important that we’re not just looking at percentages and ratios in order to see progress. The material experience of folks, life experience, is critical, and anecdotes are data — especially if companies only have one or two Black folks. You’re not going to be able to get statistically significant information if you’re not hiring and retaining Black, Latinx and Indigenous people … Communities of color have been using the technology of story and narrative for millennia. So, you can use the quantitative data to give insights into the story and vice versa. 

Fuller: Nine times out of ten that data is being measured by folks who are so far removed from the organizational culture or from the real-life experiences of people working at an organization. That they’re the ones who are making those determinations about what is or is not working or is or is not successful is often not helpful. When folks came to me in work environments before and asked me, in a way that allowed me to feel safe, to engage with them in a conversation about shifting something or creating something new, knowing that I’m not the only one that they asked, that empowered me in a way that filling out a survey did not. So as a starting point, stop thinking about needing the earth-shattering [numbers] and think about changing the way that people feel on a daily basis.  

Recognize Diversity of Background

No workforce is homogenous, and particularly as businesses work to diversify their employees, business leaders will need to be more cognizant not just of the policies they put in place but also how those policies are perceived.  

Melton: In 2020, Code2040 internally really started focusing on sustainability. It was clear that we were all in global trauma and as a workforce exclusively, currently, of women of color sustainability was going to be critical. I pulled the PTO data from our platform and found that no one was taking vacation time … After having conversations with the team individually and facilitating folks at the lower hierarchy of the organization to have conversations together without management there, we found that folks were terrified during COVID of losing their jobs. Folks who don’t have access to generational wealth would use our PTO as an unemployment insurance policy. And so what changed our employees’ utilization of PTO was [that] we created a guaranteed severance policy where no matter what — fired, quit, doesn’t matter — you get guaranteed three months severance. And suddenly people started taking PTO. For us, profit isn’t the purpose, but for a lot of companies it is, and you cannot make money from people who are living on the edge. Are you asking the people who are at the frontlines of this work, the people who are most likely to struggle if they lose their job, are you asking them what the problem is and what the solutions are? Because likely it’s not what we think it is at first glance. 

Looking Ahead

We’ve already acknowledged that it’s far too easy for businesses to fall into the trap of regarding DEI as an overly complicated issue. There are plenty of aspects to consider, but the goals and strategy should be simple: listen to employees and give them power to make real changes to create a more diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace for everyone. On the way there, it helps to keep in mind that employees are more than just that — they are people who live and think and feel outside the office.  

Ferraro: One word that I think we all have to focus on … that we should have been for years is intersectionality. Categories like gender, race, class, and LGBTQ identity are best understood as overlapping rather than isolated and distinct … The LGBTQ community is full of diversity in itself and that means that the issues that face diverse communities face LGBTQ people. Black Lives Matter is an LGBTQ issue, voting rights, immigration — these are all LGBTQ issues. How can you show your support for diverse communities outside of these months and days of visibility? Black History Month, Pride, Latinx Heritage Month — how can you include us throughout the year and not just in those moments of visibility? I think that’s one key and one small step that can be accomplished in the short term, whether it’s internal communications or external communications. 

Fuller: Between May to September [of 2020], DEI jobs increased by 123%. So, there’s going to be an influx of people coming into companies and organizations to do this work, and the thing that I hope to see is that the strategies that people are offering are really about workplace culture and not just the illusion of an equitable workplace. I’m not as interested in being a part of the conversations that are about the number and the money. I want to see people making real investments in changing behaviors that change cultures that change companies … We’re about to be in an electoral season again … the issues that are on the ballot 100% are going to impact the people that are making your products, that you’re servicing. So, finding ways to allow people to deal with the issues that are impacting them at home inside of a safe environment really makes a difference. 

Melton: If folks don’t see the CEO leading from the front around things that are stigmatized and terrifying then no one else at the organization is going to feel safe doing it … So, the belonging piece is really, to me, about ‘Am I leading by creating a space where people can talk about themselves, their full selves, at work.’ And last year in particular, we saw companies that said ‘No. We’re not creating that space. Don’t talk about politics here.’ I really think that’s ultimately the takeaway. Just tell the truth about what you’re doing … If you really aren’t committed to the work then just take a seat and let the rest of us lead because we’re going to know eventually and it’s just going to continue to cost you. But if you are about the work then it’s time to be vulnerable and it’s time to talk about the things that are uncomfortable and to really sit down and listen to the people who are sitting at the table with you. 

There is no endpoint on the DEI journey. Even as businesses progress, there will always be new challenges to overcome, new ways to improve, new strategies for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. As PAN continues to engage with this critical work, we look forward listening, learning and sharing our growth.

PAN Communications DEI Roundtable, recorded on January 20, 2022

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