Getting on Solid Ground with DEI
By Deb Walker, Associate HR Consultant, Chemistry Consulting Group
Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you believe there is common understanding (as you are using everyday words) but as you get further into the conversation you realize you could actually be speaking different languages? That can happen when using words that are cavalierly bandied about frequently, with an abandon that indicates the meaning may be getting lost in translation. If you say a word often enough, the meaning and even the sound of the word starts to fade, then blur and morph into something you don’t even recognize.
As an example, clichés are terms, phrases, or even ideas that, upon their inception, may have been striking and thought-provoking but became unoriginal through repetition and overuse. Popularity made them seem trite, turning them into what we now know as clichés.
Such is becoming my observation with the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion, often referred to as DEI. These concepts are very important and we would suffer if they were to devolve to a cliché.
I often hear organizations state that they want to diversify their employee base and they have a strong belief that this is the entire scope required of their plans. Reference is made to the concept of DEI as one singular concept without acknowledging the distinctness between the components or the use of the words interchangeably as if they are all one phrase.
With the rising attention on diversity, inclusion and equity, it seems like a good time to roll back to the basics to ensure we have a shared understanding of these terms, their respective meanings and how they interplay. Only then will we have the ability to develop the tools to transition from merely talking about these concepts to integrating them into a foundational and integral cultural value complete with goals and action plans that will affect change in our workplaces. Diversity, equity and inclusion can’t be held as mutually exclusive concepts without understanding how they interact.
To help us visualize how the three concepts are different and yet interdependent, I would ask you to picture a three-legged stool. If any one of the legs is broken, bent or a different size than the other two, the stool doesn’t sit straight and it can be precarious – if not dangerous – to sit on. Now imagine each of those legs as the three cornerstones of an effective DEI plan. With that image in mind, let’s take a deeper look at what the differences are between the three and how they are interlinked together.
- Diversity often refers to protected classes under Human Rights Legislation in Canada. These include race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability and a conviction for which a pardon has been granted or a record suspended. Individuals/identities that have received (or continue to receive) systematic discriminatory treatment and create barriers to opportunity and resources. Often organizations refer vaguely to goals with wording such as “we are working to diversify our employee base” or they have narrow definitions around the identities that constitute diversity.
- Inclusion is when we take those different identities and now speak to creating an environment where all are being valued, leveraged and welcomed within a given setting (team, workplace, industry, community). Inclusion is not a natural consequence or outcome of diversity. We might all be at the table but still served different food and not all of it is nourishing.
- Equity is the third leg on our stool and ensures everyone has access to the same opportunities. Equity is different than equal, and not just in the spelling. It recognizes that advantages and barriers exist and we don’t all start from the same place. Equity “levels the playing field” and involves acknowledging those unequal starting places and making a commitment to correct and address the imbalance.
DEI educator and noted diversity advocate Verna Myers put it this way: “Diversity is being asked to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Building on that analogy, equity is when we find a way that everyone can actually get to the dance.
Equitable processes seek to identify these imbalances and then create processes and activities where the disparate outcomes wouldn’t exist. When considering where to focus attention, consider two aspects:
- Processes: recruitment, onboarding, terminations, promotions, succession planning, salary progression, leaves of absence, team creation, task assignment, performance evaluation, communication, and mentorship programs.
- Activities: celebrating successes, running meetings, team building activities, making introductions, scheduling, vacations/time off, learning opportunities, and coverage under an EAP.
As we start to build the legs that support the stool, asking questions in 3 areas may aid in achieving focus and the appropriate level of detail in DEI plans:
- How does equity support diversity and inclusion? Why do we value diversity? Why is it part of our values?
- For whom are we creating a more inclusive environment? How do we ensure that inclusion is real?
- What systemic barriers exist?
Understanding can be impacted by confusion and misuse of the concepts so that ongoing dialogue and working through our own personal understanding of the distinctions between these concepts will aid in bringing greater clarity to conversations.
Revisiting commitments, including processes and activities, regularly needs to be a foundational tenant of plans developed to ensure effectiveness of initiatives and take the DEI from a line item on our “To Do” list to being an integrated cultural value. Think of it like inspecting the connections for those stool legs. Best to check regularly as things that were once firm and solid can become wobbly over time. Diversity efforts without equitable practices and intentional inclusion will always fall short (or fall over).