The DE&I paradox

Why aren’t companies’ efforts having strategic and sustainable impact?

All too often companies implement DE&I initiatives to address the immediate results of bias and discrimination, reacting to what they see as short-term issues. However, until the root causes are diagnosed and treated, the problems are going to keep recurring. Part of the challenge is that it can be difficult to understand how people actually experience the workplace, and yet this is the key to achieving a better workplace for all.

One of the most frequently asked questions when looking at the outcomes of a company’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) program is: “given all the effort we are putting in, why aren’t we having a strategic and sustainable impact?”

In an article in Harvard Business Review in May 2021 by Janice Burns, Chief Career Experience Officer at ‎Degreed commented “In my experience, many companies seeking to improve diversity and inclusion in their organizations consistently make the same mistake. They look at addressing the symptoms of discrimination, rather than the root causes”.

She continued “To ensure lasting change, organizations should measure how effective they are at creating an inclusive culture and workplace where all employees feel they can contribute most authentically”.

DE&I – A major corporate priority

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) has quite rightly moved significantly up the corporate agenda in the last few years and is now a priority for Boards, CEOs and leadership teams. For some time, companies have been working on advancing women in the workplace and this continues to be a key focus given the size of the female working population. LGBTQ employees have also raised their voice in recent years and companies have been seeking to address their needs.

The issue of racial equality has been hugely amplified through Black Lives Matter and companies have been seeking to recruit and retain more employees from ethnically diverse populations. Then there is the impact of the pandemic which is resulting in even more attention on DE&I, as family responsibilities have fallen more upon women, the older generation of workers are being discarded as less digitally savvy for the future of work, and there is greater focus on other aspects of diversity like disability and neuro diversity.

Defining DE&I

There are many nuanced definitions of DE&I, however it is important for companies to appreciate how these three key elements impact on company culture and the employee experience:

  • Diversity: is the range of human differences, including amongst many other attributes race, ethnicity, gender, age etc. These differences can be extremely valuable in generating new ideas, driving innovation and ensuring the company reflects its customer base
  • Equity: is the approach of a company to its guiding policies and procedures which strongly influence fairness in the workplace and impact upon employees personally. Equity means that companies provide support according to employees’ needs, to ensure equal outcomes for individuals
  • Inclusion: is the ability for employees to provide input, feedback and be involved in decision making processes which impact upon them directly. Employees operating in a culture of inclusion are more likely to feel a sense of belonging. They are also more likely to be engaged in delivering the company’s strategy and are more likely to stay with the organisation and develop their capabilities further

Understanding root causes

Studies like McKinsey’s Diversity Wins show that DE&I initiatives are key to a thriving workforce and to the long-term success of an organisation. However, many company boards and executives struggle to know which initiatives really make a difference, how to measure their impact and therefore which ones they should prioritise.

Most often, DE&I initiatives and programs are operationally addressing the “exhibited outcome” and tactically treating the symptoms. This is where organisations end up in inefficient and ineffective deployment of valuable resources. What is more effective, and will ultimately lead to success, is a holistic diagnosis to identify the underlying weaknesses and deeper-rooted causes, like a lack of inclusive culture or insufficiently skilled leadership, that are leading up to the problem.

Part of the challenge that leadership teams encounter is a well-informed and objective understanding of how colleagues experience the workplace, and yet this is the key to achieving a better workplace for all.

There are many tools available to organisations to survey and assess the attitudes and engagement of their workforce. These tools tend to measure opinions and beliefs which may or may not be closely aligned to employees’ experiences in the workplace, and are either narrow in focus, or too broad to set a meaningful change agenda.

A cognitive approach

To achieve a meaningful impact from D,E&I initiatives organisations need to deploy a holistic diagnosis of their diversity, equity and inclusion maturity state. This involves assessing employees’ workplace experiences on D,E&I, and synthesising those experiences through a cognitive approach to deliver meaningful insights.

Unlike audit style or opinion seeking surveys, a cognitive approach delivers workforce experience-based insights and enhances objectivity in decision making. It seeks an understanding of experiences at work using carefully crafted statements to gather employees’ responses using a “frequency of experience” scale. This results in an absolute scale of measurement, rather than a relative scale that not only requires a “gold standard” for comparison, but a gold standard that evolves dynamically.

It is then possible to segment and drill into the underlying [anonymised] data to understand material differences in the experiences of different groups within the workforce. For example the company can assess how women experience certain aspects of the workplace, compared with men etc.

An approach starting with a holistic diagnosis provides a strong baseline for decision making on what actions or interventions to take. The impact of outcomes resulting from these actions can be measured after a reasonable time frame, usually a period of at least one year. As Janice Burns points out in her article, there is no “quick fix” in DE&I: measuring weekly or even monthly will not show up long term sustained change: rather it will show at best short term impact which may or may not become sustained. In one case we reviewed recently, our analysis highlighted that the organisation’s professional development programme was failing across its professional and administrative staff. It was clear that urgent action was required to address this.

Having more impact from your DE&I interventions

If you would like to get more impact from your DE&I interventions, start with the right diagnosis and aim to take action based on how your employees experience the issues, rather than diving in with initiatives that may very well miss the mark!

To learn more about how we can support you, please reach out to us directly.


Robert Baker, Partner
[email protected]

Cameron Hannah, Founder
[email protected]