When It Comes To DE&I, Leaders May Be Part Of The Problem

Leadership is at the top of four key factors that predict higher levels of employee satisfaction with their organization’s DE&I efforts, which in turn predict overall job satisfaction.

Over the past year, we’ve seen a long-overdue call to not only acknowledge but take action to address long-standing structural inequities. So, we were curious to understand: what progress have organizations achieved in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in this time? And, more importantly, what is (and isn’t) working when it comes to advancing DE&I in the workplace?

To find out, United Minds surveyed a highly representative sample of employees across industries, levels, job types and demographics to learn more about their perceptions of DE&I efforts within their companies. We chose to focus on employee perceptions for two reasons: employees are not only critical to driving business results—the more engaged they are the better they perform, but employees also have an increasingly substantial influence on a company’s reputation both internally and externally.

By identifying key themes—and differences—across and between these workforce communities we can learn what drives satisfaction, who is most at risk (and what risk they might present) and ultimately how to drive meaningful, lasting change.

The Good News

The vast majority of employees see DE&I as a key strategic imperative. Most employees believe that investing in DE&I is important for recruitment (79%), retention (71%), reputation with customers (80%), and ultimately to the financial success of the business (72%).

The Bad News

Many leaders do not share the same perceptions. Nearly four in 10 (39%) of leaders at the vice president level and above believe that DE&I initiatives are a waste of organizational time, effort and money.

This gap might in part explain the lack of results that employees are seeing from DE&I efforts. For example, disparities in treatment persist, with only half of employees strongly believing that men and women are treated equitably (58%), that people from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds have an equal chance to succeed (53%) and that racist, sexist and/or discriminatory language is not tolerated (56%).

Even more concerning, toxic—and even illegal—behavior occurs way too often, with nearly half of employees experiencing or witnessing discrimination, harassment and microaggressions (47%).

Based on these results, it’s not surprising that only half of employees are very satisfied with their organization’s approach to DE&I (57%), and more than a quarter question whether their organization was working to improve DE&I before last year (29%).

A Call to Action

It’s time for leaders to step up as DE&I champions. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s important to their people, their customers, and ultimately their business. The most meaningful action that leaders can take is to demonstrate…leadership.

Another important reason for leaders to invest more in DE&I is their outsized influence on employee perceptions of DE&I and ultimately on unlocking value for their organization. Leadership is at the top of the four key factors we calculated that predict higher levels of employee satisfaction with their organization’s DE&I efforts, which in turn also predict overall job satisfaction:

• Leadership and organizational commitment: Starting from the top down, organizations must make DE&I core to the company’s vision and strategy, set clear goals and objectives, invest sufficient resources and hold themselves accountable for DE&I outcomes. Leaders must demonstrate personal commitment to DE&I and model inclusive and respectful behavior. By seeing true equity and inclusion in action, employees can believe that people of all backgrounds have equal opportunity—and accountability—for success.

• Manager tone and behavior: Taking their cue from leaders, strong managers must demonstrate the importance of DE&I in both word and deed, creating an environment where all team members can contribute their full potential and take swift action to address discrimination, harassment or uncivil conduct as it occurs.

• Culture and interactions: Success requires positive interpersonal dynamics—employees must accept one another for who they are, view differences as opportunities for learning and resolve conflict effectively. Achieving a positive culture requires operating with civility and respect and maintaining zero tolerance for offensive language and behavior.

• Individual experience: Individuals must feel a sense of belonging and believe they have opportunities to grow. Positive individual experience also requires physical and psychological safety—ensuring that individuals are not experiencing harassment, discrimination or microaggressions.

Like most successful business imperatives, a commitment to DE&I must start at the top and be embedded in every part of the organization. But without leadership buy-in, programs and people languish.

Just ask your people. They’ll tell you.

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