Fostering DEI in The Workplace: Strategies for Sustained Success

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have been pivotal in American corporate policies since the 1960s, catalyzed by equal-opportunity employment laws and anti-discrimination legislation. Initially seen as compliance requirements, DEI initiatives are now integral to business strategies, supported by research showing that diverse workforces enhance profitability. The #MeToo movement and the 2020 murder of George Floyd further galvanized support for DEI, with younger employees particularly advocating for corporate responsibility in advancing social justice. According to the Bentley University-Gallup Force for Good Survey, 84% of Americans aged 18-29 consider DEI a corporate necessity.

Marcus Stewart, Bentley’s assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, emphasizes that while recruiting a diverse workforce is critical, retaining these employees poses a distinct challenge. Stewart observes that many companies hire for diversity but fail to foster an inclusive culture, leading to dissatisfaction and turnover. “If your company doesn’t deliver on its DEI promises, your employees are going to be less productive or leave,” he warns.

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Stewart, along with Donna Maria Blancero and Yaro Fong-Olivares from Bentley’s Gloria Cordes Larson Center for Women and Business, offers strategies to cultivate and sustain inclusive workplaces. Implicit bias, or unconscious attitudes and assumptions, often undermines equity efforts. Corporate training can mitigate these biases by helping employees recognize and address their subconscious stereotypes. Tools like Harvard’s Project Implicit aid in this ongoing education.

Intersectionality, a concept introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is vital for understanding how overlapping social identities—such as race, gender, and sexuality—shape experiences of discrimination. Fong-Olivares stresses the importance of acknowledging the unique needs and contributions of employees with multiple historically excluded identities to avoid perpetuating inequities in DEI initiatives.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and mentoring programs are also pivotal in fostering inclusion. ERGs provide safe spaces for employees with shared identities or interests, enhancing their sense of belonging. Successful ERGs benefit from institutional support, including funding and executive sponsorship. Mentoring programs connect entry-level workers with senior managers, facilitating personal and professional growth and creating a pipeline for leadership development. Blancero notes that mentoring is especially crucial for underrepresented groups, helping to retain younger workers who seek career advancement opportunities.

Stewart advocates for engaging employees as stakeholders in DEI efforts, suggesting regular DEI-specific surveys to gather feedback and measure progress. Transparency in communication, especially regarding promotion processes, is essential for leveling the playing field. Blancero emphasizes the need for clearly defined criteria for organizational advancement, developed by individuals well-versed in DEI issues.

Setting DEI-related goals and tracking progress is crucial for organizational transformation. Fong-Olivares recommends using both quantitative and qualitative data to gain a comprehensive understanding of DEI realities within the company.

Creating an equitable and inclusive workplace is complex and ongoing, acknowledges Stewart. However, he, Blancero, and Fong-Olivares agree that the effort is worthwhile. “DEI work is inherently messy, and you’ll almost certainly make mistakes,” Stewart says. “But if you ground your efforts in empathy and honesty, you can create meaningful change.”