Those operating in talent acquisition and management have long understood the benefits of building diverse teams and fostering an inclusive culture. However, since the beginning of the pandemic the world of work has changed significantly – and this has created both fresh opportunities and new challenges around diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I).
A global boom in demand for talent, international travel restrictions, and a wholesale shift to hybrid working have all impacted how businesses find, engage, and manage their people. Add to the mix the ‘Great Resignation’ as workers around the world reassess their priorities and ambitions, and it is clear that businesses must urgently reassess their DE&I efforts to keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape.
I spoke to Ann Bookout, Impellam’s Head of Culture & Fulfilment, about the actions needed to improve workforce DE&I in 2022. Here’s what she had to say.
Beth Armesto (BA): Ann, how would you describe the state of workforce DE&I today?
Ann Bookout (AB): While we are now witnessing greater diversity at entry and mid-career level, we continue to see a lack of representation on executive leadership teams. That’s not to say businesses are not working to address this, particularly where racial and gender representation at board level are concerned.
However, we desperately need to expand our efforts to ensure we are attracting, retaining, and growing other underrepresented groups such as disabled talent, veterans, and those with varied sexual orientations across all levels.
“Of course, it is important to measure success where workforce DE&I is concerned. However, I must confess I have a love-hate relationship with data capture.”
The goal for inclusion is often beyond what can be measured on paper. Moving a figure from 23% to 24% is great, but what does it really mean? We need to tie data into the programmes and initiatives of organisations. Do employees feel engaged and connected? Do people feel a sense of belonging? These are the questions we need to be asking if we want to get a true idea of employee experience on the ground.
There’s also a current issue that has the potential to impact true diversity: attrition rates are so high that companies are just trying to get people in the door. I am concerned that decision makers are not doing the appropriate due diligence to ensure they are finding diverse talent and creating and sourcing from diverse talent pools.
I fear that businesses may be missing opportunities to strengthen DE&I as they are, understandably, trying to react so rapidly. However, in some ways, attrition is helping as people are having to look ‘outside the box’, so there is a real opportunity here if action is compromised by necessity.
BA: What will it take to create true board-level diversity?
AB: Board-level diversity is now being demanded by customers and employees. But I don’t see many companies doing it really well. Over the last 20 years we have seen investment in gender diversity, with organisations actively growing, identifying and promoting female talent to increase numbers at senior level. We now need the same investment in other areas such as LGBTQ+ and people of colour.
There was a very dedicated push to get women on boards and we need to replicate that for all elements of diversity: when you make a targeted investment like that, you do see the needle move. We need to take what we know about women in leadership and apply similar thinking to other elements of diversity.
BA: What else do you think is driving DE&I workforce trends?
AB: Of course, there is still a need to focus on diversity officers and chief diversity officers. But, honestly, I think the issue is bigger than that today. Now is the time to reframe what work means to people and how we work. Covid has caused a lot of people to think, ‘What do I even want to do with my life?’
Everybody needs a pay cheque, but there is a whole group of people who are taking a step back and talking about culture and purpose and finding meaning.
“How do we equip people, so they feel the job they do is meaningful?”
If you are going to spend time away from your family or the people and things that you love, what you’re doing has to have meaning – and this is what we need to communicate to all existing and potential employees. That is why we are witnessing the rise of the chief purpose officer; businesses are investing in drivers for retention in the new world of work.
BA: How should organisations be rewarding DE&I success?
AB: When it comes to DE&I success, the biggest barrier is people’s time and resources. So, you have to make it part of everything you do. You can’t just reward people for hitting their financial targets. You have to also recognise them for their contribution to culture and bringing diverse talent to the business.
“Focusing on financials alone can contribute to a culture of rewarding ‘toxic rockstars’.”
My job is to constantly challenge and change the questions we are asking of our workforce. You need people who are willing to question the status quo and the time and resources to make change happen. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and not everyone has the time, or the interest, or the capability to make that happen. There needs to be willingness to invest and ask some of the harder questions to achieve impactful DE&I.
BA: Is there a role for greater storytelling in DE&I action?
AB: When it comes to an effective DE&I initiative or programme, data is only part of the solution. Uncovering and telling people’s stories is also vital.
Focusing on the individual brings data to life. I’ve personally witnessed the transformative power of storytelling, seeing hearts and minds change in a few moments. The cultural impact cannot be measured but it is felt more than any data on a PowerPoint slide. Creating an organisation where people can share themselves and their identities will have a much greater impact.
“People crave authenticity, texture, and transparency.”
We need to hear people, in leadership roles in particular, stripped back and being more vulnerable to inspire the people employed underneath them. The message should be: ‘There is not a perfect path to success, but build your career here and we will help you navigate that’.
BA: Finally, how do you think we should be measuring DE&I success?
AB: Ultimately, to realise the full advantages of any DE&I programme, enterprises need to:
- clearly define their vision
- develop strategic plans and a formalised framework
- measure key metrics tracking the impact of the programme based on employee feedback, and continue to improve.
It’s a cliché, but what gets measured gets done. You have to tie diversity to reward and compensation and hold people accountable. There is a column A and a column B: delivering on your business objectives in one column, and contributing to your culture through creating a diverse and inclusive environment in the other. They have to be balanced; they go hand in hand and can’t be siloed. When that is done well, and supported by leadership, it will start to trickle down.
“The idea of purpose over profit is big at the moment, but the reality is that businesses must focus on purpose and profit – they are not mutually exclusive.”
We all want to make money and have stability and I truly believe that companies ultimately generate profits through finding purpose. I don’t think there is a complete business case there yet to prove that, but I want to be part of making one.
Amid the new world of work we need to do things in a better way to attract and retain the best people and build robust, diverse, equitable, and inclusive businesses.
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