15 Feb 2024
by Kevin Poll

Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion: Beyond Lip Service 

Throughout organisations of all sizes, "Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion" (DEI) resonate within boardrooms, HR meetings, and annual reports. Yet, despite the rhetoric, many companies appear to fall short when it comes to meaningful action. It prompts the question: If you're committed to DEI, why? Is it personal conviction, the pursuit of profit, or a combination? 

For me, it’s deeply personal. I've made it my mission to assist underrepresented communities in gaining access to work, whether full-time, contract, or freelance, and to aid organisations in becoming more accepting, fostering a safe space for employees to be their authentic selves. The reason it resonates so deeply with me is, as I recently shared with the APSCO Outsource community, thirty years ago when I was in my early twenties, I had just secured a position at a local financial institution. The role was progressing well, and I decided to bring Steve, my significant other, to the office for lunch to meet my new colleagues. I soon realised the environment was not a safe space for me. My colleagues and leadership were not accepting of a gay team member. The following day, I was uninvited to a team happy hour. When I inquired why, I was informed it was cancelled (which it was not). The subsequent week, I was summoned to my manager's office, and my employment was terminated, effective immediately. 

The rationale provided was that team cohesion was paramount to them, and they felt I did not fit into the team. I was devastated, to say the least. It took me years to overcome the shame I felt. Through years of learning and finding the right teams and organisations to work within, I have discovered that a culture of acceptance, diversity, and inclusion has led me to incredible pride and productivity, evidenced by my career journey. 

As most leaders are aware, DEI is not solely a moral imperative; it is also sound business practice. Numerous studies have demonstrated that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones, bringing fresh perspectives, authentic voices, innovative solutions, and enhanced decision-making. Inclusive workplaces also boast higher employee satisfaction, retention rates, and overall productivity. From a pragmatic standpoint, investing in DEI makes sense. 

However, recently, during a campaign aimed at illustrating how WorkLLama aids our customers in engaging and nurturing diverse talent communities, we received this response to the question, “Is DEI a priority?” 

“It is not,” they replied. “I hire based on merit and ability, not skin colour and/or sexual preference.” Another response was even more direct. “DEI is dead.” The president of the Society of Human Resource Management recently stated that DEI will “come under full-out attack in 2024.” Similar sentiments in the UK and abroad are also widespread. 

It is crucial to highlight the distinction between “equity” and “equality,” as the nuance is significant. Equality assumes that every person begins from the same starting point and will face the same circumstances and challenges. Equity acknowledges that people are not a “one-size-fits-all” and recognises that different types of support must be available to achieve fairness in outcomes. For some, equal opportunity has come to mean preferential treatment. While the arguments for or against are far more nuanced than that, organisational leaders are facing questions about how invested they are—or plan to be—in the future. Leaders who are not focused on the E in DEI are already behind. 

One issue arises when DEI is viewed solely through the lens of profitability. While the business case for diversity is arguably compelling, it is crucial to recognise that DEI is not solely about bolstering the bottom line; it is still about equity and societal progress for the majority. 

Moreover, a profit-centric approach to DEI often leads to superficial initiatives and insignificant gestures that are not sustainable. Most of us have worked for organisations that conduct diversity training sessions and showcase carefully curated photo ops featuring diverse team members. But what impact does that have on moving the needle to attract and retain diverse talent? It is the responsibility of leaders to eliminate barriers and infuse diversity into all aspects of their company’s culture, and understanding true motivations will aid in this endeavour. 

Of course, many forward-thinking leaders understand that DEI is a strategic imperative. Embracing diversity is not just the right thing to do; it is essential for long-term success in an increasingly interconnected world. Companies that fail to adapt to changing demographics and the necessity for diverse, authentic voices will lose out on talent (their most significant competitive advantage!), which will impact market share and a brand’s reputation in the market. A recent UK You.Gov report found that almost four-fifths of 18-to–24-year-olds (78%) consider DEI important in the pursuit of job opportunities. 

The path towards true diversity, equality, and inclusion is not easy or straightforward. It requires courage, humility, and commitment. If you’re a leader, ask yourself: Why are we committed to DEI? If you want to demonstrate your commitment, place diverse voices front and centre. Their words carry more weight than any corporate message or “check the box” initiative.