Artwork by Irene Zhang

The Business Case for EDI

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). These terms have become buzzwords in today’s workplace, with the business imperative for EDI efforts having been established time and time again. Research has proven that diverse teams perform better, companies with diverse boards see higher share prices, and EDI is one of the top employer requirements from the next generation of the workforce. This has led many organizations to implement new strategies to address these issues internally.

However, some programs like diversity quotas or minority tokenism on boards are virtue signaling. These fail to bring about meaningful change because they fail to address any underlying structural inequality. Further, they can actually make things worse. Several types of diversity focused initiatives have been linked to reductions in employee morale and teamwork, sending EDI managers back to the drawing board. We are witnessing one of the most important cultural shifts in the last decade of business. While most recognize it’s happening, few organizations have dedicated the resources necessary to truly understand what EDI is and what specific strategies need to be employed in order to leverage all the positive effects of a more equitable workforce. 

I have been fortunate to work on EDI within UBC and professionally as a gender diversity consultant. While I am still a university student with lots to learn within the field, I have seen this play out many times and my position gives me the unique ability to see how the next generation of young people refuse to be invisible. They don’t just want to see themselves on a company website, they want to know that their voice is going to be heard once they are inside.

Why Diversity is Not Enough

Although EDI has three components to it, diversity often gets the most spotlight. The following scenario helps illustrate EDI:

You are hosting a dinner for the entire office, a diverse group of people with different dietary restrictions. There are vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, and a few gluten-free individuals. Everyone shows up and sits down at the table for a slice of your famous pepperoni pizza. This is what diversity without inclusion looks like. When the guests leave, you notice that many people barely touched their food! You decide that all the ungrateful guests who didn’t finish their plate won’t get invited to an upcoming party. Because their diverse food restrictions failed to be included, these people did not receive fair treatment and their future opportunities were suddenly limited. This is the equity part of the equation.

Hiring individuals who have diverse sets of experiences means nothing if we don’t allow those differences to change the way we do business. Ensuring equal treatment to those people and viewing differences as strengths instead of obstacles is integral to the success of these initiatives. However, culture unfortunately cannot change overnight. It’s built upon layers of values, goals, and leadership, all wrapped up in years of history. It establishes the norms, attitudes, and behaviours of those within. Yet, it goes far beyond behaviour.

Culture determines how organizations build systems. Hiring, communication, sales, and nearly every process is designed under the context of an existing culture. Certain outcomes are prioritized while eliminating any opportunity for the organization to stray from its definition of success or ideal shape. Historically, the shape of the corporate world has been embodied by caucasian males. For decades we dug square holes in the ground. Now we’re suddenly picking up pegs of all different shapes. It’s no wonder why they don’t seem to fit in.

The Paradox of Individual Behaviour

One of the reasons EDI efforts, particularly inclusion culture efforts, can be so challenging is because of how obvious the solution seems from the outside. Since culture is the culmination of everyone's individual behaviour, then the fastest path to success is to change their behaviour. Consequently, we might believe that as long as we train people to behave in an inclusive way, all our EDI issues will be solved! The paradox is that this is technically true. If everyone instantly changed their behaviour to be radically inclusive, we would see a significant shift in culture. However, when is the last time you managed to get someone to completely change their attitude by telling them everything they are doing wrong? If it was so easy to change another person’s mind about something, I might be willing to spend more time at my family reunions. 

One of the most common programs intended to build inclusive behaviour is Unconscious Bias Training (UBT). The thesis is that if people are aware of their unconscious biases, they will have the agency to interrupt their thought process and make more equitable decisions. In reality, bias focused training is found to be one of the least effective measures in changing individual behaviour. We tend to significantly overestimate the link between self-awareness and agency in behavioural change. Self-regulation rarely occurs unless the undesired behaviour is 1) explicit rather than implicit, 2) the regulated activity involved is highly cooperative, and 3) the individual has enough time to consider the desired outcome. Most day-to-day work activities fit none of these criteria. With some exceptions, we perform the majority of our daily tasks without engaging any higher level thinking, and it’s called unconscious bias for a reason. 

Additionally, when an individual is confronted by information that indicates a level of unconscious prejudice higher than anticipated, a common response is for those individuals to withdraw from that group out of fear of being offensive, further limiting opportunity for meaningful prejudice reducing interactions. UBT also fails in changing the behaviour of those who are already aware of their biases, arguably the group most needing intervention. In the worst cases, UBT on its own can lead to negative outcomes. If it is made mandatory it can increase animosity of critics, or it can even provide individuals a scapegoat to eliminate feelings of personal responsibility as they rationalize their prejudiced behaviour as “unconscious”.

Even in the most ideal of scenarios, where people involved recognize the need for and have the desire to change, patterns of behaviour can be too deeply woven into the way work is done. Consider this example: Priya has joined a new team at work. She is a single mother. Wanting to be more inclusive, her manager decides to offer her a more flexible work schedule even though it's not part of company policy. This new team has held weekly check-in meetings every Monday morning for years, but Priya often misses these meetings to ensure her child makes it to school, using her flexible schedule to balance childcare.

During a team review, multiple members say they feel Priya is not contributing enough to the team, citing her absence from meetings as a pain point. Nobody on the team is trying to be malicious, but they have an expectation of new members based on their culture. You can already imagine the watercooler conversations happening in the background: “I get that she’s raising a kid and all, but she should at least make time for the meeting.” On its own, inclusive behaviour from individuals will never be enough to overcome structures that reinforce an “ideal” way to engage at work.

Diversity Initiatives That Are Bound to Fail Without Careful Implementation

Unconscious bias training is far from the only practiced initiative that fails in creating inclusive cultures. Here are two other widely implemented initiatives:

Quota-based Hiring and Affirmative Action

If employees in the company already hold negative stigma towards diversity initiatives, quotas may increase perceived feelings of injustice and can reduce support for EDI. Furthermore, in these types of anti-diversity cultures, people hired on the basis of quotas can harbor feelings of inadequacy, perpetuated by the dominant attitude of those around them as less capable. Quotas also fail to address any more than surface level discrimination. Hiring a few minorities at the board level, for example, will not instantaneously trickle down into greater representation at all levels.

Volunteer Diversity Councils and ERGs

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have provided a convenient place for employers to source individuals keen on making a difference within larger inclusion efforts at the organization. While ERGs can provide significant value in the form of experiential insight, they cannot be leveraged as, or to create, complete solutions. Giving individuals one space to share their experience is not a substitute for wider inclusion efforts. Using ERGs as a central driver of EDI strategy also shows a lack of appreciation for the challenges of the work. EDI work is challenging and time consuming. To expect employees to volunteer time on top of doing their job exemplifies a culture of inequality where people are expected to fight for the right to be treated fairly.

All three practices aren’t equivocally bad. However, the way they have been typically executed has certainly not led to the improvements hoped for.

Why Companies Must Still Try

If even the most popular diversity initiatives can make things worse, companies might be reluctant to continue trying. We have already seen the need for diversity, so instead of saying those same things again, I want to speak from personal experience.

Whenever I have worked with a client who starts demanding rigorous cost analyses or financial impact metrics of an EDI initiative, I can already tell the outcome will never match the expectation. It’s telling that after spending only a year doing work in this space, every successful project has come out of the same general desire: “How do we make people enjoy working here?”

Lost in all the talk of metrics and financial statements, management fails to remember that people work better when they are happy. If employees are excited to come to work, enjoy interacting with their coworkers, and feel that leadership cares for their needs, they are going to do better work. Years ago it might have been possible to have a cheerful workplace composed completely of one type of person (you can guess what type), but that's not the world we live in anymore. Minority identities make up an ever growing number of the population, women outnumber men in higher education, and awareness of systemic inequality has hit the mainstream of the collective public consciousness. It’s not just in your benefit to have an inclusive workplace, it's a necessity if an organization hopes to survive the next generation of work.

How Companies Should Approach EDI

Not that I wouldn’t love to help, but if you’re hoping to read a list of quick fixes then you may have missed the note that work in EDI is really, really hard. Diversity consultants have to juggle academic literature on human psychology, sociology, employment law, organizational behaviour and more, all while maintaining a focus on the unique desired outcomes of each organization. Fortunately, I know enough at this point to help steer efforts in the right direction.

Recognize There is Plurality to Diversity and Inclusion

There is no single way to be diverse and therefore no single way to be inclusive. You can have a workforce that is diverse on the lines of race, gender identity, ability level, age, language, sexual orientation, family status, and the list goes on. Being inclusive in each one of these domains is going to provide its own unique considerations and challenges. We need to be careful not to assume that our efforts are complete just because we have done work in one area. The unique experience of people in this world is constantly growing. Therefore, our efforts must also be inclusive, alongside the willingness to be challenged on what we believe to be the “ideal” way of doing things. This leads to the next recommendation.

Prepare to Pay for Professionals...Multiple Professionals

Companies are never going to execute effective initiatives if they are not willing to pay for expert experience. While the field of EDI is still in its early stages, the level of expertise that exists already is staggering. Whether you choose to hire an internal EDI manager or bring in consultants, you will quickly find that while many have general experience, there are countless subject matter experts worth listening to. If you are facing challenges in a particular area, or with a particular group, it can be helpful to find someone who has the relevant lived experience. People who live the experience of those you are trying to include will be able to add an element of humanity to your initiatives.

Focus on the Structures That Govern Equity and Prioritize Growth over Fit

No matter who is involved, equity is the baseline in EDI initiatives. It is why we put it first in the acronym. I have already spoken at length about the issues when we only focus on changing workplace behaviours. We need to examine every way that inequitable treatment can occur in our organizations and build in systems to stop them from happening. Why spend hours training selection managers to self regulate for discriminatory behaviour, when you can just blank out names on the resumes? Critical considerations about culture fit are also crucial. Is our culture one that forces people into fixed ways of operating, or one that pushes people to be open and think of things from new perspectives? Can people grow in a way that suits them or only in the way that we want? Ultimately, these three recommendations are all going to be dependent on one final recommendation.

Leaders Need to Believe That it is Worth it

Anyone keeping track of the billable costs for each recommendation is already dreading meeting with the finance team. However, it is a lot harder to repair an airplane mid flight than build it correctly from the beginning. For many organizations, the plane may have been flying for years without a problem, but a storm is coming. Maybe not today, next year, or the year after that, but there will come a point where the talent you need to keep flying just isn’t there. If you can’t accommodate the needs of a new generation, somebody else will. 

People are tired of being treated like just another metric to be analysed in the push to increase profit. This work is about people; who we are and the way we are treated. It is literally about our lives. I have no plans to work in a place that I can’t show up as my authentic self, and most of my fellow students feel the same way. We want to be seen, we want to be heard, and we want to be valued for all the ways we are different, not the same. The road ahead is difficult, but the next generation of young people bring with them a passion for change so bright that trust me, it will be worth it.