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Walking in the woods of DEI

Could the answer to creating equitable and inclusive workplaces lie not in our differences but in our commonality?

It’s a new year, and what better time for a pop quiz then when we've all turned the page from the past to one of new beginnings? Here's the one question to this New Year's quiz:

What percentage of organizations rate their DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) initiatives as highly effective?:

o <10%

o 10% - 50%

o 50% - 75%

o >75%

The answer is… 9%.

This may be the most eye-opening finding in The Future of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 2022, a report published by’s HR.Research Institute. But it’s also just the tip of the iceberg. Among the other key takeaways:

  • Only 22% of employers rate their DEI initiatives as mature (of those, 18% say their efforts are “advanced” and 4% give themselves an “expert” rating).

  • “There is much / considerable room for improvement” in both the areas of pay equity and “benefit programs that appeal to a diverse workforce.”

  • Racial and ethnic diversity among the ranks of leaders and people managers continues to fall short of expectations based on the composition of the overall workforce. Women, too, continue to be underrepresented within the same ranks.

  • DEI work consumes no more than 20% of an HR Department’s time among most of the responding employers.

Yes, but progress has been made… right?

There’s no doubt that workplaces are more diverse than ever before along all dimensions: age, gender, race/ethnicity, gender orientation, and differently-abled. Progress on inclusivity has also been made. However, these results clearly show “there is much room for improvement,” as the report’s authors noted. Other studies also show the disconnect between DEI objectives and actual results, as highlighted below.


  • In the last five years, women have made little progress in leadership representation, with the biggest hurdle being reaching the “first rung” of the leadership ladder. That’s according to the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey, in partnership with LeanIn.Org. For every 100 men who are promoted into entry-level manager roles, only 87 women are promoted; it’s even worse for women of color, with only 82 breaking through.

  • With fewer women ever making the first step to leadership, future steps continue to be under-represented. The Women CEOs in America Report showed that merely 9% of the Fortune 500 are led by women.



  • Another area of underrepresentation in leadership is among the differently-abled. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that differently-abled people are under-represented compared to those without disabilities in jobs the BLS classifies as (typically higher paying) management, professional, and related occupations. The report also notes that individuals in those jobs who are differently-abled are often reluctant to disclose their status — and to seek out “reasonable accommodations” — for fear of future discriminatory promotion practices.

Enough with the statistics. Why are we falling short?

What if the approach to DEI work has had organizations focusing on the trees while neglecting the forest? What if by focusing on the diversity of and differences of individuals with the workforce we’ve been setting ourselves up for short-term gains but not achieving the long-term results we seek?

Perhaps, instead, by focusing on the forest — as in what unites us all as members of the society called Humanity — we can propel DEI initiatives further ahead. What if organizations could advance from the immature/emerging stage, beyond even the “advanced” or “expert” stage, to the ultimate goal: DEI+Belonging as a fait accompli?

A healthy forest creates healthy trees.

A biodiverse forest is a sign that nature’s cycles, such as the food web, nutrient exchange in the soil and the water cycle, are working well. With these cycles in good working order, the forest [and the individual trees within] is more resilient to disease and large, high-severity wildfires. —U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

So too with people. For us humans to thrive we need to exist within a supportive environment — an environment that provides and/or gives us access to the elements that enable us to fulfill both our basic and aspirational needs.

Borrowing from Maslow and others, these are the elements essential to individual wellbeing:

  • Nutritious food.

  • Shelter (in the broadest sense of that word, to support physical safety).

  • Acceptance and belonging (to support emotional safety).

  • Engagement of both the body and mind.

  • The ability to be successful in one’s endeavors, and have those successes recognized.

  • A sense of purpose and progress.

These are the essential elements that unite us all, regardless of our diversity groups, and make for a healthy forest, i.e., community. And employers contribute significantly — either positively or negatively— to each of these elements through their pay practices, benefit programs, HR policies, organizational culture, workplace safety, and more.

Over the decades, we’ve seen employers invest significantly in their employees “total wellbeing” and more recently in ensuring there is some level of “equity” within certain programs (primarily in the area of compensation), whether driven by regulations and/or a desire to do what’s right. But much more cultivation can be done.

Bringing the focus back to the individual.

Even in the healthiest forest, individual trees can wither. And some die. Perhaps the place they took root didn’t provide enough sunlight or water. Or maybe they were hit by a lightning strike. In this case, the necessary food and shelter weren’t in place. While many trees continue to thrive in the forests, some fall by the wayside.

With the right balance in place, most trees (of various types) can thrive in a diverse forest. Similarly, we have the power to create the right environment where individuals can thrive within highly diverse workforces and communities.

At this stage though, we need to consider the needs of various types of individuals within our human forest. Having established what we all need to thrive, we need to consider how well an organization's rewards and wellbeing programs are addressing the needs of the individual, across all dimensions of diversity; we need to assess whether the programs in place to support individual wellbeing are truly equitable and accessible, and delivered in a way that benefits all.

In other words, we can go a long way to ensure no one withers because the essential elements needed to thrive were out of reach.

(Program) Design thinking: Putting people at the center.

Without getting into the weeds (I couldn’t resist), let's consider applying design thinking to the work of program design, implementation, and ongoing execution. Simply put, design thinking is an effective methodology for improving existing products and services and solving problems. It’s core tenet places the user as the center of one’s thinking, to look at your product (or idea for a future product) from the perspective of your customer. To empathize with your customer and understand their needs and aspirations.

Of course, there isn’t a single “type” of customer, or employee. Which is where personas come in. When done well, a suite of personas is comprised of well thought out composites, not stereotypes, representing a particularly organization. But now I’m treading very close to getting into the weeds. So, let’s look at a few “rough sketch” personas and HR “products.”

Pay Equity

Most pay equity initiatives zero-in on ensuring that individuals doing the same job are being paid an appropriate amount based on (defensible) factors, such as years in the position and proficiency at a particular point of time.

But is this approach truly ensuring pay equity over the long-term, given that long-term success of DEI initiatives is what we’re aiming for? Let’s look at two (intentionally vague) personas:

Employee “A” and Employee “B” both join the organization at the same time directly from college. They both are provided the same starting salary and bonus target. After one year, they both are given the same salary increase, and their bonuses are comparable.

Fast-forward five years, and our two employees continue to be paid “equitably” within their grouping. However, Employee “B” is now in a different grouping, having risen two levels. “B’s” salary is now 30% higher than “A’s,” and their bonus differentials are in line with the salary differentials. (One can imagine that in another 10 years or so, “X” is a member of the executive team, while “A’s” advancement has been much slower.)

Superficially, this scenario can still be considered an example of equity. But what if “B” had material advantages that “A” did not? Perhaps someone mentored “B” and advocated for them, so that “B” was well positioned to advance while A did not have these same advantages? If this is the case — and it’s representative of a broader pattern within the organization — then it can be said that the organization’s pay equity practices hasn’t advanced to a mature state where all contributing factors to pay growth are integrated into a holistic program.

Then again… perhaps the cause for “A’s” lack of advancement is due to other factors. Perhaps “A” “self-selected” out of career advancement opportunities due to their significant responsibilities outside of work. Caring for an elderly parent or a special needs child could certainly impact “A’s” ability to invest in their career. This would seem to be a plausible reason for the differential and no further examination is needed.

But if “A’s” potential for growth and impact is on par with “B’s” (or even greater), then the organization is failing to maximize “A’s” potential to its own detriment. What programs (or modifications to existing programs) are needed to help “A” fulfill their personal responsibilities in a way that enables them to make a greater contribution at work?

Healthcare Benefits

On the surface, an employer’s healthcare benefits would appear to be fundamentally equitable. Employees (usually) get to choose the plans in which they want to enroll (and whom they want to cover) and they contribute an equal amount as other employees for that coverage. Additionally, many employers allow domestic partners to be covered, while some have established salary-based contribution structures so that lower-income employees pay less for coverage than their more highly compensated peers.

And yet…

Both Employees “X” and “Y” have neuro-diverse children who are struggling in school. This has begun to impact their performance at work, with both missing key deadlines and taking a lot of time off. Both “X” and “Y” have supportive managers who are well-versed in the company’s benefit offerings, and so “X” and “Y” are encouraged to reach out to the Employee Assistance Program and are reminded that the company’s medical plans provide coverage for mental health treatment.

With the help of the EAP, “X” chooses a qualified healthcare professional to assist their child — one who practices nearby and takes X’s employer-sponsored health insurance. Soon after starting their sessions, “X’s” child is performing better at school. And, thanks to X’s medical coverage, the cost for treatment was limited to affordable copayments. X’s performance improves along with their child’s health.

That’s a win for X, their child, and the company.

But what about “Y” and their child? For “Y,” the situation was more difficult, and costly, to navigate. After contacting the EAP and receiving just three recommendations to providers in their area, “Y” contacts each provider. One provider was no longer taking new patients; the other two never returned Y’s repeated calls.

Desperate to help her child, “Y” discusses the situation with her child’s school and a few close friends and receives a recommendation for a provider who is accepting new patients. Unfortunately, the provider isn’t near school or home and doesn’t accept insurance. Given the high out-of-pocket cost to “Y,” their child’s sessions are less frequent than those of “X’s” child.

Six months later, “Y's” child is still struggling, and as a result, so is "Y."

Despite the best intentions of the employer, “Y’s” experience with the health benefits offering was ineffective, negatively impacting “Y,” their child, and the company.

Succeeding in DEI starts with appreciating what unites us

I intentionally excluded from these scenarios any distinguishing characteristics of the employees. Why?

“A” and “B” should be able to avail themselves of (truly) equitable opportunities for development and advancement, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, gender orientation, or if one is differently-abled. Each are entitled (yes, I’m using the word “entitled”) to the type of support they need to be successful. Not only does this mean their employer realizes the full value of each employee’s potential, it’s the right thing to do.

And “X” and “Y” should both be able to avail themselves of the benefits within their employer’s healthcare plans — plans to which both “X” and “Y” (and their employer) make contributions to cover the cost of coverage. Where “Y” lives should not impact their ability to obtain the care their child needs. Simply put, coverage that’s equal but not accessible is not equitable.

As counter intuitive as it may seem, the first step toward advancing an organization’s DEI initiatives could be setting aside the differences inherent in their current (and desired future) diverse workforce and focus on what we all, as humans, need to thrive. Only then can we effectively focus on the different means required to create a workplace that is truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive for all.

We are grateful for the contributions of Kelly West, CEO of The MilesWest Group to this article.

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