The Critical Role of Executives in Promoting DEI in the Workplace

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power of executives in DEI - man at a podium in front of an audience
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Many times when we discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in a workplace environment, the initial spark comes from individuals who may not be in positions of power, positions of leadership, or have the ability to enforce sweeping change at the organizational level. While this is one way to get a company to start engaging with DEI, this can present a challenge when the company has to actually start doing DEI work beyond merely talking about it, or engaging in optical efforts. When I speak with clients about how to generate lasting change, I always state that the effort needs to come from both employees (bottom-up) and from leadership (top-down). What sometimes goes unsaid is the extra emphasis that needs to get placed on that top-down piece. 

Like it or not, executive leadership has a unique role in that what gets rolled out from the top will always carry extra motivation and value, due to the positionality of those in leadership roles. As such, if executives are not excited about or supportive of DEI initiatives, it will show. I’ve seen many a DEI program fail to land as effectively as it could have because the people who cared and who were putting in the work were not those who held all the power. Conversely, I’ve also seen organizations where overall, DEI was not necessarily a top-line item for those in their day-to-day work. But, with the help and support of a passionate and engaged executive team, the organization bought into the importance of the initiative. 

I’m reminded of one organization that we worked with. We ran a pilot program that was designed to be a long-form, deep dive into DEI and supporting behavioral change. The program was opt-in, but the program sponsor was having a difficult time recruiting participants to sign up until the CEO and the COO joined the program. All of a sudden, there was explicit support for the pilot, and we had to shut down registration due to a lack of available seats. Employees realized that: 

  • senior leadership was interested in DEI work; 
  • leaders thought that DEI work was valuable enough to spend real, dedicated time out of their week; 
  • the company overall valued DEI work;
  • these efforts would be supported, instead of downplayed 

The simple act of these two leaders signing up for this program gave SGO more credibility and lowered resistance in an instant than we could have generated over months of discussions. 

Executives play a critical role in supporting DEI in the workplace. They’re responsible for setting the tone and direction of company culture, policies, and practices, and can make or break the success of DEI at an organizational level. 

Here are a few additional ways in which you can promote diversity, equity, and inclusion as an executive:

  • Set the tone: When you lead by example, they send the message that DEI work is valued, critical, and essential. 
  • Be explicit: Instead of placing the brunt of the work on others, even if DEI is in their title, you can talk about how you embody inclusive leadership on a daily basis, and at the strategic level. This can look like publicly sharing out learnings, tying DEI goals to performance reviews, and discussing what the company is doing with respect to DEI at company all-staff meetings. 
  • Support a diverse workforce: Support your company in actively seeking out and recruiting individuals from diverse backgrounds. You can do this by setting diversity goals, tracking progress, and holding yourself accountable for achieving those goals. If the executive team is homogenous, take real, actionable steps to talk about it, and do something about it. 
  • Create a psychologically safe environment: Ensure that all employees feel included and valued. Be open to holding space for difficult conversations and be willing to give and receive tough, critical feedback. 
  • Create an inclusive environment: Provide budget and support for training and resources to help employees understand and appreciate diversity. Ensure that the organizational policies and practices promote DEI. For example, are there supplier and vendor diversity guidelines in place? Has the employee handbook been reviewed for inclusive language? 
  • Support pay equity: If there has never been a pay equity audit, run one. Share the findings and address any areas of inequity that arise. 

By actively promoting DEI in the workplace, you can play a huge and impactful role in creating a more inclusive, equitable, diverse, and innovative workplace culture. This, in turn, can lead to greater creativity, better decision-making, and improved business outcomes. If you let the work of supporting DEI fall on the shoulders of others with less power, you’ll never see the results you desire.