Faced with a difficult macroeconomic environment, businesses must make difficult decisions about how to spend their limited resources. This makes it a good time to ensure that DEI responsibilities are embedded in your core business processes and practices. The author offers three strategies to help: 1) Embed DEI in your annual goal setting; 2) Complement your DEI team with external partners to meet your evolving needs; and 3) Make DEI part of your corporate operating and communications agenda.
Layoffs and hiring freezes in the tech industry and beyond hurts the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) teams, putting carefully crafted efforts to build more inclusive workplaces at risk. Time will tell if the commitments made by companies in 2020 and 2021 are not true or a flash in the pan, a fear of many DEI practitioners and employees from marginalized groups.
In the meantime, an urgent question remains: What can organizations do today in the face of a difficult macro environment and limited resources? The need for change does not disappear simply because budgets are reduced.
Recession-proof DEI comes from making DEI practices fundamental to an organization’s workflow. The current shortage presents an opportunity for organizations to ensure that DEI is embedded in core business processes and practices. These three strategies can help.
1. Embed DEI in your annual-goal setting.
At Upwork, we pass the baton of DEI accountability and empowerment from HR to department leaders. To make it work, we do templates for an annual diversity, inclusion, and belonging plan that each vice president is required to submit as part of their annual goal-setting process. The templates, based on our corporate DEI goals, enable VPs to set department-specific metrics and a cadence of strategic reviews. Leaders are invited to share their observations, generate hypotheses on causes and commit to no more than a few annual DEI actions.
2. Complement your DEI team with external partners to meet your evolving needs.
Effective DEI teams evolve with agility as they meet changing business needs, priorities, and economics. For example, over the past three years, our Upwork needs have evolved in the following ways:
- In 2020, we prioritized training hiring managers to increase the rigor of their decisions, as well as the inclusion and retention of our Black employees.
- In 2021, we invested heavily in community building and engagement, including 53 events to broaden the horizons of team members from marginalized identity groups.
- By 2022, we are focused on providing access to professional development, partnering with the McKinsey Management Accelerator to build leadership and management capabilities for Black, Latinx, and Asian emerging leaders, and partnering with Korn Ferry LeadershipU to empower LGBTQ+ (senior) managers to support their teams through today’s many challenges.
We have a small but very flexible hybrid DEI team (composed of 60% freelancers) to ensure we have the organizational capacity to meet these evolving needs. Our corporate positions are for evergreen workstreams where we will need long-term leadership and change management. Our contract roles are for time-bound strategic programs or evolutions, and we collaborate with external organizations to accelerate delivery time, protect team time and capacity and/or increase our content expertise inside.
3. Make DEI a core part of your corporate operating and communications agenda.
As with any new corporate strategy, your DEI efforts will face natural pivots, setbacks, and changes. Most employees will accept a shift in strategy as long as communication is constant and transparent.
To avoid DEI becoming a nice rainy day event — especially at a time when workers are wary of companies’ commitments being raised — make sure you keep your efforts glowing. Develop a cadence of public reporting of progress against your goals, and prepare visibility in your current company meetings and rituals.
For example, at Upwork, along with my HR peers, I report monthly to our executive leadership team on our topline DIB goals and key results. Our senior DIB director meets bimonthly with the vice presidents to review progress against their annual DIB plans. Our weekly all-company ConnectUp forum often includes timely DIB and culture updates for all team members, who play an active role in developing a psychologically safe, fair and inclusive environment.
Consistent communication in these formal channels – along with more casual updates and pushback via Slack – legitimizes DEI as core to organizational health and reinforces mutual accountability for those consequence of DEI.
. . .
You don’t need a seven-figure budget to enable team members to drive systemic change. In fact, I dream of a day when companies don’t need dedicated DEI teams. There is added value in having a specialized function with deep expertise, but real progress is realized when the impact of DEI can occur without it. In the face of economic uncertainty and scarcity, there is no time like the present for organizations to test their readiness for a truly mature organization, where DEI is essential to how it works.