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Supercharging Your DEI Efforts

Increasing investment, leveraging data, and aligning the organization

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is becoming an imperative for all organizations. Candidates, employees, and customers are demanding action and impact more than ever before. But many startup people leaders struggle to gather the resources, data, and leadership support they need to prioritize DEI initiatives. Others simply don’t know when or where to begin. 

In challenging economic conditions, it can be tempting for companies to de-prioritize DEI initiatives as a “nice to have.” However, strong people leaders know that embracing DEI creates lasting competitive talent advantages and strengthens the cultural tenants that keep employees engaged, aligned, and inspired.

To help CHROs in The Circle identify strategies to keep or build momentum with DEI, we invited three experts to share their knowledge on DEI strategy, goal-setting, and establishing organizational alignment: 

  • Sherida McMullan – VP of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging at GitLab (a Founders Circle portfolio company), overseeing DEI efforts across 1900+ employees. Before Gitlab, she led DEI at Lyft and Intel.
  • Marcus Sawyerr – Founder & CEO of EQ Community, a private network that connects mid-senior diverse leaders to one another and to inclusive companies for career opportunities.
  • Jenny Armstrong – Head of People at SeekOut (a Founders Circle portfolio company), an AI-powered talent platform that supports diversity hiring at enterprise organizations.

Here are the takeaways from the conversation:

Making DEI an Organizational Priority

While almost all people leaders agree that DEI is an important business and moral imperative, making DEI a priority within the organization and securing necessary resources can be challenging. A survey of the broader CHRO|Circle community revealed that ~20% of companies do not currently have a DEI program or dedicated efforts in place. For those who do, the most common program offerings are employee resource groups (ERGs), events, and internal DEI committees.

Interestingly, the survey revealed that while half of the companies have a leader (often manager- or director-level) or team leading their DEI efforts, only a small percentage actually have a dedicated DEI budget. More often, funding for DEI comes from the overall People function budget.

Companies have to start somewhere, and robust DEI programs require investment in many forms across the organization. “DEI cannot exist in a silo,” explained Sherida. “It requires input and support from leadership, adequate resources, a clear vision, and strong supporting data.” 

To really drive greater investment across the organization, companies need to be shifting the narrative on DEI:

“There’s been a false narrative about DEI being a box that companies should tick off. We advise our clients to think about DEI as a superpower.” – Marcus Sawyerr, CEO of EQ Community

To avoid the silo effect Sherida mentioned, a foundational element of DEI is embedding the concept into the company’s core values. Taking this even further, Seekout also created a supporting DEI-specific mission statement to drive an even more concrete vision of where the organization would like to be in the future. “Having that mission statement anchors DEI to the business so that it isn’t just a highlight, but rather a mission that everyone in the company lives,” Jenny said.

As for maintaining or increasing DEI investment during periods of economic uncertainty, it’s important to highlight to leadership that DEI is a powerful retention tool that mutually benefits everyone. “When you start digging into the data around how your underrepresented groups are performing or whether leadership is reflective of the community – those things don’t necessarily require a lot of dollars, and addressing them will result in a groundswell of support from everyone in the organization,” said Sherida. 

Unlocking Impact with Data

Gathering and maintaining accurate DEI data is critical for recognizing gaps in representation and opportunities to create a more inclusive environment. Companies that only capture gender and ethnicity data may be missing important insights about their underrepresented groups (“URGs”).

“Underrepresented” can take many forms depending on factors such as a company’s primary location, customer base, or sector of focus. The first step is creating a clear definition of URG for your company, which can be classified by age, disability, veteran status, gender identity, sexual orientation, and many other characteristics.

Once you’ve identified URGs within the organization, one metric to pay careful attention to is URG attrition. In any organization, attrition is healthy and expected; however, a higher-than-average attrition rate among URGs – particularly key talent or top performers – may indicate a major issue with belonging and inclusion.

It’s important to understand the factors driving URG attrition to ensure progression, promotion, and internal mobility is happening across the board for employees. Make sure you are giving your employees their flowers while they are there versus a dive-and catch reactive strategy to retain them.”- Sherida McMullan, VP of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging at GitLab

Gathering representation data can sometimes be challenging as it is often self-reported, and employees may be hesitant to share for various reasons. Jenny explained that Seekout sends diversity self-identification surveys to employees every six months and publishes its diversity stats on their website, an increasingly common practice. Survey responses aren’t mandatory: “we respect that employees have the right to share or not share that data,” she says. However, Jenny believes that their high response rates (90% or higher in some cases) can be attributed to the company’s shared commitment to greater transparency. 

“Being transparent with DEI data and showing our employees it’s being used to help create a more diverse and inclusive environment tends to make them feel more comfortable and willing to share.” – Jenny Armstrong, Head of People at SeekOut

As companies begin to collect a critical mass of DEI data, they can use systems like Ashby, BambooHR, Charthop, Culture Amp, or Workday to organize and operationalize that data.

Three Strategies to Improve Diversity Hiring

Hiring is always one of the biggest DEI challenges that companies face. To help improve the hiring pipeline and interview process, our experts offered three strategies:

  1. Diversify Senior Leadership – Marcus has found that companies with more diverse senior leaders tend to attract and retain more diverse employees. “Representation matters,” explained Marcus. “When prospective hires and current employees see senior leaders that represent them, they can feel more confident about what the organization will look like moving forward.” He also noted that senior leaders are a valuable referral source. Jenny agreed, adding: “If you have a diverse leadership team, they are going to drive diverse referrals.” As a point of context, she noted that 30% of SeekOut’s new hires in a given year came from employee referrals.
  2. Bring in Diverse Interviewers – Sherida recommended bringing in diverse employees within the organization to sit in on candidate interviews. They don’t necessarily have to be in the same functional area as the candidate. “Bring in your employee resource groups to sit in on interview panels,” said Sherida. “It gives that interviewee an opportunity to see somebody that may reflect who they are, and can also help diversify their network.”
  3. Ask Candidates Questions About DEI – Jenny advocated bringing conversations about DEI into the interview process. Doing so not only demonstrates the company’s commitment to DEI, but also helps prospective employees internalize why it’s important for them.  “Ask candidates what DEI means to them, or how they show up for their colleagues,” said Jenny. “We find that the candidates we are really interested in, who would augment our diversity in an amazing way, are incredibly appreciative when we do that.”

Aligning Passionate Employees

As DEI initiatives begin to activate across the organization, people leaders may encounter “rogue” communities or conversations happening among employees that may work with or against the overarching DEI strategy. Maintaining situational awareness of these efforts is critical. As one CHRO pointed out, there are very often specific regulations or data privacy considerations that need to govern DEI-related efforts within the organization.

Establishing dedicated forums and places where employees can share feedback or ideas can help mitigate some of these “rogue” efforts and ensure DEI conversations remain positive in intent. People leaders should always listen in and take part in these conversations, making sure the necessary legal or corporate communications are present. However, our experts agreed that employee participation in DEI is a net-positive outcome. “If you can bring employees along the journey, it will start to double down on your efforts and amplify your team’s work,” said Marcus.

The Takeaway:

As DEI becomes more of an organizational imperative, people leaders can continue to move the needle forward by creating a foundational strategy and vision, leveraging data, getting creative with hiring, and amplifying DEI conversations across the organization. 

Apply to join The Circle and access a private leadership community of CEOs, CFOs, and CHROs who give and get insights through peer-driven conversations like this every month.

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