Expectation vs Reality: Why it’s not enough to “Look the Part”

Published on:

September 11, 2023

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Knowledge bites

It’s 2023, and almost all businesses want to look like they are doing the right thing regarding Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. With numerous articles, studies, conferences and keynotes about how diverse businesses improve productivity, creativity and profitability – why wouldn’t a company want to be invested in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? 

There’s a big difference between looking the part and being a business that truly values diversity, equity and inclusion internally. This disconnect and gap are one of the many reasons why the word ‘diversity’ can prompt mixed responses and worse, scepticism among the very same people it’s trying to help. 

‘Looking the part’ can best be described as the public-facing activities that companies partake in to make it ‘appear like they are doing all of the right things; such as publishing DEI policies, hosting events and panels around diversity and external recruitment programmes, and sometimes even receiving awards for short term initiatives. This brings forward the question, what are businesses truly doing to implement long-term change internally?

One of the core problems with ‘looking the part’ is that it’s not sustainable or impactful for creating an organisation that values and retains diverse talent. It creates an illusion of progress and doesn’t address the tough questions or root causes of the issues plaguing an organisation. Without doing the proper work to address these issues internally, efforts can fall completely flat. An example of this is the mass hiring of diversity, equity and inclusion leaders following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. DEI roles increased by 55% following demands for broader racial equity and justice after Floyd’s murder, the Society for Human Resource Management reported in 2020. However, three years on; these roles were often the first to go during company layoffs. The attrition rate for DEI roles was 33% at the end of 2022, compared to 21% for non-DEI roles. 

While there could be many reasons for this, often, corporate pledges to impact change aren’t usually followed by authenticity and proper effort. It is easy to declare that your company has a zero-tolerance policy for racism. It is easy to publish a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in your business. What’s not easy is building a culture of psychological safety internally, so that your employees can approach their managers with any problems, without repercussions on their careers. What’s not easy is ensuring that for every public commitment you make, you are being held properly accountable for it – both internally and externally.

“So many of these individuals were receiving these great salaries, but in reality, they were wearing golden handcuffs, unable to do but so much because the organisation leaders didn’t want much done.”

Tai Robinson, HR Professional

Accountability plays a large role in becoming truly inclusive. How your business values diversity, equity and inclusion when people aren’t watching and ensuring that your internal changemakers are set up for success, is essential. Like most things in business, this transformation starts and ends with leadership. A lack of support from leadership usually leaves action dead in the water. When asked about DEI positions in businesses, Tai Robinson, a human resources professional in Houston, said: “So many of these individuals were receiving these great salaries, but in reality, they were wearing golden handcuffs, unable to do but so much because the organisation leaders didn’t want much done.”

To bridge the gap between looking the part and being a truly inclusive business, companies must commit to long-term, sustained efforts. This includes establishing clear goals and metrics to measure progress. Holding leadership accountable for driving change, and regularly evaluating and adapting strategies to address evolving challenges and bottlenecks. 

If you would like to learn about how we’re supporting the retention and advancement of ethnic talent in the workplace, explore our Leadership Catalyst Programme here.

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About the Author

Sarah Hayford is the Events & Community Manager at Roots Inspire, supporting the delivery of internal events and engaging with members on our leadership programmes. Alongside her work at Roots Inspire, Sarah is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer of The Land Collective, a social mobility organisation that works with employers, schools, and universities to develop the next generation of diverse leaders in real estate and the built environment. Sarah is passionate about early talent and breaking down barriers to entry to create sustainable and diverse pipelines.

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