How to Achieve Authentic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Work  

Updated from the original article published 9/16/2020.

Our Ask the Coach series shares perspectives from experienced coaches and consultants working to build strong leaders, teams and organization. In this interview, we share our conversation with Danielle Marshall, founder of the diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm Culture Principles. Connect with Danielle to learn more about her work and services. 

RB: Thanks for joining me today Danielle. For starters, how would you describe the work you do, and how did you come to it?

DM: My current work is focused on racial equity, diversity and inclusion. I’ve been learning and engaging in this space throughout my career, though it’s been more intentional over the last couple of years. (I’ve also become certified as a diversity professional during this time.) In my previous role as an executive director, I spent a lot of time thinking through how these issues impacted my team – our ability to do the work that we needed to do to meet our goals as well as thinking about how the broader community is impacted by equitable practices.   

Right now I’m doing everything from leading racial equity workshops where clients are focused on building awareness within a particular organization to helping businesses and organizations begin to operationalize their vision for a racially equitable culture. This is really important as people are deep in conversation about where they want to be and have no clear path of how to get there. My role is to help them focus on strategy and implementation. Ideally, tying it back to the company’s business or strategic plans.

RB: What do you consider to be the key hallmarks of a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace?

DM:I think about diversity and inclusion as having a variety of people, cultures, abilities, voices and experiences represented at all levels of an organization. And allowing those individuals to show up as their full selves, contribute to day-to-day decisions, and see themselves represented and appreciated throughout the organization. 

On the equity side, it’s making sure that the policies and practices themselves are equitable in nature. That can be anything from equitability in pay, to how performance reviews are done, to making sure all team members have the skills, knowledge and resources they need to be successful in their roles. 

RB: I like that you define equitability as access to what is needed for success. I was listening to a podcast recently that made this distinction: equality is giving everyone the same thing, and equity is giving everyone what they need. That seems simple and right. So, what might some of those equitable practices look like?

DM: One example is making sure that cultural competencies and equity are embedded in performance reviews. It’s one one thing to say we respect differences, but how are we holding folks accountable for being culturally proficient? It is not uncommon to see performance evaluations ask how the employee has met expectations; which is simple enough until we dig deeper. Were the expectations clear and outlined ahead of time? Do they apply to all employees in the same role? Was the employee provided the resources needed to be successful? And what assumptions or biases may be impacting the lens of the reviewing manager? Another example might be disaggregating the data to look at racial divides on metrics like salaries, promotions, and speed of promotions. So really breaking out the numbers and being clear on goals. 

RB: Since George Floyd’s death in May and the widespread response to it and other forms of systemic racism, there’s been an explosion in the conversation around DEI initiatives in the private and public sectors. What issues are you seeing leaders and managers in your network face after this recent shift? 

DM: The big thing now is that there’s a huge focus on raising awareness. Some organizations have begun to pivot towards actions. Others are struggling with how to move past the awareness phase. They may be afraid of what it might mean for their company. They’re thinking What will we find? Can we handle it? And in some cases realizing once they have started the conversation they do not have the skills to advance it further. Plus, lots of companies are still dealing with COVID. They may be worrying about not having the funds, or capacity in manpower or brainpower, to do this right now. 

Additionally, not everyone has bought into why racial equity is needed in the business space. 

They may not fully appreciate the structural element of racism within businesses, or know the laws and policies that have been used to oppress groups of people of color. This is something people really need to reckon with, as our country was founded on principles and norms designed to foster inequities.

I’ve seen organizations that have, for example, brought on new staff or board members of color in recent months. And this is great, we want to see this. However, these actions can’t be pacifying acts, and there must be a focus on changing the internal culture or the same people who just joined the team will exit when they experience the toxicity of a culture built around systemic racism. 

RB: We are seeing a lot of companies engage in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at the enterprise level. But small and medium businesses are a huge part of the economic landscape too. What advice would you give to small organizations that want to roll out a DEI strategy but don’t have enterprise-level resources? What is the best first step?

DM: The best first step is understanding that you and your company are still part of the world. If small nonprofits can do this work, so can small businesses. 

Start by educating yourself. There are many resources available right now. One I recommend is Racial Equity Tools, which has one of the strongest resource banks I’ve seen. But there are many, many organizations who have been doing this for years and are just now being recognized for their work.

Something all of us can do right now is try to better understand structural racism.. It’s only by understanding racism as a system that we can begin to intentionally clear room for multiple perspectives and cultures to coexist. 

Talk to your employees about how they see these structures at work. The most frequent comment I hear is: I’m afraid of getting this wrong. But, simply put, refusing to acknowledge a pain point is not a solution. 

One powerful metaphor I heard recently is this: If you buy a house and it’s dilapidated and falling down, you are not responsible for the decay that occurs before you bought the property. You are, however, responsible today for ensuring it is structurally sound and making improvements. This is the work we all have to do around structural racism. We may not have built the system, but we are responsible for dismantling it.

RB: We love data here at RallyBright, because we use it to help leaders assess team strengths and identify skill or knowledge gaps. What are the key metrics you think organizations should track as part of their DEI efforts? Does demographic data tell the whole story?

DM: No, demographics don’t tell the whole story. Diversity is both visible and invisible. We often see race and ethnicity, but not always, and age and gender, to some extent, are visible. When we consider religion, education level, and other factors that comprise a person’s identity and experience they are less visible..  

Understanding the data across diversity metrics is important, and so is what you are doing with that data. Are you looking with an equity lens at engagement and job satisfaction levels? What about who is being promoted and at what rate? What about your vendors? Do they have diversity initiatives? Do they source materials from BIPOC [black, Indigenous and people of color]? Are you offering mentoring or sponsorship, and to whom? We can track things like engagement and companies can say 80 percent of our workforce is engaged – but who are those employees? Slicing and dicing your data with an equity lens will help you understand the gaps and provide you the knowledge to begin to take steps to address them.. 

It’s also really important to gauge if these data sets are actually moving you towards success. Have clear milestones, goals and timeframes, and make sure you get input from folks who are diverse. I’m a big fan of SMART goals in this respect. [SMART is a popular goal-setting technique mandating that goals be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based]. It is not enough to say we want to diversify our workplace or make it a more equitable and inclusive environment. We must be able to demonstrate how we are going to get there. Or as the old adage goes, “What gets measured gets done.”

RB: The idea of creating a “culture of belonging” at work has been a big conversation within inclusion strategies in recent years. From an individual contributor level, what are some everyday behaviors people can adopt if they want to strengthen a culture of belonging at their workplace?

DM: On the individual level, it’s interpersonal. Are you building relationships with people who are different from you? Are you providing opportunities for people to show up as their full selves? Cultural differences influence everything from what meals people feel comfortable heating up at work to what office activities appeal to them. For example, happy hours are common office activities, but not everyone wants or can be part of them. They may not drink for cultural or religious reasons, or perhaps they don’t have child care. Sometimes BIPOC are just exhausted at the end of a workday from playing the role of fitting into white culture. Yet, many business deals happen after hours and are built on relationships.

The takeaway here is to make sure you’re not contributing to a punitive environment for folks who don’t engage in dinner, or drinks, or bowling, or whatever. Employees can still be team players without doing these things. We all want to belong, so make sincere efforts to get to know your colleagues as people. Feeling known and understood helps make people feel valued. 

RB: Is there anything else about diversity, equity and inclusion you want people to know?

DM: Racial equity is a human concern, and there’s also a very strong business case for it. The Kellogg Foundation published a study projecting that, by the year 2050, the U.S. could achieve an $8 trillion gain in GDP by closing the racial equity gap. That is massive. Think of the income and tax base lost to educational disparities or an inequitable prison system. Or the losses from inequitable access to capital, transportation, and commerce. All of these aspects affect earning potential. Racial inequity hampers economic growth, and if we overcome it, we widen the pie for everyone.