Ninety-three percent of leaders view diversity, equity and inclusion as more important now than three years ago, according to a Sept. 29 report from Heidrick & Struggles. Up from 20% in 2019, 58% of employers told the firm that their companies engage in diversity-focused initiatives that were considered “leading edge” three years ago.
About half of business leaders said employees — more so than customers — drove internal pushes toward DEI conversations. Many executives touted the benefits of improved employee engagement and corporate reputation due to increased emphasis on DEI initiatives.
Heidrick & Struggles researchers said in a press release announcing their findings that normalization of hybrid work laid a foundation of deferring to employees’ wishes — and that worker engagement is integral to winning “the enduring war for talent.”
Researchers identified several best practices for fostering a positive, DEI-first workplace culture. Some of the steps recommended by Heidrick & Struggles — for example, treating DEI with the same urgency and reverence as any other business outcome — may feel rudimentary for HR pros. But the report also recommended executive accountability regarding DEI goal follow-through, intentional engagement with employees around inclusion and board participation in championing DEI progress.
A key passage in the report identified “role modeling by leaders” and fostering “systemic alignment” as best practices that put best-in-class DEI programs ahead of their peers, per Heidrick & Struggles’ data. At the gold-standard companies, a cohort which researchers called the Vanguard, managers sought to “create a psychologically safe environment” by respecting diversity and differences, the report said. Likewise, senior executives at these companies are “role-modeling inclusive leadership.”
Systemic alignment, in turn, looks like “regular communication from leaders about the strategic importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and progress toward those goals. Gold-standard companies also clearly define and communicate the company’s purpose internally as well as externally, through statements, products and services.
Because many companies did not historically see diversity, equity and inclusion as a core aspect of performance, they also didn’t see it as one that leaders should particularly focus on in shaping cultures. “Today, it’s clear that that approach is insufficient to meet the expectations of employees,” researchers said. “And, as so many other corporate initiatives have shown, sustained behavior change always requires systemic support.”