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How to develop a successful DEI strategy

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Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) continues to gain frequent mentions as one of the top people and business priorities. But how many employers are still falling short on transforming their DEI strategy into action? And is it still a priority at an organisation’s highest levels?

Certainly, increased scrutiny of DEI programming has caused leaders to think twice about their approach. However, DEI progress continues to offer proven benefits, and leaders would be remiss if they didn’t take note.

This article explores actionable steps employers can take to remain committed to DEI by developing a DEI strategy that won’t get stuck in neutral.

Defining DEI

Diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, is a group of organisational practices that focuses on creating an environment where people from diverse backgrounds feel respected, valued and included. Though DEI is often referred to together, each element has a unique meaning:

Diversity describes the representation of different demographics and characteristics among a group of people. This may include race, ethnicity, nationality, cultural background, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability status or veteran status. It can also include socioeconomic background, education, neurodiversity and other characteristics.

Equity is when all people of diverse backgrounds have meaningful access to the same opportunities to progress and succeed. This may be related to their career, education, health, financial security or environment.

Inclusion is when people of diverse backgrounds feel integrated and welcome in a group, such as a team in the workplace.

DEI is often implemented through policies, practices, programming, training and monetary investments. These efforts are intended to promote understanding among different groups of people, improve representation, and challenge biases and systemic inequalities within the organisation.

What is a DEI strategy?

A DEI strategy is a plan of action that provides structure and direction to an organisation’s approach to DEI. A DEI strategy establishes goals, budget limits, key performance indicators, a timeline for achieving goals, and other important strategic elements. It also helps determine who has ownership over DEI and define the organisation’s commitment to DEI.

The business case for a DEI strategy

Research shows that improvements in DEI lead to improvements in talent and other business-related key performance indicators.

By recognising these benefits, organisations can build a workplace environment that drives growth while supporting better people outcomes.

Developing a successful DEI strategy

What makes a DEI strategy successful? The answer may vary slightly for every organisation. The following, however, are key steps that all organisations should consider:

1. Set strong goals that you’re prepared to commit to

When setting goals, take extra care to ensure that the organisation can truly commit to and take action on them. Making unrealistic commitments can lead to being perceived as inauthentic, which will ultimately harm your DEI and business outcomes.

“It’s easy to say something,” says Sabina Mehmood, pay equity leader at Brightmine. “Walk the walk, not just talk the talk may be a cliché, but that’s still where we are to a degree.”

To show that an organisation’s commitment to DEI is authentic and sustainable, Mehmood stresses communicating with employees at all levels of the organisation, even if it means acknowledging the need to do more. “It’s ok to say ‘we got it wrong, but this is what we’re doing now and will prioritise,’” says Mehmood. “You can pivot as long as you’re explaining what’s happening and why.”

For a DEI strategy achieve its goals, it needs to have the appropriate resources. When setting short- and long-term goals, be sure to consider what resources are needed to make sustainable progress on each goal. This may include:

2. Ensure DEI is top priority

Organisations that make DEI a top priority see more benefits (employee engagement, turnover and NPS) than organisations that do not.

One way to do this is by having the organisation’s Chief Diversity Officer—or a powerful equivalent—reporting directly to the CEO as part of the C-Suite. Doing this ensures DEI doesn’t become peripheral initiative, but rather a core component of the organisational strategy.

Regardless of the trend, securing leadership commitment to and oversight of the DEI strategy is key, as it keeps the strategy in alignment with the greater business strategy. This is even more important in a time when DEI may face new legal and social challenges in certain markets.

3. Leverage DEI-focused people analytics

People analytics capabilities and software have made huge advancements in recent years. But in the realm of DEI, a big challenge remains: the lack of self-identification among employees.

To measure certain DEI metrics, employers need demographic information about their employees. This information is usually only available through self-identification. And, it’s still often difficult to come by, as employees often choose not to self-identify for fear of discrimination.

For many, it can still feel easier to “stay in the closet,” says Joy Stephens of New Heights A&L Consulting. She promotes having an environment where supervisors ask, “What do you need to make this easier?” That way, employees do not feel a need to hide a part of who they are.

Additionally, ERGs and mentorship programs can go a long way to making people feel more comfortable self-identifying and having a greater sense of belonging. “Generation Z, in particular, expects ample ERGs and is pushing that in the workforce,” adds Stephens. Other generations are taking note too, and view the existence of a broad array of ERGs as an important element when evaluating employers.

4. Prioritise removing systemic barriers

Systemic barriers continue to exist for many segments of the workforce. A common refrain among some employers is that they wish to further diversify their ranks but are having trouble finding talent. But that lament doesn’t hold up for Sabina Mehmood.

“Don’t just say there aren’t enough women in tech,” says Mehmood. “You may not be looking in the right places.” Having a diverse recruiting team helps in this regard as does undertaking specific efforts such as reaching out to likely sources of diverse candidates. Likely sources include:

  • Women’s colleges and universities.
  • Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
  • Diverse professional groups.

It’s also critical to understand representation at each level of the organisation. For instance, an employer may be doing well with diversity overall, but what are the numbers up the managerial chain?

Companies can address systemic barriers by looking at the challenges facing each specific group. This includes ensuring there are formalised mentorship programs in place so that all employees—including underrepresented employees—have access to promotional opportunities.

Also, don’t be afraid to reevaluate what is being measured and adjust as you go. For instance, Mehmood noted that a company can have a great family leave policy, but it’s important to examine when people are coming back. “If 24 weeks leave is available, but women are coming back nine or 10 weeks early, you need to find out why,” she says. This also applies with other forms of leave.

5. Advance pay equity

Advancing pay equity involves establishing policies and practices that ensure fair pay for all employees. Though it’s often discussed the context of gender, pay equity among other demograhics is also a top DEI issue that impacts talent management, engagement and more.

6. Measure progress on key DEI metrics

Once a DEI strategy is in motion, it’s time to measure progress to ensure the organisation’s efforts are resulting in real, sustainable improvements.

In addition to monitoring traditional diversity-focused metrics, such as employee representation and recruitment success for diverse employees, it’s imperative that organisations also monitor equity and inclusion metrics.

This often requires reviewing common people analytics metrics through a DEI lens, including:

  • Job statisfaction.
  • Engagement.
  • Wellbeing.
  • Promotion rates.
  • Net promoter score (NPS).
  • Average employee tenure.
  • Psychological safety.
  • Other metrics that speak to the employee experience.

Data collected to measure progress should be both quantitative and qualitative. And where employee feedback is requested, be sure to provide anonymity.


Advancing DEI ultimately is a marathon, not a sprint. Accelerating these initiatives with a DEI strategy takes time. But building steady momentum through the above steps is crucial for an organisation to make meaningful progress.

And remember: there is no one-size-fits-all approach. DEI is about growth and retention, and ensuring that employees are seeing progress in the form of opportunities, investment and outreach.

“Continue moving away from check-the-box themes and remember there are real people behind these numbers,” advises Mehmood. And above all, communicate and be transparent in addressing any gaps that may exist.