The Role of Engagement in DEI

There’s a lot of buzz about employee engagement these days—especially as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, a fairly recent article in Harvard Business Review claimed that businesses in the U.S. invest approximately $8 billion annually on DEI initiatives and training. The question that raises is are these investments worth it? Do they in fact engage employees as intended, or are they merely symbolic in nature—talking the talk, rather than walking the walk? 

When we talk about employee engagement, we’re referring to how valued and committed workers feel in relation to their employers. It’s not a new concept at all, having been a topic among management professionals since the 1970s; primarily discussed as part of employee job satisfaction and the challenge in ensuring long-term employee loyalty. However, since then, increased globalization has basically made the concept of a lifelong commitment to a single employer little more than a distant memory. 

The Intersection Between Engagement & DEI

So, what’s the nexus between DEI and engagement, and why is it so important? Or is it? If recent studies from credible research organizations are believed, some 40 percent (40%) of workers say they feel “isolated” in the workplace. That’s a staggering number indeed and a testament to the need for management to ensure that employees feel a greater sense of belonging and real value for their contributions to the company or organizations that employ them. This is where DEI and engagement intersect—and leaders are paying attention and finally making the much-needed investments required to improve the employee experience across all dimensions for greater growth, productivity, and reputational success. 

While diversity and inclusion are key drivers of engagement in the workplace, the role of equity in the equation is a bit more nuanced and complex in global terms; since equity as an element is more of a U.S.-centric priority. Contrarily, in Europe and other regions, the focus might shift from “equity”—meaning access to opportunity, advancement, and compensatory fairness—to the more widespread concept of “equality.” It’s a nuanced distinction, but an important one. For example, equity refers to the allocation of resources based on the needs of individuals based on their backgrounds and personal circumstances; whereas equality in this context means providing everyone with the same resources despite their specific needs. With that understood and accepted, we can then more fully address how engagement can be increased drive DEI success to benefit organizations in terms of their viability and bottom lines. 

Increasing Engagement in Diverse Organizations

There are myriad ways to increase and sustain employee engagement—many quite obvious and others not quite so. Of course, things like communication, training, and recognition are critical—but not in isolation. They have to be part of a much larger, and holistic, strategy and approach. The belief that DEI is an adjunct organizational value—and not a core value—will be reflected in poor performance and wasted investments of time and resources. 

Far too often, training and development programs start and stop within the first few months after hiring as part of the onboarding process. There are five central focus areas within the onboarding process, including, compliance, clarification, confidence, and culture – commonly referred to as the “Five C’s.” Obviously, DEI is mainly considered a focus area related to organizational culture—which is critical to any organization’s success from a people and productivity standpoint. 

Very often, culture is the responsibility of HR, but it has to be embedded more widely across an enterprise as a strategic priority that everyone is responsible for promoting. It has very little impact if it’s perceived as the sole provenance and responsibility of one unit in a complex matrixed, simple, or flat, organizational structure. The saying that diversity and inclusion are everyone’s responsibility is a fact, not a platitude—and it’s important to reflect that from the very first point of contact with prospective employees, regardless of whether they are hired or not. Making clear that everyone is welcome sends a positive message that has a major impact on the overall brand and identity. It will also weed out candidates that feel less than enthusiastic about DEI and who might prove a poor fit in the long term despite their skills and other personal attributes. 

Sustaining Engagement

Every policy, practice, or program implemented by a company has to take DEI into consideration to fully instill diversity and inclusion as a core value to demonstrate real commitment from management. This means that training and development don’t stop with onboarding but extend throughout the entire career cycle of employees no matter their role or level. Increasingly organizations have realized this. For instance, a 2018 study conducted by LinkedIn, found that 94 percent (94%) of employees would stay longer in companies that expressed a commitment to robust professional development programs. This employee expectation presents an excellent opportunity for leaders to devise training programs that reinforce and expand on the core learnings from onboarding related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Sustained engagement is business-critical and delivers demonstrable ROI when effectively implemented. When done right organizations enjoy more successful recruitment, higher retention, lower attrition, and increased innovation and productivity—not to mention a stronger degree of overall employee satisfaction which impacts customer satisfaction. 

So when you hear the term engagement in every meeting and interaction—just be aware that it’s not some faddish business term that will fade over time. It’s always been an important business objective, and it will remain top-of-mind for some time to come.  

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