Why are firms grappling with DEI – and how can they build truly inclusive cultures?


Debra Timmerman

Vice President, MSP Solutions, Direct Sourcing, Career Transitions and Executive Coaching

The events of the past two years have shone a spotlight on the importance of improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in business. As many leaders have recognized, DEI is critical for their brand and their business’s standing in the community. And putting it at the heart of their organizations’ values both improves satisfaction across the existing workforce and helps them tap into the talents of a much deeper pool of potential employees.

Yet in my conversations with HR leaders, I find that many organizations are still struggling to get the traction they want on DEI. It is an impression that’s reinforced by our 2022 Re:work Report, which surveyed 1,000 senior executives across 12 countries. Just over half (51%) said they are less successful in promoting workers from underrepresented groups into senior roles, while 49% seemed skeptical about their organization’s commitment to DEI, saying that their DEI strategy only pays lip service to supporting talent from underrepresented groups.

But the research found that “Vanguard” firms – a small cohort of companies that report higher levels of employee wellbeing and productivity, as well as stronger financial performance – have made greater strides forward on DEI. What can we learn from their approach? I believe six lessons stand out.

1. Open up to discuss DEI with employees

One of the factors that sets the Vanguards apart is their senior executives’ willingness to discuss DEI openly. 82% of this group say that senior managers regularly engage with employees on the firm’s DEI challenges, compared with just 60% among the rest. It can transform the conversation.

“We try to help our senior leadership to be spokespeople and to do their own stories on things that they may be dealing with personally or in their families,” says Anthony Webster, EVP and CHRO, Evoqua Water Technologies. “It makes it real and authentic for people.”

It is equally important to make sure senior leaders are listening, too. Companies can’t be genuinely inclusive if they don’t bring employees into the conversation and hear their viewpoints on how DEI can be improved.

2. Act fast on toxic behavior

Nothing sends a stronger signal that leaders are committed to inclusion than moving fast when someone acts inappropriately. Vanguard firms are far more likely than others to have strong processes in place for reporting discrimination or harassment (86% vs 64%).

Leaders in the Vanguards were also substantially more likely to report that their organization moved quickly to address toxic, discriminatory or bullying behaviors (47% vs 31% among the rest).

3. Take a skills-based approach to recruiting talent

I see more and more employers starting to realize that focusing on candidates’ educational backgrounds and professional experiences can hold back their diversity strategies, simply because candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds may have had limited opportunities earlier in life. Recruiters can turn that around by focusing on skillsets instead.

Our research found that 81% of Vanguards give equal weight to a candidate’s skillset relative to their academic qualifications or prior experience (vs 68% of the rest). Almost half (45%) even say they are reconsidering candidates they previously turned down due to their lack of conventional credentials (vs 35% of the rest).

This shift encourages hiring managers to look at more candidates from diverse socioeconomic groups and can help bring new perspectives and ideas into the organization.

4. Recognize the value of neurodiversity

In my conversations with clients, the importance of neurodiversity – the concept that different people’s minds work differently and there is no single “right” way of thinking – is fast being recognized by more companies. It can be a brilliant route to expanding an organization’s talent pool.

We know this first-hand: our Kelly Discover program is an all-in-one engagement platform that connects employers with neurodiverse “opportunity talent” (individuals from previously untapped demographics), and underrepresented talent channels for full-time and contingent roles.

Once again, the Vanguards lead the way: 28% have implemented programs to support neurodiverse employees, compared with 21% of the rest. I hope to see many more organizations building neurodiversity into their DEI strategies soon.

5. Ensure inclusion works for hybrid and contingent workers

Modern fluid workforces combine employees who enjoy a range of different employment contracts and working arrangements – from on-site to remote workers, permanent staff to contingent workers. DEI must include them all, yet our research suggests divisions could be emerging. Contingency workers are sometimes treated differently to permanent employees. And our survey found that about one-quarter of executives think in-office workers are more likely to be regarded as high-performers, and promoted, than remote workers.

Everyone benefits from the range of working patterns and contracts found in today’s workforces, which underpin workforce agility. Employers need to wake up to the risk of divisions emerging between different groups and build inclusive cultures that work for all employees, no matter how they do their jobs.

6. Look beyond quotas and turn ambition into action

We all know that if you want to deliver a change, you need clear targets that you can measure against. But DEI isn’t just about hitting the numbers for representation of different groups. It means nurturing a culture of equality, openness, and belonging, where people feel safe bringing their whole selves to work and don’t downplay the things that make them who they are. The data shows that Vanguard firms are far more likely to support such a culture. Employee advocacy groups, sponsorship programs, and development programs to support the progression of talent from underrepresented groups can all play a role – and are all more common among Vanguards.

We know DEI has been higher than ever on the HR community’s agenda over the past two years. We would love to hear how you think businesses are doing – and how the challenge is evolving. To share your views, or for a chat about how we might support your DEI goals, please get in touch.


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