What Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace Really Means

As we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I find myself reflecting on a
question my then 5-year-old son, Joshua, asked me last summer: “Mami, what
exactly is your job?”

It was during the period of heightened social unrest right after George Floyd was killed. I welcomed his curiosity, but I also wondered how I could explain in age-appropriate language my work and passion for promoting DEI, or diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. It took some time and thought, but eventually I found the right words.

That experience was a mother talking to a son. But the introspection it took for me to answer
the question got me thinking: As a business leader, how do you explain what diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, or DEI, really means? I realized exploring the answer is a valuable exercise business leaders should—and must—take. And, for advisors, the implications extend beyond the firm culture you’re trying to foster to the clients you’re looking to attract.

Don’t Just Talk the Talk . . .

Creating environments that truly embrace differences and provide psychological safety is
more critical today than ever. To be able to effect real change and create a diverse and inclusive organization, however, you need more than good intentions; your actions must follow suit. This starts with a true understanding of what the job of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is—what you’re trying to accomplish and what you’ll recognize as success. Otherwise, your goal is at risk of becoming an empty pursuit, and your company is at risk of becoming one of many that commits to diversity in theory only.

Walk the Walk

Authenticity starts with demonstrated and sincere efforts. It’s not enough to mandate full-day training or hire a head of diversity. As a firm leader, you need to give serious thought to what DEI means for your business and your workforce, and why it matters.

To get started, ask yourself these four critical questions:

  • What is inclusion? Inclusion is not being nice to Black people or other groups (although, yes, that matters). It’s about the word inclusion. It’s about authentically and genuinely
    welcoming historically underrepresented and less privileged groups. This means creating an environment where your staff are comfortable being themselves and don’t feel as though they have to leave aspects of themselves in their car before coming to work each day. It also means ensuring that all voices are represented—from having a seat at the table to seeing ideas put into practice.

  • Why does it matter? Quite simply, business success depends on it. We live in a diverse nation and world. You can’t have a truly representative group—one that understands your whole market—if your decision makers represent only one segment of it. And, from a staffing perspective, you can’t expect people to hang around for a chance at a promotion
    when evidence tells them the odds are against them. Consider whether your employees can see themselves represented in your senior leadership, as well as what will encourage them to have a long-term career at your firm.

  • How will you measure your goals? Every other aspect of our business is measured. We commit ourselves to knowing things like how many people open, click through, and register to benchmark our success. DEI shouldn’t be any different. But what should those measurable goals look like? If you’re committed to driving diversity, your strategy should include gathering qualitative and quantitative data and spending time to understand
    what the data signals about where you are and how you’re doing. You might want to start with a DEI survey to establish a baseline to measure trends and areas of opportunities. From there, you can determine which areas need more attention and how resources need to be allocated. If your data suggests your top leadership is majority male, for example, consider a goal of increasing female representation by a certain percentage within a specific time frame. Focus on two or three objectives to start and keep yourself accountable by reporting on progress to your staff, peer groups, clients, and other stakeholders.

  • What does your DEI success look like? You can’t achieve a goal if you haven’t identified what it is. What are you solving—and what does it mean for your internal workforce and for your marketplace? Think about your DEI vision and what you’re aspiring to be, then
    create a strong infrastructure to support this work going forward. Consider things such as DEI awareness training and crowdsourcing through survey data to include other voices in that vision. Finally, assess your systems and people policies. Are they inclusive? Or are they creating or supporting inequities?

A Work in Progress

I joined Commonwealth because of our vision for DEI and our commitment to move from good intentions to meaningful actions. Our firm gets that DEI is not just a box to check—it’s implicit in our founding mission to create an environment where people from all backgrounds, including people with marginalized identities, can truly, authentically thrive.
It’s an active process, though, and we’re still learning, identifying areas of opportunity, and building on our progress. Everyone at the firm has a role in shaping a culture of inclusion in meaningful ways, and together we’re working hard to ensure that we incorporate equity and inclusion into all aspects of our work and engage our entire company in diversity conversations.

Starting Is Simpler Than You’d Expect

After giving my Joshua an explanation of what I do for a living—granted, perhaps a bigger explanation than he needed—he paused for a moment, then said, “So, you teach people to be kind and love one another. That’s it. That’s easy.”

There it is—simple and true. As you continue to think about your DEI efforts, remember that your guiding philosophy doesn’t need to be complicated: be kind and love one another.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. In the words of Dr. King, “The time is always right to do what is right.” I can’t think of a better touchstone as we work to create a diverse and inclusive organization. The time for introspection to become action is now.

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