They say good things come in threes; diversity, equity and inclusion are no exception. While you rarely hear about one without the others, conflating them would be a mistake. Diversity doesn’t beget inclusion, and even the most homogenous teams can have some equitable and inclusive dynamics. Instead, I like to think of equity and inclusion as the foundation upon which diversity is built.
Leaders play a significant role in setting that foundation. Yet we often hold ourselves back from effecting real change because getting honest about our current state of DEI affairs is too uncomfortable (and, by the way, it should be). We fool ourselves into thinking we can take a command-and-control approach, but such efforts are often misguided and ineffective. A lack of diversity is a cultural problem rather than a tactical one.
Championing change on a cultural level requires addressing the root of the issue. If you’re ready to do the work, here are three steps to building a scalable and diverse culture by design.
1. Set more meaningful goals
DEI initiatives have become imperative for ethical and business reasons, yet few leaders know how to turn intention into action. Take stock of your current team: Which groups are underrepresented in your organization (eg, members of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled folks, Black individuals) and at what levels of the company (eg, junior-, mid- and senior-level)? You’ll have your own set of unique challenges based on the size and age of your business, the types of skill sets you recruit for, and even your location.
Once that’s done, craft meaningful goals that are concrete and impactful. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky pledged that 20% of the company’s US employees would be from underrepresented minority groups by 2025. This goal is specific and time-bound—but it won’t yield sustained results if Airbnb doesn’t also update its hiring practices and the infrastructure that created the homogenous workforce in the first place. If those benchmarks aren’t accompanied by inclusive policies that amplify marginalized folks, it’s unlikely they’ll stick around long term.
Do note that numbers-based benchmarks are tricky because they often lack nuance. A goal to increase the representation of marginalized people in the labor market could fail to account for the systemic obstacles that shut those people out. Instead, focus your objectives on adjusting how you operate (eg, reassessing job qualifications and retraining hiring managers on evaluating résumés) to eliminate ingrained bias. In doing so, you’ll lay the groundwork for a more diverse candidate pool.
2. Nail down your messaging
Joining the public discourse around DEI is important, but you need to go about it in a thoughtful, focused and authentic way. Don’t just include more diverse imagery in your campaigns. Be clear on what you plan to do—and get ready for people to hold you accountable. The public no longer tolerates leaders who talk a big game but fail to deliver on utopian promises about inclusion.
What candidates want to hear about is how you’re building diversity into the design of your culture. Don’t speak about DEI as a peripheral initiative that comes second to the employee experience. Instead, demonstrate personal accountability and commitment to the mission within the culture.
Lily Zheng, a DEI strategist and consultant, suggests asking what would need to happen for the most intersectionally marginalized person to thrive at your organization. Center your diversity and inclusion messages around how you’d safeguard them from discrimination, guarantee them equal access to opportunities, and tailor policies and practices to their individual needs. When you account for the most marginalized members of your team, you benefit everyone.
3. Point your megaphone in the right direction
Even the best diversity and inclusion messages won’t reach the right ears if your megaphone is pointed in the wrong direction. Post your jobs to the usual sites like LinkedIn and Indeed, but also look for sites with specific niches (eg, veterans, older workers, women). Attend conferences, alumni networking events, or industry association meetups that cater to Black, Latino and Indigenous people.
When I help clients deploy their DEI messaging, I blend tried-and-true channels with more innovative ones. If you’re trying to raise awareness among disabled people, perhaps look at sponsoring an event, utilizing creative content outreach on YouTube or Reddit, or partnering with an organization in the disability space.
Finally, resist the urge to rely heavily on referrals, which tend to reinforce the status quo. Consider, for example, that three-quarters of white people don’t have nonwhite peers in their social networks. If you’re not attracting the diverse candidates you hoped for, take a closer look at your professional network. Do you rely on mostly white and male spaces, like Ivy League schools, as part of your hiring practices? If so, it’s no surprise your workforce is largely white and male.
Creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, by design, takes more than good intentions—it requires getting uncomfortable and putting in the work. Before you make any lofty promises, spend some time digging into where you’re falling short. That knowledge will be priceless as you work to improve things in an authentic, sustainable way.