Diversity, equity and inclusion has emerged as an “important pressure point” in the past two years as companies compete for talent and regional economic development organizations seek to attract and retain industries, consultants and business advocates say.
“It doesn’t matter what size the company, everyone is seeing this become a part of the talent equation,” said Andre Daley, director of inclusion at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “The landscape around DEI has changed so dramatically in the last two years, and so many things that were beginning to come to the surface got accelerated and amplified.”
Daley added that workers and consumers are increasingly scouting companies’ DEI initiatives before applying or buying their products.
Skot Welch, founder of Grand Rapids consulting firm Global Bridgebuilders, maintains that diversity contributes to businesses’ success as inclusivity drives innovation and higher levels of ideas and output.
“For many years for lots of organizations, it was more about who was at the table as opposed to who is not at the table,” Welch said. “Now, who is not at the table is the more important question. There is positive pressure for the C-suite and senior leaders to be able to clearly articulate their organization’s commitment to diversity and back it up with actions. Everybody needs to speak the language and show proof that they’ve done something.”
The so-called great resignation and increasingly competitive talent landscape also are forcing employers to look in new places to fill open positions instead of the same familiar neighborhoods, schools or social networks, Welch said.
Workers also are placing greater value on their quality of personal and professional lives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are realizing their quality of life is much more than simply showing up to work,” Welch said. “They want a quality of life, they want to be seen and valued. Organizations that create meaningful opportunities by talking to people, breaking down old models and understanding why they don’t work anymore are getting on the radar of finding talent.”
People also are increasingly pursuing work at companies that are more welcoming, Daley said.
“If you don’t have a DEI strategy that also covers age and gender identity, you’re missing some stuff,” Daley said. “It’s not a single-issue thing any more. Millennials are also the most multicultural generation we’ve ever had with more being biracial or mixed-race. Companies need to be prepared to make that person feel valued and welcome with all their identities. That wasn’t a factor even 10 years ago.”
However, companies should be mindful about moving too quickly to institute DEI policies, Daley said. This was evident during the widespread civil unrest caused by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis nearly two years ago, which led to often performative statements from the business community.
“You have to make sure what you say as a company is relevant and reflects something you already do,” Daley said. “It really is important for companies to understand how the landscape has changed and how to do that effectively. You have to be more intentional about what you say and be able to bring receipts.”
The social justice uprising following Floyd’s death resulted in a surge of companies hiring employees focused on DEI work. During the summer of 2020, DEI-related job openings rose by 55 percent, according to data from job-listing website Glassdoor.
“Hiring a chief diversity officer or director of inclusion and not giving them the resources and support they need to get the job done is a huge mistake,” Daley said.
Companies may not be ready to hire an in-house DEI staffer or target a diverse talent pool before they build up resources to support them, Daley said.
The Grand Rapids Chamber hired Daley as the director of inclusion in October 2021 to shift the organization’s role and better meet businesses’ DEI needs. In his role, Daley helped launch a service allowing members to contract with the chamber’s DEI team if they lack an in-house role.
“Our staff will fulfill those support services and we’ll help move those initiatives forward,” Daley said. “There are a lot of great intentions that can go very wrong without the right expertise.”
A February 2021 McKinsey & Co. study found that DEI progress in the private sector has been slow, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a survey of 24 companies with 3.7 million workers. The study found that placing a higher value on diversity with an unfocused set of initiatives does not translate to progress for Black workers.
“There are organizations that really want to be part of the change and those that are doing this because it’s simply the politically correct thing to do,” Welch said. “The marketplace is much smarter now when it comes to consumers and employees. They are not just letting organizations say what they’d like to see for DEI, but they’re seeing what they actually do. To me, that’s good. The ones that want to really make change will actually benefit from their willingness to be serious and committed.”