8 Things to Consider When Starting Your DEI Journey
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work means something different to everyone – which means you’ll never know everything you need to know and you’ll never have all of the answers.
DEI work also requires a desire and commitment to understand others. It requires you to reflect on your story and how it may help you understand the lived experience of others. There will be moments of discomfort that lead to greater awareness.
Recognizing those realities, it’s okay to have trepidation as you begin this work. Those uncomfortable feelings mean that you’re doing something different – and DEI work requires doing things differently. That feeling of discomfort is also a sign that you’re learning and growing.
When I started my career in human resources over 20 years ago, I was an out gay man who went back into the closet as I stepped through the doors of that first corporate job. I, fortunately, had a mentor who helped me understand that it was okay to be “me” and that I didn’t have to hide to be successful.
We’ve all felt excluded at some point in our lives. It doesn’t feel good. I do this work because I want everyone to have that feeling of being included, to know they belong just as they are, and can also be successful bringing their unique self to work.
I hope that sharing how I approach this work, paired with some of my learnings along the way, will help you get started on your DEI journey.
A few of my lessons learned include…
This work is full of moments where you celebrate success while also acknowledging that there is more work to do. I discovered early on that it was necessary to infuse that balance in communications openly and transparently.
I also discovered that one of the central principles of this work – the importance of including diverse perspectives in ‘the’ conversation – means you don’t have to know it all. Instead, you need to be open to listening, learning, and asking for help – which requires leaning into vulnerability and empathy.
I don’t have all the answers, and I believe most DEI practitioners will share a similar sentiment. We are simultaneously driving changes in workplace cultures while continuously learning about ourselves and other humans.
My DEI Approach:
Along the way, I’ve developed an approach that takes everyone at an organization on the DEI journey and results in significant change – if leaders are committed and everyone gets involved.
1) Make It Visible. Share your commitment to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion openly with your employees. Own where you are on the journey. If you’re just starting, acknowledge it. If you’ve made mistakes, own them and apologize. If you’re going to try new things, say it. Employees are often understanding and forgiving when they can trust company leadership. Ongoing and transparent communication is essential here.
2) Invite Conversation. Find opportunities to engage in dialogue with employees to understand their perspective on DEI at your company. Architect formal discussions to share ideas and learn from your people while also allowing for informal moments of conversation. Host focus groups. Hold listening sessions. This part of the work is crucial. Data is essential, but this work is inherently human and can’t be fully understood without hearing from the people in your organization.
3) Analyze Data. Complete a DEI analysis of your engagement survey results or conduct a formal DEI Assessment. Participate in external assessments like the DiversityInc Top 50, Women in the Workplace, Bloomberg Equality Index, HRC’s Corporate Equality Index and the National Organization on Disability – Disability Employment Tracker. This data will help you identify areas of success, help you benchmark and identify best practices, and highlight areas of opportunity where you’ll want to focus energy. The data will also provide insight that leads to identifying your next steps.
4) Build Partnerships. This work requires a partnership between the DEI team and teams across the organization in human resources, corporate responsibility, corporate philanthropy, communications, marketing, and public relations. The CEO and senior leadership team must be committed to the work. As your DEI efforts take root, I also suggest you find champions outside of the DEI team who will be influencers and play a leadership role in your efforts. This work is more successful when everyone at the company plays a role in creating an inclusive environment.
5) Try New Things. Whether starting a formal pilot or just trying something new, be open to possibility and what you might learn. Piloting programs is a great way to gauge what works at your company and what resonates with your employees. Creating an environment where everyone feels they belong often takes breaking out of the mold and trying different things. And it’s okay if they don’t work. Progress over perfection should be your guide here.
6) Understand Your Business Case. Why are you doing this work? Is it because it’s the right thing to do? Is there an issue that sparked the conversation? Is there a business imperative? It might be all of the above. It’s likely all of the above. The “why” is essential though, as it will help define where you initially spend time and energy. You can also find helpful info online with metrics that illuminate why a commitment to DEI – that is fully realized with actions – drives tangible value for any business.
7) Design Your Strategic Roadmap. Define your guiding principles, strategic pillars, and activities. Define roles and responsibilities. Remember, this work is a long-term play. You won’t be able to do it all without involvement from leaders and employees across the company, and you definitely won’t be able to do it all right away. Identify your priorities as you build your plan. Areas I’d suggest exploring early on are DEI foundations training that includes unconscious bias (which helps create a common language and understanding), engaging employees in employee resource groups, and forming an inclusion advisory council.
8) Set Measurable Goals. Creating an inclusive culture can feel overwhelming – like you’re trying to cross the ocean in a paddleboat. However, it’s essential to know where you’re heading and what you’re prioritizing. Setting goals will give you direction, help you know that you’re making a difference, and allow you to track your progress.
Most importantly, I believe it’s important to take that first step forward. You’ll make mistakes and learn along the way. That’s okay. If you’re committed to driving real, tangible change and to realizing a diverse, equitable, and inclusive company, you’ll find your way.
Ask for Help. One of my favorite parts of the DEI community is that people are willing to share and learn together, which accelerates the difference we’re making.
Give Yourself Time. This work builds organizational muscle. There will be things your organization is ready to do and things that need more time. Trust your instincts here.
Communicate. Leverage your change management experience (or involve someone who has that experience). This work drives cultural shifts and requires ongoing transparent communication.
Be Curious. This work requires continuous learning. Take a course to learn about DEI. Listen to podcasts from people with different backgrounds than you. Read articles from reputable sources (like HBR).
Invite Feedback. I am fortunate to have a diverse group of professionals at Hummingbird and in my community of colleagues, advisors, and mentors. I invite them to challenge me and help me see perspectives that I’m missing. As I mentioned earlier, these moments aren’t always comfortable. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have people in my circle who respect me enough to help me do better.
You may have additional thoughts, ideas, or perspectives.. I’d love to hear from you. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I know learning is a lifetime commitment. But we are better together, and I hope this blog gives you helpful suggestions when starting your own DEI journey.
Oh, and wherever you’re starting your journey. I’m glad you’re here. Welcome. Let’s make workplaces better, together.
Founder | CEO
he / him | LGBTQ+
Brian McComak is a consultant, speaker, author, and facilitator with over 25 years of experience in DEI, HR, culture, change management, internal communications, and employee experience. He is an openly gay man and a person with a disability who shares his lived experiences in service of fostering workplaces where humans thrive.
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