Are you truly unlocking the power of your DE&I initiatives?

It’s been a year of reckoning for individuals and organizational leaders, as they continue to intensify their focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. In a February 2021 Korn Ferry survey, 75% of professionals stated that their company has enhanced DE&I efforts during the last year. However, unfortunately only 19% rank those efforts as very effective.

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Of course, the reasons why organizations aren’t as diverse, equitable and inclusive as they would like are as varied as the organizations themselves. But, across the vast spectrum of possible causes, we’ve identified five classic, but often overlooked, mistakes that organizations make when it comes to DE&I.

Mistake No. 1: Assuming you know the reasons behind DE&I gaps

One of the biggest risks in addressing DE&I gaps is mistaking assumptions for certainties without the data to back them up.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions—for example that higher female attrition is driven by lack of work/life balance. But only a thorough review will show if this assumption is correct, or if other factors, like inadequate people management skills on the part of leaders are at play.


Acting on assumptions often means the “solution” doesn’t fully address the actual issue, leading to wasted time, energy and resources—and no results.

Mistake No. 2: Going for the ‘easy’ fix

Everyone knows there is no easy fix for DE&I. But there are certain solutions—like employee resource groups and unconscious bias training—that are becoming known as leading practices because they have visible and compelling impacts.

It’s never going to be a mistake to implement these initiatives. The mistake is thinking they will be the ultimate game changer—particularly if they’re implemented without an understanding that they alone can’t bring about transformational and sustainable change.

Without the appropriate processes and reinforcing mechanisms, these initiatives are unlikely to create lasting changes. Organizations need to build a strong DE&I foundation and then create the support systems to embed these practices to really advance inclusion in the workplace.

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Mistake No. 3: Promising something impossible

By understanding what is and isn’t possible in an organization, leaders can create transparency and buy-in around DE&I goals without alienating their people because of unmet expectations.

Take advancement opportunities. One organization found that long tenure and a flat structure meant advancement opportunities were rare. Instead, they shifted their employee value proposition focus to professional growth, rather than advancement. The company was even explicit that they understood this meant that, while the opportunities internally were limited, they were investing in making their employees more attractive for other potential employers. Employees knew what they were opting into: a realistic but inspiring career experience.

Related: 6 ways we’re getting diversity recruiting all wrong

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Mistake No.4: Concentrating on the external message while neglecting the internal work

We all know how important walking the talk is. And this is even more critical in DE&I, which is so intricately linked with the purpose and values of an organization.

While many organizations do a good job of raising awareness about the value for DE&I to their leaders, employees and customers, this is not always matched by the necessary HR practices, governance and accountabilities within the organization​. To live up to the DE&I standards that organizations set forth in their internal and external messaging, they have to prioritize bringing about change within five strategic DE&I dimensions:

  • Compliance
  • Awareness
  • Talent integration
  • Operations integration
  • Market integration

Doing a DE&I diagnostic can confirm and pinpoint areas of strengths and vulnerability in each of these dimensions.

Mistake No. 5: Focusing on representation and not on pipeline

The visibility of diversity in the leadership team puts it squarely in the DE&I spotlight. Focusing only on leadership representation, however, risks championing symbolic change over substantive change if even greater attention is not given to developing a self-sustaining internal pipeline of truly diverse talent.

This matters because even if there are a few C-suite leaders from underrepresented groups, some or all will leave eventually. Without minding the succession pool and ensuring it’s diverse, those most senior roles cannot be replenished organically with more diversity.

By taking a more holistic view of their overall talent systems, organizations can really build DE&I right into the roots of the organizations. And yes, representation at the top will improve too, but it will be sustainable improvement rather than a symbolic, short-term fix.

So, when it comes to the energy and resources put towards DE&I, it pays to put deep insight and understanding before action in the march towards a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace.

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