Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Trends

Today’s workforce is one of the most diverse in our nation’s history. In the workplace, the definition of “diversity” is both expanding upon quantifiable demographic traits like race, ethnicity, and gender; and recognizing the importance of the intersection of identities on the employee experience.

While there is a clear connection between a diverse workforce and better business outcomes such as generating new, innovative ideas and better overall business performance, leaders and human resources professionals are having to focus intentionally on new trends that relate to workplace culture, employee engagement and satisfaction, and the legal implications of bringing together a workforce that is anything but homogenous.

Here are some notable diversity, equity and inclusion trends for 2021:

A Focus on a Multigenerational Workforce.Five or more generations are now present in the workplace ranging from the Silent Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), Millennials or Generation Y (born between 1981 and 1996) and the newest cohort, Generation Z (born since 1997).

Each of these generations bring distinct expectations such as reskilling/upskilling in the age of automation, holistic wellness programs (including mental wellness), connecting work to social impact and purpose, flexible work arrangements, leveraging social media in and outside the workplace, crystallizing what it means to “bring your full self to work,” and myriad other topics leaders and human resources professionals need to consider in their workforce planning efforts.

The Impact of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace. Implicit or unconscious bias – the tendency to process information based on unconscious associations or feelings – is not necessarily a new discussion topic in the workplace. But, organizations are increasingly focusing on how the biases of all employees, but particularly of managers and leaders, have an impact on an organization’s culture and the progress (or lack thereof) towards creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive workplace. 

Bringing together a workforce that has a variety of perspectives, lived experiences and is representative of the communities that organizations serve is the comparative advantage of diversity. Learning how to mitigate unconscious bias in the workplace is one way that more and more organizations are trying to better harness the power of their diverse workforces.

Supporting Gender Identity and Expression. Gender identity and gender expression/presentation have been a much-talked-about subject in recent years, with rising awareness of the challenges faced by employees who don’t identify with their sex assigned at birth. These descriptors are becoming part of our lexicon. For example, in September, Merriam-Webster recognized “they” as a singular, non-gender-specific pronoun.

Organizations around the country – from retail settings to corporate headquarters – are grappling with issues related to the use of gender-specific restrooms, many simply offering gender-neutral options. HR departments are focused on providing healthcare benefits that are inclusive of employees who are transitioning. Managers and teammates are being educated about the language and their responsibilities related to an employees’ gender identity and expression.

As the movement to recognize and accept transgender and gender non-binary employees continues, it’s likely we’ll see even more focus on updating diversity, equity, and inclusion training along with a need to have more internal conversations and education around gender-inclusivity.

Shifting from Diversity and Inclusion to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The past few years have brought to the forefront the idea that focusing on diversity, or increasing representation of people from various backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, is only part of the equation. Inclusion, making space, amplifying and including the voices of everyone in the workplace, is another. Both concepts will remain a top focus for organizations in the years to come.

Many forward-leaning organizations are also focusing on the idea of ‘equity’ as part of their overall strategy. Equity is about being fair and impartial – it does not mean “equal”. Equity in the workplace manifests in a range of ways from unpacking decision points that lead to pay equity, exploring equity in talent development investments, and leveraging initiatives like Business Resource Groups (or Affinity Groups) as a vehicle to address equity succession planning.

The focus on equity in the workplace will be a magnified topic as businesses are being called to operate with an even deeper level of transparency around compensation reporting, board representation, harassment reporting, advancement, and other talent management practices.

Dedicated Diversity Leadership. Organizations all over the nation are working to respond to workplace diversity trends to create a better future for their employees, organizations and communities. From a business perspective, many companies are hiring staff to fill roles specifically focused on advancing DEI internally and externally. According to a 2019 survey of more than 200 companies in the S&P 500, 63% of diversity professionals were promoted or appointed to their roles within the past three years. Clearly, DEI is on leaders’ minds.

Employee Resource Groups. Employee resource groups continue to be one of the more prominent HR trends in DEI. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employee resource groups exist at many companies and continue to grow in popularity. These groups create a safe space for people with similar identity characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, to gather, socialize, and discuss relevant issues. In many cases, they are increasingly playing key roles in driving DEI forward in their organizations.

Transparency and Honest Conversations. In 2020, many companies publicly disclosed data around internal DEI initiatives – beyond that required annually by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This move was the first one, for many companies, toward intentional action plans to improve transparency about internal DEI status. Internal and external transparency about where companies stand with diversity efforts also inspires honest conversations.

Many companies have begun holding honest conversations about racism, sexism, and other topics that directly affect employees in the workforce. When done well, these conversations are opportunities for employees and leadership to exhale, share, and empathize with one another, a necessary component for improving workplace inclusion.

Opt-In Learning Opportunities. Increasing the number of opt-in learning opportunities for employees is another workplace diversity trend that will continue to grow in 2021. This trend represents a shift from hosting mandatory training to opt-in training where employees can learn more about diversity topics – if they want to do so.

Research studies have shown that mandatory diversity training isn’t always met with openness from all employees. To some, the training feels forced, causing animosity and resistance. Opt-in learning opportunities allow employees to engage at their own pace. Incentives to attend can also help increase employee opt-in rates for these programs.

DEI and Hybrid Work. With so many employees now working from home or embracing a hybrid work arrangement, questions arise as to where this leaves gains made with DEI. The new working arrangements create a new set of challenges, and both workers and employers need to remain vigilant so that DEI gains made will not be lost. Companies mustn’t lose sight of DEI programs and their importance when traditional work models become a thing of the past. For example:

  • Remote work makes the facilitation of relationships and trust – which are essential in successful DEI efforts – more difficult to cultivate. As a result, resolving interpersonal conflicts or hitting the group running right after being hired may become more problematic, for example. This is because you’re communicating with your co-workers and managers less frequently. 
  • Hybrid work brings with it peculiar challenges to DE&I efforts. For example, childcare might be negatively impacted by hybrid work that fails to accommodate parents. Employees are being called back into work with just two days’ notice, which leaves little time to arrange childcare – and may be more difficult to arrange now than before the pandemic given that many providers have closed for good due to diminishing enrollment numbers. Women have been disproportionately impacted by this trend.
  • In some cases, hourly or junior employees, largely made up of underrepresented groups, are being given no access to remote work options while their higher-level counterparts are readily given this option. 

Yet, some new work modalities – mainly those exclusively remote – bring with them some intrinsic prospects for DEI. For example, caregivers and those with disabilities often find the traditional work model challenging, in large part because the conventional model seldom accommodates their needs. For these workers, working from home on a permanent basis is a step in the right direction as it intrinsically gives those who cannot leave their homes on a regular basis the opportunity to do fulfilling work. 

DEI efforts have measurably improved the day-to-day life at work for millions of people. These gains should be celebrated. However, given the unique set of challenges that remote and hybrid work present to DEI efforts, workers and employers alike need to be vigilant and proactive so that the gains made are not abruptly lost.