Employer practices

New Evidence to Advance the Moral and Business Case for DEI in the Workplace

Three takeaways from WorkRise’s recent virtual gathering of experts and advocates distill the latest evidence on the importance of DEI in the workplace and lift strategies for companies seeking to foster equity.

John SankofaJuly 18, 2023

In today’s tight job market, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives offer valuable opportunities for employers to sharpen their competitive edge and safeguard equity for their workers. Recently, WorkRise hosted a virtual event with nationally recognized leaders from the workforce development, business, and worker advocacy communities to examine the state of DEI in the workplace. At the event, presenters unpacked the latest evidence on DEI and pinpointed levers for advancing racial equity in the workplace.

Three takeaways from “Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace: What’s Working?” underscore the complexity of achieving DEI in the workplace and highlight promising approaches for advancing racial equity.

The US workforce is racially and ethnically divided

Researchers at the WorkRise event explored the complex gap between the generally accepted principle of fairness and how DEI plays out in the workplace. Carl Van Horn and Ronald Quincy, researchers from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, presented data showing some segments of the US workforce perceive inequity as a persistent issue nearly 60 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination in the workplace.

The WorkRise-funded study, titled A Workplace Divided, was based on a national survey of 3,277 full- and part-time workers, examined perceptions of racial discrimination in the workplace and opinions about DEI policies and practices. Van Horn and Quincy’s research found that “one in four Black workers and one in five Asian American workers say they have thought about quitting a job because of discrimination they witnessed or experienced.”

The study also found:

  • Black workers are twice as likely, compared with white workers, to report workplace discrimination as “a major problem in private workplaces.”
  • Mistreatment of Black female workers is especially pervasive. Three in four Black women reported discrimination as a major or minor problem in private workplaces, and more than half (55 percent) said it’s a major problem. These data echo a recent Urban blog post, which found the overlap of race and gender creates disadvantages in hiring, interviewing, and pay for Black women.
  • Approximately 55 percent of Black workers, 41 percent of white workers, and 38 percent of Latino workers say unconscious bias, rather than intentional prejudice, occurs in their workplaces.

According to Van Horn, “There’s still a huge amount of work to be done” to address these systemic workplace challenges. “People don’t really know what [DEI] means in their own companies,” he said, and many workers are still encountering unconscious bias, “which is difficult to address but needs to be addressed.”

Tanya Wallace-Gobern, executive director of the National Black Worker Center, a Black worker’s advocacy organization, said companies seeking to make workers’ experiences more equitable must change outmoded behaviors and patterns that are still viewed as culturally acceptable. She said the task of “unlearning implicit bias” fundamentally requires people to connect with people who are different from themselves.

Quincy, the study’s coauthor, highlighted an important window of opportunity for employers to ignite and sustain the needed cultural shift. “The good news from our research is that the vast majority of all employees believe that a diverse workforce is a good thing to have,” said Quincy, who calls this particular finding a “testament of hope.”

Drawing from recommendations informed by study participants, Quincy said employers can advance racial equity in the workplace by addressing the role of unconscious bias, demonstrating that the company values diversity and speaking out against inequities, and reimaging the role of staff, including human resources, managers, and frontline workers, in transforming the workplace. Intentional DEI work should also include documenting incidents of discrimination more thoughtfully and hiring more people from local communities, especially people of color, said Quincy.

Dismantling inequities baked into workplace systems

The day-to-day of making a workplace more equitable requires recognizing that racial inequities are embedded in system design. Samuel Bradley, from the Boston College School of Social Work, is a coauthor of the report The National Study of Workplace Equity, which surveyed 1,062 US workplaces. The study, which examined “how inequities are embedded within 10 employment systems that span the employee lifecycle from recruitment to separation,” found 62 percent of surveyed organizations invested little or no resources into DEI. The study yielded “a detailed roadmap to pinpoint where inequities occur” and can help identify the steps needed to rectify inequities found in employment systems.

Bradley explained that each company has “levers for change”—such as policies, evaluation, planning, workplace culture, and assignment of roles for change agents—employers can use to transform the workplace. For example, to address inequities in supervision and mentoring, employers can plan and activate efforts to improve employee access to supervision and training, foster an inclusive team climate, require supervisor training in equity and inclusion, and conduct audits of supervisor practices.

Tapping the power of data and intention

Wallace-Gobern’s Black worker advocacy organization runs the Working While Black initiative, which creates safe spaces for Black workers to bring their voice to the company table. “Valuing DEI means speaking out about diverse leadership, providing opportunities for promotion and intentional and equitable compensation packages—and it begins with disaggregating data,” she said. She said data efforts mean “lining up your employees by race and gender, by the actual work being done, and not just by title. And then looking at salaries and what trends you see. And if you see trends that are negative, be diligent about correcting those.” 

Data can be a “reality check” for nonbelievers, said Wallace-Gobern, and these data can dispel misconceptions about racial equity in their workplace. She said transparency with data enables people to lean on truth instead of fear.

Michael J. Baptiste, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, said it’s important to lean into the data to prove how diverse companies can be “more creative, more productive, more powerful, and more profitable.” The intentional pursuit of DEI as a core value needs to be part of a company’s DNA, he said.

In light of dissention to DEI, “this is the time where we really need to practice patience. Have your data, tell your story, and stay the course through these challenging times,” said Baptiste. His commerce organization operates ATL Action for Racial Equity, which represents more than 250 companies actively engaged in DEI efforts, including AT&T, GE, the Atlanta Falcons, the Home Depot, and the Coca Cola Company.

Baptiste said companies participating in ATL Action for Racial Equity have made important strides, but more work is needed—for example, to support the Black entrepreneurial ecosystem and supplier diversity in the Atlanta region. Companies must also reimagine their relationship with schools. “If the company is thinking about recruitment and diverse talent only at the college or even high school level, you’re already too late. Building early and lasting relationships with marginalized communities should begin in elementary school,” said Baptiste.

ATL Action for Racial Equity provides playbooks that contain resources and action plans for advancing a company’s equity agenda, regardless of where the company is on its racial equity journey. Routinely capturing the data, the organization also compiles an annual report for measuring progress and setting goals.

It’s about collective effort, said Baptiste. “We realize that we’re not going to solve racism with one swoop of this. It’s going to take the business community, education institutions, and community organizations. We all play a collective part in really pushing the needle and really making a dent around racial equity.”

DEI is “is good for business and a moral imperative,” said Bradley, coauthor of The National Study of Workplace Equity. For employers to remain competitive, they must acknowledge that workers of color are rightly demanding to be treated equitably across all workplace systems, and the employers who answer that call are the ones positioning their companies—and their employees—for success.

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