December 21, 2021

3 Pillars for Building Sustainable DEI Initiatives

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become an increasingly central conversation among organizations in the past few decades, with even greater focus ignited by racial justice movements in the past 18 months. Beginning in June 2020, many companies and University Recruiting teams pledged to do better — to increase representation and promote inclusion.

A year and a half later, results have been underwhelming. Veris Insights data from November 2021 found that while University Recruiting teams reported some improvement, 53% did not achieve their DEI goals for the 2020-2021 recruiting season, and 46% had insufficient resources to meet these goals. These results came even as teams reported engaging in a wide variety of strategies and initiatives to increase DEI.

Recruiting teams are heavily burdened right now, and simply adding more to their plates is unlikely to work. Instead, we must shift focus towards building sustainable DEI initiatives leveraging these three key pillars.

(1) Allocate Resources Based on Impact

With University Recruiting teams operating under resource constraints, it’s imperative to allocate resources towards the strategies that will have the maximum impact. Three areas stand out here:

First, expand recruitment. Over half of University Recruiting teams listed sourcing and converting a more diverse set of candidates as a top challenge to meeting their DEI goals. And with teams focusing on similar pools of students, this will continue to be a challenge. 

But, there are still multiple pools of candidates that remain overlooked. First-generation college students, students from community colleges, and older or returning students all tend to be more racially and socioeconomically diverse than other college students, but they’re frequently left out of company DEI initiatives. Expanding recruitment to these groups has the potential to have a large impact on increasing equity in hiring.

Second, attend to intersectionality. Intersectionality considers how different identities (e.g. gender and race) are experienced simultaneously, rather than additively, and shape outcomes in unique ways for different groups of people.

When policies and initiatives fail to consider intersectionality, they can actually undermine DEI by helping certain groups at the expense of others. Most University Recruiting teams are already collecting data on race and gender separately, but being able to look at these simultaneously is the next important step. 

Third, invest in systems and procedural change. Many DEI initiatives emphasize the importance of training, and while diversity training can have a positive impact, results are mixed.

Some studies suggest diversity trainings at best have little to no impact on improving DEI, and at worst may produce backlash. Additionally, trainings keep the focus on changing individuals.

The greatest strides in DEI come from shifting the focus from individual change to systemic change. Allocate resources towards identifying and reducing bias in your recruitment process, implementing blind resume reviews, revising hiring criteria to remove bias, and creating a uniform and structured evaluation process that remains consistent across candidates.

(2) Engage a Coalition to Pair Hiring and Retention

Gains in diversity through hiring are often undercut by challenges with retention. Sustainable DEI initiatives thus require partnerships between recruiting teams and other teams involved in the broader hiring and retention ecosystem. 

Partner with hiring managers to understand the career goals of recruits and ensure these remain central throughout their time at your organization. Work with employee resource groups (ERGs) in recruiting panels and information sessions, as well as mentorship and career development opportunities. Finally, consider working with branding and marketing to develop both internally- and externally-facing collateral focused on employee value propositions that can help to both attract and retain diverse talent.

(3) Celebrate and Build on Small Wins

Creating sustainable DEI initiatives with limited resources can be challenging, so it’s important to celebrate the small wins. 

The small wins model of organizational change was developed by Shelley Correll, a sociology professor at Stanford University. This model highlights the value of incremental change in developing effective DEI strategies. It doesn’t mean we ignore the potential for larger-scale changes, but it does acknowledge that even small changes can have impact.

Small wins can feel doable for supporters while also encountering less potential backlash from detractors. They also have the potential for catalyzing further change, by creating a base on which to build further support and produce potentially larger-scale initiatives. 

Finally, small wins provide an opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge success, which can be important for sustaining mental health through a challenging process. 

Though companies and University Recruiting teams across the country have expressed strong commitments to DEI, results to date have not fully lived up to these commitments, and resource constraints pose a challenge to furthering DEI. The future of DEI requires us to be mindful of these constraints and work towards models that make genuine and consistent progress in a sustainable way.

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