Diversity, equity and inclusion at work: Advice from Polina Changuleva

'As long as our society and businesses/co-ops consist of people, DEI will be an important and ever-pressing topic of discussion'

We speak to Polina Changuleva, an award-winning Diversity, Equity and Inclusion expert and winner of Management Today’s 35 under 35. The CEO and founder of culture-shifting consultancy Same But Different, she has worked for some of the world’s biggest brands as a cultural advisor and racial justice advocate. She is a member of the UK’s 50:50 Parliament Diversity Committee.

Why is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) an important topic of discussion?

To put it simply, as long as our society and businesses/co-ops consist of people, DEI will be an important and ever-pressing topic of discussion. If we want to co-exist peacefully and thrive, then fostering understanding and fairness should be our biggest priority. 

Embracing diversity and creating inclusive environments allows individuals from different backgrounds to come together – which we know leads to a spike in creativity and innovation thanks to the diverse perspectives and experiences they bring along. This benefits organisations and communities alike. 

Then equity is what ensures everyone has fair access to opportunities, resources, and representation, dismantling systemic barriers and promoting a more just and balanced society. 

The goal is to create an environment where all individuals feel valued, respected and empowered, contributing to a more harmonious world in which we embrace each other’s differences and celebrate our similarities.

Related: Canadian Co-op Congress looks at inclusivity in co-ops

What are the first steps businesses should take when looking at improving DEI in the workplace?

Before I share any advice, I have to say this: doing something is better than standing still.

While there are many reasons why business leaders may feel overwhelmed by the idea of getting started, none of them are good enough reasons to be passive about your most precious asset: your employees and their wellbeing. 

Lack of effort is often perceived as lack of interest and/or general commitment to making a difference to the lives of marginalised communities. I’m sure your readers would agree that none of those are positive associations for a business. So doing something to show you care and make a difference is better than waiting for your strategy and plans to be perfect before you start (hint: they never will be perfect).

Some things to consider when starting from scratch are:

  • Conduct a thorough DEI audit of the business by listening to employees, surveying employee engagement and sentiments, and collecting DEI data through a mixture of surveys, focus groups and interviews. This will inform the foundation of your DEI strategy and priorities;
  • Implement a holistic approach across all aspects of the organisation to see real change;
  • Foster awareness and buy-in through open dialogue, education, and transparent communication at all levels of the organisation. For instance, if your efforts are to succeed, it’s crucial that your leadership is 100% bought in and role models changed;
  • Include DEI goals in company objectives to ensure accountability and consistent measurement of progress made;
  • Engage Employee Networks and Diverse Leadership Forums to ensure everyone in the organisation is seen, heard and engaged in both the direction and decision making process of the business;
  • Dedicate resources to demonstrate commitment and ensure you’re able to deliver on your plans.
  • Have you heard the famous quote “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”? That’s exactly it – that’s all you have to do. Take the first step and then the next one

Related: Researcher Naomi Terry on land justice and the future of farming

What are some of the common pitfalls, and how can employers avoid them?

Common pitfalls I often see are treating DEI as a check box rather than genuinely addressing under-represented communities’ challenges (known as performative allyship); not integrating DEI into the core business strategy or expecting employees to spearhead DEI efforts on top of their day jobs (usually in the form of unpaid labour); and fearing imperfection over taking accountability for progress. 

To avoid these pitfalls, I work with employers to help them understand their specific challenges; make DEI a central part of their strategy across the entire business; turn allyship into advocacy; and prioritize transparency and effort, even if mistakes occur. Emphasizing action and accountability over perfection will foster an inclusive workplace culture and retain valuable talent.

What does intersectionality in the workplace look like?

In the workplace, intersectionality means understanding and dealing with how a person’s different social identities (like race, gender, sexual orientation and disability to name a few) are connected and influence their experiences and challenges.

An example of intersectionality is a disabled LGBTQIA+ individual experiencing discrimination and barriers related to both their disability and sexual orientation, which is  affecting their career advancement opportunities and overall work and life experience. 

To take a holistic intersectional approach to DEI, organisations should understand and consider the diverse needs and experiences of employees with intersecting identities. 

Practically, this requires data collection fuelling inclusive policies and practices, diverse leadership representation and support for Employee Networks championing various minority groups as well as intersectional training for all. 

Moreover, open dialogue, collaborating with experts and transparent reporting are essential to promote inclusion.

Related: How are co-ops driving gender equality?

How can enterprises, including co-ops, attract employees and board members from diverse backgrounds?

We live in a time when 80% of workers are saying a company’s inclusion efforts are an important factor when choosing a company to work for (Built In research).

With that said, to attract employees and board members from diverse backgrounds, business and co-ops need to prioritise diversity and inclusion in their values, align internal structure and processes to those values, engage in outreach efforts to diverse communities, establish mentorship programs, and ensure impartial hiring processes. 

In 2023, DEI is no longer a ‘nice to have’, it’s a must if you want to keep your competitive edge and be able to hire and retain talent. 

What role does language play?

Language plays a huge role in talent acquisition – particularly in job adverts – as it can significantly impact the diversity of the applicant pool and how included candidates feel from the get go.

Ideally, you want to use inclusive language that avoids gender, age or other biases, for example, avoiding overly masculine or feminine language and focusing on skills. 

Additionally, providing translations or accommodating language preferences and accessibility needs for different communities can break language barriers and ensure equal access to opportunities in turn creates a more comprehensive selection process. 

Language that promotes diversity and inclusivity signals the organisation’s commitment to creating an equitable and welcoming environment for all candidates. But language on its own is not enough, and many would see straight through it. It also shouldn’t stop at job description level – inclusive language should be part of all your communications and online and offline presence as an organisation.

How can co-ops ensure they are giving equal employment opportunities?

There are two main things to consider. 

Firstly, establishing inclusive policies and practices. Develop and enforce clear diversity and inclusion policies that promote equal employment opportunities and recognition and implement fair and unbiased hiring and promotion practices that focus on skills and accomplishments instead of qualifications (dependent on the role) and years of experience. 

Secondly, celebrating the achievements and contributions of employees from diverse backgrounds plays a big part in healthy workplace culture. 

But don’t forget that all this would mean very little if everyone doesn’t have access to equal pay and benefits and a fair performance review and reporting process that can promptly address workplace harassment and discrimination – think zero tolerance policies and multiple feedback channels.

How quickly can enterprises create and kick off their DEI strategy?

The timeline can vary, taking anywhere from several months to several years depending on an organisation’s size, resources, existing practices, and commitment to change.

Some businesses may already have a foundation of inclusive practices in place, making it easier to integrate DEI principles swiftly. But others may need to invest more time and effort.

Meaningful and sustainable progress in DEI requires ongoing effort. It’s a marathon not a sprint. However, it’s important to note that immediate progress can still be made by taking small, actionable steps.

Many co-ops are SMEs. What are the best avenues for employees to communicate concerns in the absence of an HR department?

In the absence of a HR department, I’d suggest employees communicate their concerns through internal or external channels, depending on the sensitivity and complexity of the issue. The route an employee takes would also vary based on their individual circumstances.

Internal avenues would be direct communication with management if you feel safe to do so, designating employee representatives, using anonymous suggestion boxes, following formal grievance procedures, and participating in employee surveys.

External routes would be utilising third-party hotlines or ombudsman services, seeking support from community-based organisations, and forming peer support networks. 

In an ideal world each organisation should have multiple feedback channels to ensure open lines of communication and help address employees’ concerns.

How can you encourage employee engagement in DEI?

  • Ensure there is commitment from leadership
  • Ensure unwavering vulnerability and transparency
  • Gather and implement employee feedback regularly – it’s the best way to keep engagement high and keep employees committed and involved with your strategy
  • Allow people to share their true feelings and opinions without a fear of retaliation. Psychological safety is imperative. Think about a recent meeting you had – if someone expressed a completely oppositional opinion to the one you hold, how would you react? If the answer is attack them/their point of view, shut them down or get defensive then your workplace is probably not a psychologically safe place.

Polina Changuleva can be reached out via email [email protected] or her website sbd-consultancy.com

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