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What separates tokenism from meaningful action?

When I reflect on what led me to a career in Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI), I believe it was inevitable, in light of my own diverse lived experiences and family history. As a young woman, raised by a Jewish family made up of lawyers, teachers, and psychologists, I have always had a strong drive to tackle injustice and systemic bias.

I come from an HR, Recruitment and EDI background cross-industry, which has given me a breadth of insight into EDI best practice. This has led me to become familiar with applying an EDI lens across the talent lifecycle, from recruitment to performance management to exit. Doing so has enabled me to shift my own EDI efforts from what felt like a side of desk passion project to firmly embedding it systemically in favour of driving meaningful change long-term.

 

I often get asked what separates EDI tokenistic gestures from meaningful action, as the optics of EDI in conjunction with the slow pace of change often grabs the attention of the EDI sceptic. Whilst it is impossible to know the full motivations of an organisation at first glance, I frequently witness those more progressive organisations focus on the retention and promotion side of EDI strategy. This entails moving away from a sole focus on meeting gender and ethnicity goals within their recruitment processes. Whilst setting diversity goals can be helpful in driving more immediate change, the focus on ensuring an inclusive internal culture is also critical to avoid what is often referred to as the ‘revolving door’ of diverse talent coming in to the organisation and then swiftly exiting due to a lack of investment in their inclusion and sense of belonging. This revolving door of diverse talent can lead to significant financial, legal, and reputational risk for organisations, as is frequently observed in the media.

 

To help drive accountability for the retention and promotion of diverse talent, progressive organisations often position EDI within central business objectives and integrate them into leadership accountability scorecards, in alignment with pay and reward. This is typically coupled with robust EDI upskilling and capability building programmes, particularly encouraged for those in management positions. These organisations leverage EDI data across the talent lifecycle to inform strategic outputs and monitor progress, in order to reinforce action. This helps in driving momentum, through the successful embedding of EDI into business-as-usual processes, practices, and behaviours.

 

It is crucial that meaningful change is also actually seen; similarly, if a tree falls in the woods and no one sees or hears it falling, can we really say it has fallen? Organisations need to be transparent about the change that they are driving, and when there are improvements to be made, in order to obtain trust and buy-in from key stakeholders and shareholders. In doing so, organisations should demonstrate their in-process work against a multi-year EDI strategy. This may include celebrating diverse hires and promotions within succession planning processes, demonstrating progress against diversity goals, storytelling amongst visible leaders highlighting how they were able to overcome career barriers to reach senior tiers, and widely communicating new and progressive EDI policies.

 

The power of data underpins the difference between tokenism and actual meaningful action. Leveraging EDI data to support progress towards strategic objectives is critical in engendering a culture of trust, psychological safety, and ultimate EDI accountability. This goes beyond the responsibility of the EDI or HR team – true accountability for meaningful action requires the effort and commitment of each and every one of us, to ensure real and sustainable change.

 

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We do not provide professional help to individuals in urgent crisis. If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, please call 999 immediately. For support with suicidal thoughts, consider contacting the Samaritans UK, a trusted organisation specialising in confidential assistance during emotional distress. Your safety is paramount and there are professionals available to provide the urgent help required in such critical situations.