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Embracing DE&I: Going Beyond Supportive Statements

A group of colorful people standing around a sign that says diversity and inclusion.

​Corporate America made strong public statements to support diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) during last year's protests against social injustice. Advocates are pushing companies to now provide real opportunities to underserved communities—in hiring, promotions, authenticity and salary.

Increasing Opportunities  

Following the 2020 protests against police brutality and racism, many companies released a flurry of statements voicing their support for diversity. Some were criticized for making performative—rather than genuine—commitments. Others have made clear changes.

Many businesses have begun prioritizing DE&I jobs; a 2020 survey by Glassdoor revealed that in the two months after the protests began, DE&I-related job openings increased by over 55 percent after sharply declining at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Executive and leadership positions in DE&I over that time also saw a rapid increase.

More recently, PwC announced that it would be committing $125 million to support Black and Latino college students. The professional services firm intends to equip 25,000 Black and Latino students with the tools they need to enter the workforce, including digital and career readiness training and mentorship.

The effort is part of PwC's Access Your Potential initiative, which began about five years ago, explained Jeff Senne, PwC's responsible business leader. The initiative's original goal was to help K-12 students in underserved communities develop digital and financial literacy skills.

"What we realized in the last couple of years is that we wanted to go beyond the K-12 space into higher education, specifically with a focus on historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and community colleges, to support them on the road to their careers," he said. 

PwC is partnering with colleges as well as other companies and nonprofit organizations to not only train these students to be successful, but also find good jobs after graduation. To that end, PwC has committed to hiring 10,000 of these students by 2026. "For us, this is about societal value and helping people in these communities," Senne said. "But it's also business value; business wins in terms of getting access to this fantastic pool of talent."

The Need for Self-Reflection

In June 2020, Microsoft announced that it would double the number of Black employees in senior roles by 2025. A November 2019 diversity report revealed that only 2.7 percent of its executives and 4.5 percent of its employees are Black. Also in 2019, Microsoft employees reported rampant discriminatory hiring practices and sexual harassment.

Janet Lockhart-Jones, Ed.D., president and chief learning leader of Project Partners Consulting, a firm that works with companies to grow their talent and leadership capabilities, recommends that employers look internally to root out systemic problems. Companies can examine their core talent acquisition and mobility practices and address any reasons why they haven't been hiring and promoting more people of color, LGBTQ individuals or other minorities.

Lockhart-Jones noted that from her work with multinational corporations, those with DE&I programs tend to heavily emphasize the "diversity" or statistical aspects of DE&I, with substantially less time or attention paid to equity and inclusion. "Once you hire people of color for specific roles, the bigger questions are, once inside, are they being treated fairly? Do bias and discrimination exist unchecked? Do they get the opportunity to compete for the prized assignments or promotional opportunities equally as their white counterparts? Do they feel a sense of belonging?"

Authenticity in the Workplace

There are solid business reasons for employers to embrace diversity. Allowing employees to be who they are at work and not feel like they need to cover up or downplay a particular aspect about themselves enables them to feel much more comfortable and focus on their jobs.

"When you're able to remove that from the equation and you can focus on your good ideas, and your teammates are valuing you for who you are and how you show up, that's when you get the best out of people, and that's when you get the best results," explained Elizabeth Kepner, senior proposal manager at aerospace and defense corporation GDIT (General Dynamics Information Technology).

For Kepner, getting into DE&I was part of a midcareer transition that saw her shift from working as a technical editor and writer to a proposal analyst. She found herself incorporating DE&I into her work because she saw the clear benefits to employees and the organization. "I wanted everybody to bring their full self to work; I wanted everybody to feel comfortable being authentic at work," she said. "That spark of interests ballooned into being identified as a leader in that space and trying to bring others with me and get involved in it."

One group that frequently feels pressure to hide their identities in the workplace out of fear of repercussion is the transgender community. Jacob Rostovsky, a mental health clinician and transgender man who provides LGBTQ diversity and inclusion training for companies and employees, noted that companies still have a long way to go in their efforts to support this community. Sometimes it comes down to size; often, massive corporations aren't willing or able to hold training sessions with individual employees to truly educate them. Other times, organizations fail to understand that transgender individuals aren't always out to their co-workers—so there may be many more in their workforce than they realize.

Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, as well as the ongoing surge in violence against the Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, companies have been putting most of their DE&I efforts toward supporting communities of color, and there has been less focus on supporting transgender people. While Rostovsky believes that greater support for communities of color was long overdue and needs to be the DE&I focal point right now, he encourages companies not to lose sight of their transgender employees.

To keep the pendulum from swinging from supporting one marginalized group to another, Rostovsky believes that employers need to have diversity in leadership teams and committees that have a say in the overall direction of the organization. "Make their voices actually be heard with leaders in positions that make a difference," he said.

Making Salary More Equitable

If companies really want to improve their DE&I efforts, that must also extend to the actual offers they make to job candidates. As Laura Mazzullo, founder and owner of East Side Staffing, a recruiting firm focused on the placement of HR professionals, pointed out, societal inequities often lead women and people of color to undervalue themselves when vying for jobs, and companies need to make sure they don't take advantage of that.

"If a Black woman goes into an HR interview saying, 'I'm happy with $45,000' and that hiring manager knows they can pay $60,000, they have a responsibility to say, 'This job would pay $60,000,' " she said. "They shouldn't think, 'Oh, great, we're going to save $15,000.' "

Mazzullo stressed that HR hiring managers have a responsibility to make compensation more equitable now. "It's so important that we let candidates know when they're undervaluing themselves," she said. "We can't take advantage of that. And many have in the past."


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