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The Role of DE&I in a Strong Company Culture

A group of people clapping their hands in a row.

​High-profile CEOs' choices are creating workplace cultures that distance workers and stymie diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts.

Entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, for example, fostered a reckless, toxic corporate culture at his former cryptocurrency firm, FTX, according to news reports, prior to his arrest for alleged wire fraud and other charges in December.

And Twitter CEO Elon Musk has been castigated by his own employees for creating a workplace culture that requires them to work long hours and even sleep in their offices to show their dedication to the company.

About half of employees today do not believe that their business leaders understand what constitutes a strong culture and think CEOs are out of touch with what employees want from their companies, according to a recent report by publishing platform eLearning Industry.

"[The survey results] serve as an important reminder that capturing and retaining talent—and therefore, driving business outcomes—requires leaders to forge deeper connections with staff and gain an understanding of employees' expectations for culture," said Christopher Pappas, founder of eLearning Industry.

Among 1,200 workers surveyed:

  • 53 percent say company leaders are out of touch with what employees want in company culture.
  • 53 percent say leaders think that simply working in an office is "company culture."
  • 37 percent believe culture doesn't exist in the workplace today.
  • 34 percent think their company's culture is toxic because it does not factor in or improve DE&I.

Nearly half of workers say the lack of diversity at the C-suite level creates an outdated culture, Pappas noted.

"This is a huge barrier to creating an inclusive culture, as employees will feel more included and represented if they see diverse perspectives from the top down," he said. "However, these stats also underscore bigger challenges organizations face today that could impact their DE&I efforts."

Some businesses have laid off employees to prepare for a potential recession, while others deal with the negative effects of the U.S. labor shortage. These ongoing workforce challenges have hindered DE&I initiatives and progress.

"It's more important than ever that business leaders and HR teams continue to prioritize diversity and inclusion to align with employee demands and set themselves up for a successful culture in 2023 and beyond," Pappas said.

DE&I Not a Priority

The report indicated that 41 percent of workers believe their company is not diverse and doesn't prioritize DE&I. Nearly 33 percent of workers say leadership is prejudiced against women and certain minorities.

"Corporate workers are putting a clear stake in the ground, demanding their employer does better to improve DE&I and even considering this a core part of a solid culture," Pappas explained. "It's critical that employers listen to these demands and invest in their DE&I strategy to make sure employees feel satisfied, included and appreciated."

A 2021 report by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 71 percent of workers somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that their organizations were behind where they should be in their DE&I efforts. And 50 percent of respondents said their companies lacked diversity at senior levels.

Bryce J. Celotto, a Charlotte, N.C.-based policy advocate and DE&I consultant, said that many companies boast about their workforce diversity. Much of that diversity, however, is found among workers in entry-level roles, not in company leadership.

"They won't have any real power when it comes to decision-making, people leadership, mentorship, budgets and so on," Celotto said. "Having diverse representation and voices from a variety of communities across levels … creates real internal pathways for employees to be promoted and seen."

Ensuring All Employees Feel Seen

A strong company culture cannot manifest without inclusion and belonging. Pappas explained that organizations can improve DE&I initiatives in various ways and help employees feel included. Employers should consider:

  • Creating mechanisms to solicit feedback from their workforce through regular meetings, suggestion boxes or online polls.
  • Devising strategies that are adaptable and flexible, so they can evolve in real time alongside employees' shifting expectations.
  • Putting employees' needs above all else.

"Empowered employees are the key to having a successful business," Pappas added. "Employee appreciation goes a long way and it will certainly reflect on how they treat their jobs and customers."

Celotto noted that leaders must be willing to meet their team members on their terms to shape a company culture rooted in belonging. They should disrupt traditional notions of leaders who give directives while sitting in the corner office.

"Creating an inclusive company culture requires leaders to ask their team members—everyone from the janitor to the executive assistant to the team leader—what they need to feel seen, supported and safe at this company," Celotto explained. "And then convene those answers and needs into a comprehensive strategic plan that crosses every business enterprise and stakeholder."


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