Members of an employee resource group (ERG) at the intelligent power management company Eaton strike a pose while volunteering in their communities. ERGs are just one way for companies to create intentional spaces for diversity and inclusion. (Image: Eaton)
For all the strategies, frameworks, and tools that companies adopt to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their workplaces, success often comes down to conversation. The employers doing DEI the best are those creating intentional spaces that allow people to share their authentic selves safely and openly.
That something this simple should be so powerful — people of diverse backgrounds sitting around a discussion circle, or members of a group with similar backgrounds finding support in shared experiences — can be surprising. Yet making the time for DEI within the regular workday is one of the most effective solutions to truly change company culture.
Corporate culture, after all, is essentially the way employees interact with each other, the spaces they feel empowered to occupy at work, and the way they feel they’re given permission to spend their time and energy. Conversations among colleagues, especially around what makes us different and what connects us, are a way to enhance belonging, and to attract and retain talent.
People are less likely to stick around if they don’t feel welcomed and included or worry a situation is stacked against them based on some aspect of their identity or background. In fact, a 2022 study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that a toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover.
Research bears out that it is the day-to-day interactions among colleagues that spur greater feelings of inclusion, especially when the organization creates dedicated time and space for people to come together under the lens of DEI. In a 2021 survey of 1,115 North American organizational leaders conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 82 percent of respondents from leader companies facilitated the shift to a more equitable and inclusive culture by encouraging and supporting open conversations about DEI among employees, compared with 47 percent of laggards.
Research also shows that allyship — or support from people outside a marginalized group — is key to creating inclusive workplaces. Poornima Luthra, diversity expert, associate professor at the Copenhagen Business School and author of "The Art of Active Allyship,” championed allyship in corporate culture in a 2022 article for the Harvard Business Review. In particular, she recommended companies host “bias compass circles” that bring together trusted colleagues who are equally committed to inclusion to be vulnerable with one another about checking their biases.
“What we need to make our workplaces truly inclusive is a clear set of practical behaviors that we can embed into our day-to-day working lives,” she wrote. "Allyship is active, not passive. It’s about lifting others and creating platforms for them so that their voices are heard.”
The intelligent power management company Eaton is among those embracing allyship groups. In the company’s Ally Advocacy Circles, groups of about 10 people get together to talk about bias, how it shows up in the workplace and what to do about it. The conversations take place over about a month, held twice a year.
“We support these spaces by providing talking points and scenarios, but most importantly, it allows people to have a common language around diversity and inclusion, to see where they may have had a blind spot,” said Nicole Crews, director of global inclusion and diversity at Eaton.
“We are not afraid to ask the question: ‘What about our culture is getting in the way of everyone feeling like they belong?’ It is then up to us as an organization to listen to the answers, and to do the work to implement the practices to achieve a more inclusive workplace.”
One example is Women Adding Value at Eaton (WAVE), which takes the form of small, gender-balanced conversations intended to raise awareness about the most common types of bias against women, moderated by a woman and a man. At the end of the sessions, which last only an hour, a moderator will ask, “What commitment will you make to mitigate bias?” WAVE has held more than 300 such sessions involving over 2,000 colleagues, Eaton shared in the Profiles in Diversity Journal earlier this year.
“Through Ally Advocacy Circles, we’ve seen men and women discuss concrete ways they can support and advocate for each other in the workplace,” Crews said. “Participation keeps growing as we continue to provide more equitable access to these experiences.”
One piece sign that the approach may be working are the results of the company’s employee inclusion index score. Eaton is committed to achieve a score of 80 percent or higher in the biannual survey. The company conducted a pulse survey in 2022, an in-between year, and over half of the approximately 85,000 global workforce participated. The score rose from 74.8 percent to 75.6 percent in 2022, and 84 percent of employees said they’re proud to work at Eaton.
Along with the power of allyship and advocacy, affinity groups designed as shared spaces for colleagues from marginalized communities can create opportunities for connection where none existed before.
For consulting and investing firm Evolution, this takes the form of Gay Men’s Leadership Circles, a peer group of directors, managers, and C-suite leaders who meet to support one other and share ideas about how to make their organizations more inclusive, TriplePundit reported earlier this year.
“We find it feels safer and more comfortable for members of these circles to have these conversations among people with whom they share a common identity,” said Peter Gandolfo, partner at Evolution and one of the co-creators of the Gay Men’s Leadership Circles. “What's really powerful is to see that when they get to access their own inner strength — and in particular, get to bring more of themselves to work — it then helps that experience they're having springboard into all these other things they're getting to do to support diversity, equity and inclusion throughout their organizations.”
Many organizations also host employee resource groups (ERGs), voluntary, employee-led groups dedicated to fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Establishing groups and activities such as ERGs also help to create space for DEI within organizations, as the groups implicitly give employees permission to spend working hours participating in activities tied to DEI — with the understanding that the company values these activities just as much as they do productivity goals and other aspects of operating a business.
In particular, ERGs can “create a sense of community that helps people feel less alone,” said Stuart McCalla, an Evolution managing partner. “People are then better able to focus on their work and on building relationships. Organizations who do this well see a significant reduction in regrettable attrition,” which is when people leave by choice rather than being fired or laid off.
The key is in how one defines “doing it well.” When there’s a gap between what ERGs deliver and what employees actually want, people can feel less included at work, according to research by McKinsey. When employees feel well served by these groups, they experience greater feelings of inclusion, McKinsey’s data showed.
Another limitation to the effectiveness of intentional spaces like ERGs is when it falls on marginalized groups to lead them, which can be seen as the company pressuring people to do work for free just because they fall into a particular group such as a person of color or someone who is LGBTQ, as 3p has reported.
When companies are aware of the possible missteps and continually check in on the effectiveness of these small spaces, it can foster a sense of community that no single corporate policy, workshop or training can do on its own.
“Imagine going to work each day to a place where each part of you is welcome. I think it’s really powerful for a lot of folks,” said McCalla of Evolution.
With an invitation to show up authentically as oneself, courageous conversations can follow, allowing for greater empathy, compassion and understanding. That in itself can become the strongest foundation for an approach to diversity, equity and inclusion that goes beyond the surface and becomes the living expression of a healthy corporate culture.
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.
We're compiling all data!