Managers Can Make or Break Your DEI Strategy: Here's How to Engage Them in Success

How can we work with managers to ensure they are part of creating a healthy and inclusive work environment that promotes diversity? Let’s look at why managers, above all others, are in a pivotal role to make DEI work—and explore the pre-emptive actions you can take to position managers as an asset rather than a detractor.

According to the 2022 Global Culture Research Report from SHRM, “Nearly 9 in 10 workers (87 percent) indicated that their manager contributes to setting their work team environment.” But there are troubling signs. “More than 4 in 10 workers (42 percent) have witnessed inconsiderate treatment of a co-worker by a manager in the past year.” SHRM cautions that “Inconsiderate behaviors like bullying or gossiping are destructive when left unaddressed. When supervisors are untrustworthy or insensitive to the needs of their workers, it isn’t long before work environments become toxic.”

Engage managers right from the start
To become invested in diversity, equity and inclusion, managers need to be fully engaged at the onset of conversations. Your DEI program must be established as a business (not just HR) initiative, with the benefits clearly spelled out. You can do this by being armed with research on why DEI is critical to building high-performance teams, and explaining the rationale on how DEI will benefit your company.

As your pre-planning (or re-evaluating of your current plan) commences, look at how managers can be brought into your first critical steps, including setting and reinforcing your ambitions, assessing and diagnosing the situation in your organization, and creating (or improving) your plan.

Establish a learning environment, with focus on empathy
Because each DEI journey is unique to every organization, there will be a fair amount of exploration along the way—and managers can be an integral part of that process.

The best way forward? Establish a learning environment, where some trial and error is expected and where both individual and system-wide discoveries lead the way. Experts at Deloitte put it this way, “A holistic DEI learning strategy is about more than reacting to today’s environment – it is about developing the conditions for long-term behavior changes.”

In a learning environment, having annual training along with year-round complementary activities (ie., employee resource groups and mentorship) can create a powerful mix. Ensure your education, training and other activities put the focus on empathy.

According to research from SHRM, “There is overwhelming consensus among workers that empathy is an essential quality of a healthy workplace (94 percent agree). Yet only half of workers said their organization offers empathy training for people managers. There are staggering differences between organizations that offer empathy training and those that do not.”

“Organizations that fail to offer empathy training leave themselves vulnerable to turnover. Such training is shown to boost engagement and satisfaction. Done the right way, people management can be the difference between employee empowerment and a talent drain.” As you shape your learning environment and assess your training needs, you’ll need to create opportunities that specifically address the unique DEI needs of managers.

Provide managers with practical tools and strategies
Once managers have been given the opportunity to contribute to the planning process and are exposed to annual education and training, along with complimentary activities, help them use what they have learned, with a focus on practical and functional aspects of DEI.

Managers’ days are filled with ongoing responsibilities. Being clear and specific about their involvement will get you on the right track. Starting with recruitment and moving on to other management responsibilities, here are some concrete steps managers can take to make their practices more inclusive.

  1. Take a new approach to recruitment – Provide managers with guidance on how to draw from a diverse pool of candidates. This may mean re-examining long-observed practices that limit diversity. For instance, does your organization rely primarily on employee recommendations to identify candidates? If your culture is homogenous, this could automatically create a “sameness” to the candidates who enter the pipeline. Instead, branch out to look for prospective candidates from new environments (i.e., schools, other geographic areas, alternate online recruitment platforms) that offer more diversity. And for internal hires, encourage managers to seek out and consider candidates outside their immediate circles.
  2. Refresh job descriptions to reflect inclusivityResearch has found that language in job descriptions can make a significant difference to attracting diverse talent. It’s typical for organizations to use boilerplate language for job descriptions, along with standard requirements. Work with managers to reassess what’s needed. For example, is a four-year degree essential, or can work experience that demonstrates the necessary skills be sufficient? Help managers consider the language used in job descriptions. For instance, are they loaded with acronyms and jargon? Is the language bent toward a certain gender? If so, adjustments may be needed.
  3. Make hiring processes more inclusive – “Even if your company is committed to diversity and inclusion, you might have hidden biases in your hiring strategies,” so say researchers from Wharton. If you want to ensure your slate of potential hires is diverse, you’ll want the decision-making process to reflect this. Panels should be diverse and[YM1] managers should ensure their own biases don’t impact the process. Applied behavioral scientist, Aline Holzwarth, offers this suggestion, “Hiring criteria should be clear, objective, and established in advance so that positions are not adjusted during the hiring process to fit any particular candidate.”
  4. Create equity with advancement and growth – Work with managers to ensure they understand the difference between “equality” (everyone has the same opportunity) and “equity” (everyone has a chance to succeed). Shaping promotions around equity means managers need to think holistically about the advancement needs and opportunities for each employee. Gartner’s Katie Sutherland, put it this way, “Managers are at the center of fair treatment for their employees, so it’s important to determine if managers are truly making fair and consistent decisions when it comes to performance evaluation, employee development and growth.”
  5. Infuse inclusivity into meetings – Fortify managers with the knowledge they need to facilitate inclusive meetings. This includes ensuring everyone is heard, varied opinions are considered, conversations remain solution-oriented and everyone leaves the meeting with a common understanding of next steps and decisions. In her HBR article, author and talent management expert, Kathryn Heath, likens a meeting facilitator to a conductor, “They listen critically to keep musicians playing in unison and actively control the dynamic to prevent one instrument from overpowering the rest. The same goes for leaders in meetings—you need to manage conduct and give everyone space to play their part.”

Keeping managers engaged in the long run
As your DEI program evolves, continue to engage your managers in the process. Provide a platform to contribute their ideas and help solve problems as they arise. Since they are in the best position to identify and address resistance, provide the education and guidance they will need to handle complex questions and issues.

Because DEI is a business initiative, ensure you have a system for demonstrating progress. Consider a leadership-first approach to accountability, as it is the best way to get managers on board. Finally, take time to reward your champions—as we know motivation is driven by inspiration. Bring managers to a place where they feel they are part of an organizational transformation that will lift everyone up—and that it simply cannot happen without their hard work and commitment. In doing so, you will empower them to be your most important advocate in implementing your DEI strategy.

A version of this article originally appeared in Talent Management.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

Add new comment

Please enter the text you see in the image below: