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REAL Talk: Communicating DEI (properly) in 2021

REAL Talk: Communicating DEI (properly) in 2021

Your teams look to you as the expert on, and champion for, fair practices in your organization. But how familiar are you with what DEI is? Or how to talk about it with your colleagues?

Decoding DEI — what does it mean?

As HR managers, recruiters, and business leaders, we know the importance of D&I in the workplace. We know that a diverse and inclusive workforce benefits our organizations, our talent, and society at large.

But do you know how equitable your business is as well?

Putting the ‘E’ in DEI, equity is essential to the impact of your D&I endeavors. It’s the process by which we constantly evaluate our practices, approaches, and policies — double-checking for equality and fairness. And, as such, equity is the missing piece that ensures we’re not just making empty promises but pushing to make sustainable change possible, too.

We need to make sure that, not only do [all employees] have a job, but they have the same ability to get promoted, to contribute, and have the same impact — in the world and in the workplace — as their peers.”

— Catalina Colman, Director of HR and Inclusion at Built In

If you’re making a commitment to Diversity and Inclusion, you can’t forget about Equity. Nor can you allow any ambiguity to stop you interrogating what’s really going on in your organization.

‘Diversity’, ‘Inclusion’, and ‘Equity’ defined

If you’re going to be talking to your teams about diversity, inclusion, and equity, it’s really important to be clear about the terms you’re using. These concepts are so closely intertwined that it can be difficult to untangle exactly what we mean by each one — and how they differ.


Diversity refers to the breadth of voices within your organization. It means making the effort to manage unconscious bias and avoid the potential for ‘groupthink’.


Equity is about recognizing that not everyone is starting from the same place or facing the same challenges. While you can set Diversity and Inclusion goals — and measure them against agreed parameters — Equity is different. To be equitable, we need to continuously appraise the way our organizations’ function.


Inclusion ensures that all voices in the team are heard, respected, and that everyone feels able to speak up. A team may be diverse, but suffer a lack of inclusivity. This can happen if businesses are more dedicated to filling diversity quotas than changing their talent approach or culture for the better.

Our hiring, talent development, and remuneration practices can be equitable. Or they can not be. And the latter is more likely true in your business right now.

An example of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity at play together

Let’s take the example of gender in the workplace. 

A truly gender-diverse team would include members across the gender spectrum: cis, trans, non-binary, and genderqueer. And make it clear that all candidates will be considered for roles, regardless of their gender identity. Inclusivity will make it possible for these employees to reach their full potential — there’d be a culture of shared respect, where no-one feels like the “other” or an “outsider”.

But this team will only be equitable when all individuals’ needs are acknowledged and catered to. What barriers may exist in a genderqueer employee’s career trajectory? What about their personal lives — do you have policies and paperwork in place for genderqueer individuals to take maternity/paternity leave when needed? Or would this request be totally unprecedented? Which pay grade will they fall into (because let’s face it, the gender pay gap still exists). And so on.

Equitability demands that we reassess every touchpoint in our employee experience, looking for ways to continuously improve. Equity is a process — one that never really ends.

Crucially, while Diversity and Inclusion focus on minority groups, Equity permeates everything and impacts everyone. It’s about total fairness; no favoritism. And that’s why we all play a role in getting DEI right.

Talking to your team about DEI

Now that you understand the significance of equity alongside diversity and inclusion, it’s time to educate your team on its importance.

Time to get “REAL”

The Center for Creative Leadership has developed a framework for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion:

  • Reveal relevant opportunities.
  • Elevate equity.
  • Activate diversity.
  • Lead inclusively.

Revealing opportunities

Taking progress step-by-step, the framework challenges leaders to discover and become aware of the types of diversity within and across business groups. Step back and review your organization as a whole — how diverse is it? — and on a more granular, team-by-team or departmental level.

Putting equity in the spotlight

At this stage, businesses need to face up to the shortcomings of their organizational approach so far. Chances are, your business is not a level playing field for all employees. Now is the time to admit those mistakes to the company and to be clear on what you promise to do differently in the future.

Amplifying diversity

Once equity has been “elevated”, and you’re operating with fairness in mind, then you can amplify diversity. When we start from an equitable square one, then building diversity into your teams won’t risk preferential treatment or discrimination.

If we’d thought of equity before the first person’s paycheck was signed… would we have a gender pay gap or lack of female representation in the boardroom? Probably not. If we’d thought about equity early on, would employees get the Christmas break off as standard, but not Eid or Chinese New Year? Hardly likely.

Being a leader

Then all that’s left to do is to “Lead inclusively”. To maintain, and promote, the promises made for Equity and Diversity. This “REAL” framework is a very useful tool for shaping a DEI roadmap in any organization.

Focus on what needs to change — before it’s asked of you

We need to examine every facet of our policies and environment. Actively think about what can and should be changed, why, and when

Be preemptive. Please don’t wait until you have a genderqueer employee to assess maternity/paternity agreements, as we saw above. And don’t wait until you have Muslim hires before considering how your office supports their prayer routines.

Once you’ve identified the areas for change, commit to making those changes. Communicate what you are trying to achieve and why that’s important. Ensuring that your teams understand your decisions’ intention can help improve buy-in and create active enthusiasm (rather than begrudging acquiescence). 

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Keeping the conversation alive, through 2021 and beyond

We said before that DEI, and equity, in particular, will never be ‘achieved’, and for those posturing in the D&I space, that’s not very exciting.

Equity will always be an ongoing process and something vital to strive for. But measurement, and celebration of achievements, is of critical importance, too.

Seek out insights from employee climate surveys. Or do a yearly round-up of “what’s changed,” “what’s changing,” and “what we need your views on.” Sharing positive results will help energize and inspire your team — so keep that feedback loop alive.

Look at indirect measures as well. These could include reduced employee turnover for specific groups or a drop in grievances.

We all play a role, so keep playing yours.

When we work so hard to create a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace, it’s easy to forget that we’re only a small part of the process. We might have thrown the first snowball, but the avalanche of progress comes when our team members understand and support our goals. 

Now that you know how to talk about DEI with your teams, why not get out there and start the conversation?

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