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TD Magazine

View Engagement Through a DEI Lens

Friday, September 30, 2022

Employee engagement and inclusion strategies should be interconnected.

Few dichotomies in talent management and corporate life have been as misaligned and ill-conceived as the division between employee engagement and inclusion or creating a culture of belonging. Broadly speaking, engagement can be thought of as an employee's emotional investment in their work and company. The true work of inclusion is in building a culture in which staff feel like they belong.

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The interconnectedness between engagement and inclusion is one that talent development professionals have not widely explored. In fact, if the Great Resignation has shown us anything, it's that employees will no longer passively stay at organizations where they do not feel truly valued, heard, and respected. Far from simply remaining disengaged in a company that does not value them, workers are now opting to leave in droves, a trend that has resulted in one of the tightest labor markets in many years.

What if the solution, in part, was to dissect, understand, and better implement changes that drive both greater engagement and inclusion, thereby increasing an employee's overall sense of well-being and emotional commitment to their employer?

The great disconnect

In most organizations today, employee engagement is disconnected from inclusion strategies. One notable example is how most companies conduct L&D. For example, leaders may have to attend a Management 101 or Leading People course and then separately attend a training program on inclusive leadership. While there may be some nuances to managing people or projects in a specific corporate or organizational environment, in general, leadership courses should be more integrated into inclusive leadership training. After all, great leadership is inclusive leadership.

As another example, companies oftentimes don't diagnose certain talent challenges—such as turnover or succession planning—through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. When viewed through a DEI lens, certain patterns of data-informed insights—for instance, disparities in pay or promotion rates—may emerge that can help ensure an organization adequately addresses the talent challenge for the entire employee population.

Those are just two examples of many that illustrate the compartmentalized way that most leaders and organizational cultures think about employee engagement and inclusion. Companies must forge a better alignment between those two critical areas.

Caring curiosity is necessary

It is no longer sufficient to simply care about one aspect of an employee's experience—talent development and HR professionals, and leaders in general, must tend to the total employee experience. In other words, they must think holistically about workers' mental, physical, emotional, career, and financial health. The starting point is caring curiosity.

Caring curiosity is both the art and science of asking questions with genuine concern for the individual and with the intent of getting at the root cause of a problem or situation. It's a way of diagnosing organizational issues with concern for the person at the center of the inquiry. Train and empower leaders to create environments of trust and then empower them to lean in with caring curiosity.

In Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em, the authors detail the importance of asking questions. People often discount how powerful genuinely caring questions, rendered in an environment of trust, can be. The Saratoga Institute reports that 50 percent of work-life satisfaction is determined by the relationship workers have with their managers. Therefore, empowering leaders to lean in with caring curiosity and strengthening the manager-employee relationship remains one of the most important levers that can affect overall employee satisfaction. Engaging in caring curiosity entails having the courage and know-how to ask the right questions and to take the initiative to act on the feedback. Doing so builds trust and enables organizational culture change.

Leaders asking employees about themselves and leaning in with caring curiosity mitigates the effect of biases or assumptions individuals may have about people. For example, unless leaders ask, they may mistakenly assume that a female employee cares more about workplace flexibility than does an employee who does not self-identify as female. Leaning in with caring curiosity and asking the right questions about what could improve employees' work experience is critical.

One powerful question leaders can ask is: "If there was one thing that, if changed, would result in a happier, healthier work environment for you and your colleagues, what would that be?" Equally critical is following up in whatever ways possible on what employees reply. That effective and underused leadership tactic helps workers feel truly valued and seen in the workplace, and it should be a critical starting point in effective manager-employee relationships.

Career concerns abound

At the risk of stating the obvious, a major focus for staff is invariably their careers and the time and attention that is given to understanding what they would like to do in the organization and then providing the tools and road map to get there. That is yet another underleveraged aspect of the employee experience that often drives workers toward the door. Today's leaders must care about career trajectories and growth and also understand those elements through a DEI lens. Research abounds about the overwhelming difference in the way different segments of the employee population experience career conversations and growth.

In terms of gender diversity, numerous research reports support the notion that men receive substantive feedback from their leaders and mentors, and women tend to receive feedback on issues of style rather than substance. Far too many women have received advice from their managers to "smile more" or "appear more friendly" or enhance their "executive presence"—all terms that are steeped in gender bias and male normative views of leadership. The nature and effect of that is even more pronounced for historically marginalized women in the workplace.

Many companies, in part to address issues of greater representation in the workplace, institute mentoring programs for underrepresented talent to help accelerate career growth. Yet even with well-intentioned career initiatives, such as mentoring programs, if they are not examined through a DEI lens, those programs will invariably fail those whom they are meant to serve.

For instance, research supports that women tend to be overmentored and undersponsored. And while sponsorship changes dynamics and leadership trajectories for underrepresented talent, much of sponsorship informally happens among men largely on golf courses across the US.

Understanding the nuances of career development and the ways in which even well-intentioned programs can have disparate effects on different populations is another way that the engagement-inclusion connection plays out in the modern workplace.

To avoid those pitfalls, approach such initiatives with an eye toward equity and always be conscious of whether the program will have the intended effect. Without a DEI lens on talent initiatives such as mentorship and sponsorship programs, the programs may create more harm than good to the populations they are intended to better serve.

Culture counts

Besides the career conversation and the nature of the manager-employee relationship, another key aspect of the employee experience is the worker's day-to-day experience. Workplaces of the past sought to enhance the day-to-day experience by introducing table tennis, free lunches, or various other job perks. However, although they are nice to have, such perks easily become moot points if staff are experiencing microaggressions in the workplace.

Microaggressions are the daily indignities, often slight, that underrepresented talent can experience in the workplace. An example of a microaggression may be when employees go out to lunch and neglect to invite the team's sole female or Black employee. That may seem like an innocuous slight or be written off as an innocent mistake. But when such incidents happen day in and day out to a certain worker, it often contributes to an overall sense that the individual does not belong in the specific work group or workplace.

A remote or hybrid workplace may not mitigate against microaggressions. For example, on a virtual call, it is easy for someone who is not conscious of inclusion to ignore staff who are different or, conversely, to give additional airtime to employees whom the individual has favoritism toward.

Any of those types of incidences taken on their own may not amount to much, but the cumulative effect of the seemingly innocent daily slights can result in an employee who eventually leaves the organization. Microaggressions are often described as "death by a million different cuts." To help mitigate against such dynamics in the workplace, seek to understand the historically marginalized talent's experience and diagnose what organizational behaviors are occurring.

It starts at hire

Let's shift from the experience in the workplace to where it all begins—in the hiring process. Leaders will often hire for fit, which is frequently code for finding someone who closely mirrors them. That is similar to the affinity bias that all people have, which is to navigate toward someone who appears to be similar to themselves. Unless there are intentional checks to mitigate such bias in hiring, it can go unchecked and lead to an environment that unintentionally excludes the diversity the team is lacking and that can strengthen it.

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Great leaders value diversity and see it as a necessary ingredient to arriving at better business outcomes. In a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, no one leader can observe and anticipate all there is to see and know about any one topic. Thus, having a diversity of perspectives around the table that enables an environment that fully leverages the power of those perspectives becomes critical to leadership in today's workplace.

So rather than using determinations of fit to drive hiring, employers should look for candidates who align with organizational values and bring a different perspective. Furthermore, many organizations have a need to expand the talent pool from which they have traditionally drawn applicants for jobs.

Today, a plethora of organizations are focused on underrepresented talent in the workplace. Whether they are groups that concentrate on women engineers or organizations that are focused on Hispanic or Asian American leadership development, having an effect on hiring in a way that welcomes diversity is critical. The success of building a more diverse talent pipeline clearly depends on an employer's ability to source talent from feeder pools of historically marginalized talent and to expand options for hiring.

The connection between engagement and ensuring a more diverse talent pipeline cannot be underestimated. In fact, it is often said that employees "cannot be what they cannot see." If staff do not see people who look like them in leadership roles in an organization, they begin to believe that the company is not a place where they can truly be successful—and that often leads to active disengagement on the job. That is one of the many negative outcomes of a lack of intentional focus on diversity in hiring and a lack of diversity at every level of the organization.

To mitigate against any detrimental impacts from lack of representation, intentionally mitigate bias in hiring, ensure diversity considerations in succession planning and promotion, and embed DEI considerations at every stage in the employee life cycle.

Hybrid adds complexity

Employers that decide to permanently enable hybrid work must ensure both engagement and inclusion and belonging for employees who are on-site as well as visible only via a Zoom screen. Some of the same considerations articulated above apply regardless of whether workers are on-site or remote. Nevertheless, a hybrid work environment will require leaders to become even more vigilant about ensuring that everyone feels heard, has adequate airtime to express their viewpoints during meetings, and still feels engaged and emotionally committed to the organization's broader vision and strategic goals.

Those challenges are playing out in real time—and many TD, HR, and DEI professionals are actively engaged in writing the next chapter of what will be their organization's approach to such issues for a long time to come. The issues and complexities will no doubt differ whether employers decide to go fully remote or hybrid. Leaders will be best served by no longer looking through these workplace challenges through a binary lens.

Seek alignment

The stakes are high regarding fostering employee engagement and creating a culture of belonging for all employees. Both must be seen as a holistic conversation. Employers that lean into the conversation from a holistic point of view, envisioning impacts to the whole person—including mental, physical, career, and emotional aspects—can start turning the Great Resignation into the Great Realignment between engagement and inclusion and reap the enormous benefits of doing so. Such organizations will not only win the war for talent but also create institutions that are poised for longterm, sustainable success for generations to come.

Critical Considerations

These questions can better help talent development professionals close the gap between engagement and inclusion. The responses will help to advance workplaces to be more inclusive, equitable, and engaged—truly bringing out the best in an organization's greatest asset.

How do you know that your employees feel respected? What mechanisms does your organization have in place to educate, detect, and prevent micro-aggressions in the workplace?

Given what we learned from the pandemic and how we are currently working, what do we need to do to differently to ease any additional stress on employees?

  • As a leader, have you observed different standards for promotion applied to different people? If so, how have you championed greater equity in how talent management practices are applied at your organization?
  • As a manager, how do you help your employees create connections that will support their career objectives?
  • Where would you most need to deploy resources to stem the cost of employee turnover?
  • How do you balance (in visibility, making a difference, etc.) the opportunities you provide to others?
  • What have you done or do daily to build a healthy trust account with your whole team?
About the Author

Liji Thomas, CPA, CIA, CRMA, SHRM-CP, is chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. In her role, she oversees workforce development efforts, business outreach, community engagement and the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council—consisting of representation from 10 employee resource groups and five labor unions—and seeks to strengthen the organization’s commitment to equity and inclusion across all stakeholder groups.

About the Author

Beverly Kaye is recognized internationally as one of the most knowledgeable and practical professionals in the areas of career development, employee engagement, and retention. Her contribution to the field includes the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Love `Em or Lose `Em: Getting Good People to Stay, now in its sixth edition. Her recent books include Up Is Not the Only Way and Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, which helps managers blend career conversations into their everyday routine. In 2018, ATD honored Beverly with a Lifetime Achievement Award recognizing her contributions to the profession. The Association of Learning Professionals honored her with their 2018 Thought Leadership Award. In 2019, Beverly was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute for Management Studies.

2 Comments
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This is a very well-written piece that I found cathartic. You highlight important issues for historically marginalized groups in the workplace. You clearly summarize the approach that I have advocated as a "whole person talent development leader committed to developing healthy, inclusive, and effective individuals, teams, and organizations." It was relieving to see points I've made such as the importance of integrating inclusive leadership in core leadership development opportunities. Kudos!
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Employee engagement is an inclusion strategy for all employees, ideally around the purpose of serving customer profitably. Trying to break up employees into racial, gender, age or other groups, while potentially well intended, has the opposite effect on inclusion and engagement.
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