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The Globe and Mail

Every leader knows diversity and inclusion policies matter, perhaps now more than ever before, but what exactly do these big, important words actually mean? And how do you know when they’re only empty promises, rather than real policies? We ask the awkward questions so you don’t have to.

What do “diversity and inclusion policies” include?

Depending on your perspective, they’re either very big or very small. “Policies are only words on paper, and increasingly pixels on screens, that articulate an organization’s intent,” says Nouman Ashraf, director of equity, diversity and inclusion at the Rotman School of Management. These could be codes of conduct, hiring targets or quotas, but all are tangible and even measurable. “Diversity is a state of being, of actually seeing multiple identities, races and genders when you look around the room,” says Bethaney Wilkinson, author of The Diversity Gap: Where Good Intentions Meet True Cultural Change. “Inclusion is how those people, once you have them, actually feel: Are they welcome? Comfortable? Do they contribute equally? Are their ideas equally validated?” The latter is much more nuanced and takes a whole lot more work to promote and sustain.

Why are companies talking about these initiatives right now?

Diversity and inclusion have always mattered, especially to those on the marginalized side of the equation. To those who enjoy certain privileges, however, maybe not so much. “Bias is like body odour,” says Ashraf. “You can only smell that of other people.” You need only pick up a newspaper to see that denying or ignoring injustice is no longer tenable. “I’m thinking of the murder of George Floyd in America and the discoveries of the graves of Indigenous children in Canada,” says Wilkinson. Cultural moments hold a mirror up to society, she says, which creates a challenge and an opportunity for people to “face what’s true and advocate for justice and healing.”

What’s a tangible example of success?

Besides the obvious targets and quotas, more creative initiatives can be found at workplaces of all sizes. Ashraf is a fan of a default opt-in model for promotions, which means all eligible employees are considered for an opening, whether they submit their name or not. “It automatically eliminates a range of hurdles that might stop someone from applying,” he says. Wilkinson recently learned of a small company that adopted a reparations policy. “It actually pays Black employees $50 to $100 whenever they experience unintentional discrimination on the job,” she says. It’s an approach that suits this workplace for a very good reason: Bosses asked the team for a solution and then delivered.

Does every company need these policies?

Absolutely, says Ashraf. While there’s no one-size-fits-all policy, at the very least, leaders need to be aware and mindful of identity markers at play. “That which isn’t measured can’t be reported on,” says Ashraf. Wilkinson suggests surveys and focus groups, especially third-party ones wherever possible.

How do I tell if my company is doing this well?

It’s not enough to look around the room and see diverse faces and assume the work is done. Instead, look deeper at their actual experience at work, says Wilkinson. “Do they stay or is there high turnover? Do they invite their peers to apply at the company? Do they actually like working there?” For the latter, here’s a novel idea: Ask them. If the topic feels too uncomfortable to broach, assume your company culture has lots of room for improvement. ]

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