Businesses have struggled to establish diverse, equitable and inclusive (DEI) work environments for some time now, but the events of 2020 put a spotlight on just how bad most organizations are at building impactful DEI efforts.

After COVID-19 resulted in staggering unemployment trends across the U.S., the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in October that Black and Latinx workers have endured far slower employment recovery rates compared to white employees. In August 2021, the unemployment rate was 8.8% among Black workers and 6.4% for Latinx workers, compared to 4.5% for white workers.

The recovery rates are not isolated to ethnicity; women lost their jobs at a much higher rate than men during the past year. Oxfam International reports that the pandemic cost women around the world at least $800 billion in earnings. The numbers are devastating and point to the need for massive changes across the board in terms of providing more sustainable and inclusive working environments for underrepresented groups.

Successful DEI not only enables culturally diverse workforces — it’s imperative to business success. Last year, McKinsey confirmed the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability — proving DEI has a profound effect on corporate outcomes.

But progress is slow going. The reason? Businesses are prioritizing diversity without putting equitable and inclusive structures in place to support a diverse work culture. The reality is, before you can create a truly diverse workforce, you must commit to equitable and inclusive initiatives that support all employees. No matter how diverse your team is, your DEI efforts will fail if you don’t provide equitable programs and inclusive environments.

Companies need to rethink their approach and reprioritize their efforts to put equity and inclusion before diversity, building EID efforts rather than DEI.

Why equity must come first

As a Black woman who spent her career focused on the employee experience — recruiting candidates, building teams and now leading diversity efforts at a security technology company — I know firsthand what racism and discrimination looks and feels like in the workplace. Time and again, companies have brought me into their organization to increase diversity, without having basic policies and programs in place to support a diverse workforce.

No matter how much I did to find opportunities for people who looked like me, it was never enough without giving them the resources and environment they needed to succeed. Discrimination complaints were often dismissed, requests for support ignored. New employees who joined a company enthusiastic and excited about their future would quickly become disenchanted with their work environment. The missing common denominator in these failures wasn’t the lack of diversity but the lack of a focus on equity.

For both employee experience teams and diversity leads, it’s important to distinguish between equity and equality. To build equity into your DEI initiatives, you must realize that each person comes to their role with a different set of needs. While equality means giving everyone the same resources, equity means giving individual employees the resources and opportunities specific to their needs so that they can reach the same level of success as their colleagues.

If businesses want to reshape how they approach DEI, they must first ask: How do we create an equitable and inclusive foundation that will lead to building and retaining diverse talent?

Closing the pay gap

Conducting a pay analysis is the first step to embracing equity and making sure the same job opportunities and pay are accessible to all employees. Historically, equity in pay and opportunities has been unattainable for underrepresented groups, resulting in a major stumbling block for most DEI initiatives. Until recently, many companies didn’t even conduct pay analysis, let alone provide transparency for salary ranges and pay scales across the organization.

A comprehensive analysis should be conducted annually to track your organization’s progress, as well as locate your weaknesses. When implemented correctly, a pay analysis will reveal your organization’s pay equity across race, gender and age.

Truly equitable systems provide fair pay wages regardless of ethnicity or gender. This is an area where businesses still struggle. Two years ago, a survey conducted by PayScale found that Black men earned 87 cents for every dollar earned by a white man, and Latino men earned 91 cents. The gender pay gap is even wider, with women earning 84% of what men earned last year. According to Pew Research, “It would take an extra 42 days of work for women to earn what men did in 2020.”

The primary goal is to close the pay gap so that Black employees and people of color earn the same as their white counterparts, and women the same as men.

It’s not a talent shortage; it’s a lack of vision

The one constant pushback I hear about DEI is that businesses are striving to be more diverse but can’t find diverse talent. All too often, the claim is that there is a talent shortage, especially in the technology industry, where roles are defined by technical capabilities. But the talent shortage is a false premise, and what’s actually happening is a lack of vision on the hiring side.

Businesses are quick to focus their hiring efforts on the wrong criteria, putting too much emphasis on years of experience or specific skill sets. This approach works against recruiting diverse talent as many underrepresented groups are denied opportunities that would lead to longevity in a role or adequate training to acquire specific skills.

If a candidate has the right traits — like resilience, creativity and ambition — they’ll likely be quick to learn whatever technical capabilities are needed to do the job in a short period of time. Companies need to understand that a person’s unique experiences and innate strengths make them a worthwhile candidate and be intentional about their hiring practices so that they’re looking beyond years of experience.

Obviously, this may not work for all open roles, but if there is any runway for training and learning opportunities, teams can make serious progress on their diversity goals by expanding their ideas of the “perfect” candidate.

Why ERGs are key

Before you can begin to make impactful changes, you must have a clear understanding of your organization’s existing culture and the gaps that may exist. While pay analysis is an important step you can take, another key effort is building support systems for your people through employee resource groups (ERGs).

ERGs can take many shapes — groups for women, Black employees, Latinx employees and LGBTQ workers, to name a few — and offer a vast amount of support across the organization.

Successful ERGs serve as the backbone of your inclusion initiatives, creating camaraderie and offering employees safe, welcoming spaces where they can share their experiences. Not only do ERGs help better serve your organization’s underrepresented groups, they help leadership increase their awareness of other cultures and life experiences.

ERGs are essential if your goal is to create allyship and provide a platform for robust dialogue around personal and sensitive topics. They not only encourage inclusion, but can dramatically increase employee retention rates. Through effective ERGs, organizations become more clear on their employees’ needs and can act on initiatives that help boost employee morale, productivity and job satisfaction.

Want to know how your employees feel about their work? Ask them

Finding the gaps in your DEI efforts is a challenge regardless of your company’s size. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. This is where employee surveys can make a huge difference, uncovering substantial data that can help build more effective DEI programs, as well as increase employee experience outcomes.

Sending out monthly, quarterly or even annual employee surveys opens the door to deep insights on employee satisfaction. It reveals gaps that may be unseen at certain levels of the organization, making it possible to address problematic issues and create new processes that better serve your DEI efforts.

Internal surveys are an invaluable tool, offering insightful data that can motivate employees. Tracking results, measuring progress and evaluating baselines is an integral component of any massive project but especially important when you’re aiming to shift work cultures and build lasting DEI structures.

Of course, none of this will work if you don’t have buy-in from leadership. Before you can implement comprehensive DEI solutions — or EID if you’re ready to wholeheartedly commit to positive change — your organization’s C-suite must be on board. To build truly equitable, inclusive and diverse organizations, business leaders must be able to articulate what these initiatives mean to them and how they want to see these initiatives show up in the organization.

Once you have leadership support, you can begin to activate sustainable DEI programs, starting with equitable pay and job opportunities. From there, you can start building safe, welcoming spaces where people are able to show up as they are. Inclusive work environments give employees the ability to bring their unique life experiences and diverse backgrounds into your organization, helping to expand your company’s outlook and ability to connect with wider audiences. After these efforts are firmly in place, you can then begin to develop a hiring strategy that not only attracts diverse employees but maintains high retention rates.

Creating successful EID programs is like building a home: You must first have a sturdy foundation and walls before you can add the decorations.