How to Successfully Implement DEI Initiatives While Missing the Pitfalls

What Is DEI? Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace 

By DeVryWorks

June 26, 2023

Diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI for short, describes values that are being embraced by organizations to meet the needs of people from different races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and sexual orientations. In this article, we will thoroughly explore diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and answer important questions like: What is DEI, what does DEI stand for and why is DEI important? 

Our discussion will also touch on how employers can successfully implement DEI initiatives in their organizations, unleashing the power of DEI for improved talent mobility.

Defining Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Diversity, equity and inclusion are commonly grouped together (and sometimes with an added component: Belonging) because they are so closely interrelated. When they are combined, it’s easy to see their impact. To better answer the first question — what is DEI — let’s take a close look at the meaning and purpose of each component of this triad.


The term diversity refers to the representation of diverse groups in a given population. In this context, the population is the workforce. Within an organization, a high level of diversity means that genders, ages, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and other things that make up a diverse culture are well represented. 

Types of diversity include:

  • Gender diversity

  • Age diversity

  • Ethnic and racial diversity

  • Sexual orientation diversity

  • Physical ability diversity

There are several ways in which organizations can work toward building a culture of diversity:

  • Create an inclusive workplace: An inclusive workplace environment is one where every person feels welcome, safe, comfortable and valued. Consider tactics like mentoring programs, interactive training and employee resource groups as part of a documented DEI strategy.  

  • Create a succession plan for diverse talent: Consider how your evolving DEI benchmarks and goals can dovetail with your talent succession plan to achieve a future workforce that is diverse, skillful and productive.

  • Establish learning pathways for skills advancement: Helping to balance the scales for underrepresented talent, dedicated learning pathways can help instill confidence in your organization’s “rising stars” as they prepare to take on new roles. These pathways include targeted scholarships, learning cohorts, stackable degree programs, interpersonal skills and soft skills.   

  • Ensure learning pathways are taken: Once you’ve offered educational opportunities, look at this as a fundamental first step in a long journey. For these pathways to be practical, they must be aligned with your upskilling and reskilling needs as well as your DEI goals. 

  • Check on your progress, adjust your goals: See where your company is making progress or lagging with a set of metrics that is suited to your unique organization. Review these benchmarks and goals, and adjust them as organizational priorities evolve. 

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In DEI, equity refers to the fair treatment of all people, regardless of gender, age, race or other characteristic. When policies are designed and built with equity, it means that opportunities or workplace outcomes are not predetermined by someone’s identity. In a subtle but important way, equity differs from equality. While equality assumes that all people should be treated the same way, equity considers a person’s unique circumstances and adjusts treatment accordingly so the end result is equal. It’s a leveling of the playing field. 

Equity has been defined as the outcome of diversity, inclusion and anti-oppression. When the historical and systemic barriers and privileges that cause oppression are eliminated, all people have the fair access, opportunity, resources and power to thrive. 

The global pandemic illuminated racial injustice and disparities in healthcare delivery across systemically disadvantaged groups in the United States. Spurred by an increase in violence and intolerance against racial and religious minorities, organizations have felt a heightened social responsibility to “lean in” to DEI initiatives. Organizations are recognizing the economic and social realities of Persons Excluded due to Ethnicity or Race (PEERs) and are focusing on equity along with diversity and inclusion.

Strategies for creating and promoting equity in the workplace include:  

  • Understanding and promoting the history, background and importance of equity.

  • Evaluating and making improvements to equity practices.

  • Communicating equity targets and sharing progress to encourage buy-in and organization-wide participation.

  • Prioritizing diversity in senior leadership.

  • Creating a mentorship program that allows minority employees to match with more senior leaders with similar backgrounds or experiences.


Inclusion refers to how members of the workforce experience their workplace and how well, or poorly, organizations embrace all employees and enable them all to make meaningful contributions to the company’s operations, leadership, success and culture. Inclusive means “all.” It means that a person who is different in some way is not treated as a “less than” or perceived as an “only,” and rather than being subjected to a series of microaggressions, they are rather free to openly be themselves and share information about their lives, or not share, as they see fit.

The strongest examples of workplace practices that contribute to an atmosphere of inclusivity are those intended to ensure that each employee is seen, recognized and included:

  • Raise awareness of inclusion through training: Inclusivity training courses can help employees understand the value of inclusivity and how to practice it in the workplace.

  • Use inclusive language when communicating: Communicating intentionally with neutral language, avoiding slang and recognizing that members of the workforce have diverse identities — gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, religion and other aspects of their individuality.

  • Recognize the importance of proper pronoun usage: An effective inclusivity practice is encouraging employees to recognize the preferred pronouns of their colleagues. Including preferred pronouns in email signatures, for example, can help to create a sense of belonging for persons of any identity, especially nonbinary team members.

  • Promote inclusive collaboration: Encourage open communication and a respectful exchange of ideas to encourage a culture where each employee is confident of the contribution they are making, or will make, to the organization’s success.

Research indicates that if organizations truly want to retain talent and unlock the potential of their workforces, they must create a culture in which all participants believe their voices are heard and they are free to make a valuable contribution to the enterprise. 

And what about barriers to creating an inclusive environment? A global survey conducted in 2020 concerning workplace inclusion found that respondents of all backgrounds encounter barriers to feeling included, and that women, members of ethnic and racial minority groups and those identifying as LGBTQ+ encounter additional challenges. Survey results further show a strong link between a sense of inclusion and employee engagement. Respondents who feel very included in their organizations are nearly 3 times more likely than their peers to feel excited by, or committed to, their organizations. The survey results further indicate that:

  • Nearly 40% of respondents say they have turned down or chosen not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion at the organization.

  • More than one-third of respondents say their organizations don’t put enough effort into creating a diverse, inclusive environment.

  • 84 percent of respondents say they’ve experienced microaggressions at work. For example, more than one in four said they have needed to correct others’ assumptions about their personal lives.

  • Many respondents said they have experienced everyday slights rooted in bias, such as not receiving credit for their ideas, being asked to speak as a representative for a group of people like themselves or being coached to communicate in a way that feels inauthentic.

Why DEI Is Important: Benefits of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The business case for diversity, equity and inclusion policies and practices has been made time and time again, with evidence to suggest that smart DEI policies can create better-performing organizations that attract top talent, are more productive, experience less employee turnover and are more well regarded. 

Veronica Calderon, chief inclusion, belonging and equity officer at DeVry University, says, “Businesses that have tied DEI into their overall missions are communicating to all of their communities of interest that diversity and inclusivity are important to them. Whether it’s in recruiting and hiring new talent, nurturing and retaining existing talent or looking forward in terms of talent succession, businesses that have made an across-the-board commitment to DEI can perform better and be more valuable than organizations that have not.”

Studies have shown that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have stronger financial returns than their national industry medians. Similarly, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have such financial results. These findings alone make a business case for increased diversity, but it’s clear that increased diversity is swiftly moving from something that organizations would like to have to a must-have for increased performance.

DEI Helps Your Recruitment Strategy

Employees and jobseekers alike expect employers to support DEI initiatives and embrace a collaborative, welcoming and respectful organizational culture. In terms of your recruitment strategy, a commitment to DEI can help you expand the pool of candidates who want to work for your company.

Diverse Workplaces Perform Better

Studies have shown that organizations with diverse teams are more likely to outperform their less-diverse competition. According to a Gartner insights article, strong diversity is much more than a “feel good” phenomenon. It is driving increased profitability. Through 2022, according to Gartner, 75% of organizations with frontline decision-making teams that reflect a diverse and inclusive culture will exceed their financial targets.

Teams with diversity in age, gender, race and ethnicity are likely to be a reflection of the broader user base of most companies, enabling them to better serve those customers. Diversity in thought, or cognitive diversity, mixes people with different thinking styles and perspectives together, avoiding “group think” and contributing to better outcomes.

DEI Can Lower Turnover and Improve Employee Retention

Research shows that diverse organizations also do better at retaining talent. Employees indicate that their decision to stay at their organization is linked to their feelings of inclusion. Inclusive workplaces are also less likely to experience high levels of absenteeism.  

DEI Initiatives Improve a Company's Reputation

Corporate chief diversity officers say that DEI initiatives result in both higher revenue and enhanced reputation. In an online survey, 168 chief diversity officers at companies with annual revenues of at least $500 million answered questions that sought to measure where their organizations fell along a DEI alignment continuum. 85% said they believed their company’s initiatives were either aligned or well-aligned.

Strong DEI initiatives can boost your organization’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) reputation and perceived trustworthiness in several ways. Chief among them are the ability to improve engagement with customers, enhancing their loyalty and satisfaction levels and improving their ability to relate to the company’s products and services. Another aspect of this reputation building applies to companies’ relationships with suppliers, investors and stakeholders, who may be more likely to support an organization that shares their goals, principles and values.

How To Successfully Implement DEI Initiatives

By following a basic action plan, employers can create an organizational culture that champions DEI. It’s important to think of DEI as a principle that is embedded in your organizational DNA, rather than a one-and-done exercise.

Assess the Current State of DEI

An effective first step along your DEI journey is measuring your current DEI status. It’s important to establish this “baseline” against which to measure your progress. How diverse is your workforce in terms of race, gender and other elements? Does your company have a stated DEI policy? To determine how inclusive and equitable your workplace actually is, questions like the following could be included in a DEI survey:

Diversity questions:

  • Do all workers in the business have the same opportunity to prosper?

  • Do you trust your company to be fair to all the workers?

  • If you raised a diversity concern, do you think your bosses would take it seriously?

  • Has any person or group ever discriminated against you?

  • Do you feel like you belong in your workplace?

  • Do your colleagues treat each other with respect?

  • Do you feel like your cultural identity is a barrier to career progression?

  • Would you advise someone of similar background, culture and gender identity to work in your company?

  • Do you feel valued by your company?

  • Have you ever seen favoritism play out in the company?

  • Are policies supporting disabled employees adequately?

Inclusion questions:

  • Have you ever felt left out by other employees in certain activities?

  • Do you feel the programs in the office are inclusive?

  • Do you ever face prejudice or discrimination in your workplace based on race, gender or sexual orientation?

  • Do you feel the working environment in your company is safe to be your authentic self?

  • Are you comfortable discussing your beliefs, backgrounds and cultural experiences with your coworkers?

  • Do all workers have equal access to promotion opportunities in the company?

  • Is your opinion valued?

  • Are decisions for promotion made regardless of cultural differences?

  • Have you ever personally noticed discrimination in your workplace?

  • Is there support for disabled employees?

Set Specific and Measurable Goals

Use the data gathered in your assessment to formulate and document specific, measurable and time-bound DEI goals. Some examples of DEI goals might include requiring all managers to attend diversity and inclusion training, creating an inclusion advisory board of internal and external stakeholders and increasing representation of black employees in senior leadership roles by a specific level.

It's important to be transparent about your goals and the progress you’re making toward them. Share all information with employees across the board and create opportunities to receive honest feedback.

Develop an Action Plan

Your DEI action plan should consider all aspects of your organization’s culture, from recruitment and retention, to employee upskilling and reskilling, to benefits policies. Create a more equitable hiring process by writing job descriptions that are free of gendered language or jargon that could make potential candidates feel excluded. If you hope to build a diverse team, this is a way to start strong. State your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion explicitly in job descriptions and provide links to employee resource groups, codes of conduct or other aspects of your DEI profile that will educate job candidates. 

Being proactive in attracting a diverse talent pool means jettisoning the “Just Like Me” hiring bias from your culture. Many industries have relied far too much on hiring policies that allow managers to use their discretion to hire people with whom they are comfortable, or who look like them and talk like them. This can impede the progress of DEI initiatives and contribute, long term, to a single-dimensional and non-diverse environment where decision-making can’t be informed by fresh perspectives and diverse backgrounds.

By following fundamental steps like using inclusive language, recognizing correct pronoun usage and being inclusive in collaborating, as discussed earlier, employers can create a culture of inclusivity where each team member feels valued and recognized. 

Align Employee Tuition Benefits with DEI Initiatives

If your company offers a tuition benefits program, be sure that you review its policies to see how they dovetail with your documented DEI initiatives. Look for things that could discourage participation by frontline workers and entry-level careerists. For example, does your program offer tuition assistance paid directly to educational institutions, or do employees pay for tuition and fees up front and wait for the company to reimburse them? For many workers who are in a position to benefit the most from such programs, an inability to finance their education due to poor credit or no credit represents a very real obstacle to their upward mobility. An inclusive tuition benefits program is one that does not impose a financial burden on employees from underrepresented groups by requiring them to finance their education and wait for reimbursement. 

Secure Leadership Buy-In

DEI leaders must be assured of senior leadership’s commitment to their organization’s DEI goals. The burden should not fall solely on the shoulders of DEI leaders. The C-Suite must be fully engaged and dedicated to achieving DEI goals and addressing the challenges the company may face along the way.

Educate Employees

Employee education is crucial in implementation of DEI initiatives and goal achievement. Data collected by McKinsey suggest employers should look for ways to bring everyone into the conversation, not just employees from underrepresented groups. Approaches like “allies” programs can help to combat microaggressions and calendar notifications can be used to include quieter members in team discussions.

Implement and Evaluate Initiatives

Creating a workplace environment that champions DEI begins with simple, measurable and actionable steps. 

  • Promote your DEI efforts: Communications coming directly from senior leadership will resonate more effectively with staff than a simple memo from the HR department.

  • Make DEI part of your business plan: When DEI initiatives are woven into the fabric of your organization’s business plan, stakeholders’ confidence levels will be elevated. 

  • Embrace DEI on every level: From interns and part-timers to the most senior of your senior leadership, participating in conversations and getting feedback on DEI at all levels is crucial to the success of your initiatives.

  • Be authentic and encourage sharing: Everyone’s DEI story should be heard. Encouraging team members to share their experiences when appropriate is a good way to help others understand the “why” behind your DEI initiatives.

  • Demonstrate DEI importance to job candidates: Make your company’s equal employment opportunity statement as publicly accessible as possible and highlight your ERGs (employee resource groups). Follow through with clearly developed DEI messaging in your onboarding materials.

Challenges and Opportunities of Implementing DEI

Even companies that have prioritized DEI at every level of their organizations can experience gaps between their strategic implementation and ongoing progress. What factors can potentially derail your DEI program


    Lack of goals and metrics: Organizations are challenged with the decisions of what to measure, and how. Many companies, for example, will measure only the hiring of women and people of color, without analyzing the real underlying issues within their corporate culture.

  • Inadequate training: While training isn’t the cure for all DEI program ills, it is essential for DEI success. Workshops in understanding emotional intelligence, creating an inclusive culture, awareness of microaggression and unconscious bias can make an impact on leadership and team members.

  • Lack of buy-in from leadership: When leaders fail to prioritize DEI or feel the company is already doing enough, use data — a language business decision-makers everywhere understand — to argue for a stronger commitment. Tactics like surveys to measure employee sentiment and data gathered from employment websites can help build a clearer picture of where your DEI efforts may be coming up short.

  • Budgetary restrictions: In 2020, it was reported that the global market for DEI was $7.5 billion. But when the budget is restricted, DEI leaders are challenged to work around those restrictions while delivering an effective program. An effective approach is to justify the details of the budget by connecting them with organizational or executive values.

  • Cultural resistance: Pushing back against the progress of any DEI strategy is the difficulty of shifting your company’s culture, and the unconscious bias that employees may not be aware they have. People may struggle with the very idea they have biases because it clashes with their self-image as a “good person.” Among the many types of cultural biases that have been identified are affinity bias (in which people connect with others who share their interests), conformation bias (the tendency to judge people selectively), attribution bias (judging a person’s behavior based on previous observations and interactions you’ve had with them), and conformity bias (also known as peer pressure).

How DeVryWorks Can Help Advance Your DEI Initiatives

DeVryWorks, the workforce development partnership program of DeVry University, can help you solve current and predicted talent gaps by designing customized learning pathways to upskill and reskill team members. We can also help you develop an inclusive tuition benefits program that addresses your talent succession challenges and is aligned with your DEI initiatives to maximize employee engagement and retention.

Contact us today to discover what DeVryWorks can do for your organization.