DEI on a budget: Prioritising inclusion in challenging times

Author: Georgie Williams

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How do we keep the wheels of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) spinning when budgets tighten? Georgie Williams outlines some effective DEI strategies requiring little to no financial allocation. They also discuss the caveats regarding the ethical, responsible utilisation of the skills of DEI-enthusiastic team members.

Why does DEI matter? As a reader of this commentary, it is likely that you are, at the very least, curious about the merits of DEI as a facet of your business or organisation's workplace strategies. Often considered a "soft subject" or a non-essential resource expenditure, DEI often suffers the soonest and the most when company budgets tighten.

However, with a wealth of research now demonstrating the benefits of workplace diversity and inclusion on profitability, retention and talent attraction, it is evident that organisations shelving DEI initiatives in times of economic challenge stand to face greater long-term issues than those that do not.

Power of the newsletter

When bringing matters of equality and inclusion into the workplace, it is easy for educational and informative initiatives to come across as cold, impersonal and abstract. Many of us will have had experience of receiving training about social groups where these groups are discussed in the third person by someone outside of that community. This third-person approach can be "othering", which is defined as "the act of treating someone as though they are not part of a group and are different in some way". This style of education can lead people to think of these groups abstractly, as faceless, nameless people with whom one does not regularly interact. It is much harder for people to apply inclusive, equitable principles to people with whom they have no touchpoint of empathy or sense of personal connection.

This is where utilising the voices inside your organisation can be so powerful. A safe, accessible way to do this is through an employee newsletter. If your institution sends out a weekly or even monthly email, this company-wide reach can be integrated into DEI practices very effectively. For example, if your institution wishes to acknowledge and celebrate Pride Month, a call can be put out to LGBTQ+ identifying employees in the weeks leading up to this period to invite them to contribute their perspectives and experiences in the newsletter. This can be as broad or specific as they like, for example, their experiences surrounding inclusion, what Pride means to them, or their personal experiences. Allowing contributions to be made anonymously can be an effective way of reinforcing trust between employees and their DEI representatives. It also means that employees are not required to out themselves if they want to contribute to the initiative.

The desired outcome is for employees to understand their colleagues' identities and experiences in greater depth and, most crucially, having that sense of personal connection when DEI matters are being discussed. Instead of having to think broadly and conceptually about how to engage with social groups (eg ''transgender people" or "disabled people"), newsletter initiatives allow employees to put faces and names to those they are learning to respectfully engage with. This initiative can be extrapolated to a host of different calendar events and platform voices with various experiences throughout the year.

Employee resource groups: coalition, collaboration and solidarity

Many of us have heard of employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs are groups that meet in-person and/or virtually on a regular basis. They provide employees with the opportunity to express challenges faced in the workplace, network or bolster their sense of belonging in a company. These groups are often centred around a shared marginalised facet of identity or underrepresented community.

ERGs humanise a workplace. They put faces to communities within the organisation and they allow those touchpoints of empathy to be established with our colleagues. However, their reach goes beyond initiatives such as the newsletter and they provide a continued well of insight, expertise and problem-solving that departments can consult on DEI matters. 

Undoubtedly, many of us will be familiar with these groups and the cohesion generated has benefits beyond the collation and interaction of important, diverse voices. Research shows that in-group solidarity is particularly effective in motivating individuals to address inequality, prejudice and discrimination. When faced with workplace inequality, employees may be more inclined to blame themselves or minimise the impact of these experiences if they do not have peers with whom to discuss and unpack them. These groups assist in the generation of peer support, which validates perspectives on workplace inequality when experiencing self-doubt and can help employees report concerns.

ERGs can also be consulted about the appropriate recognition and/or celebration of awareness days, months and annual events for marginalised groups. When we cannot speak from lived experience, it is easy to miss the appropriate tone for recognition of particular annual events. Consulting an ERG about how best to use the budget for an awareness day or annual event not only ensures that that the community is respected and included but shows an appreciation for their voice. This can reinforce strong inter- and intra-departmental communication channels that are often a DEI challenge in itself! ERGs are more than social groups. They are an arena for collaboration across departments, workplace solidarity and they bolster the confidence and ambition for employees who have previously been expected to take up less space.

Inclusion-proof your workspace

When offices and workspaces are unintentionally hostile towards individuals from marginalised backgrounds, it can decimate the morale and focus of team members. But what does a DEI-friendly workspace look like?

A good place to start is, surprisingly, the temperature of office spaces. Research shows that the default setting for air conditioning systems in office spaces is often calibrated around temperatures most comfortable for cisgender men, leaving many others, especially cisgender women, cold and uncomfortable. Finding a comfortable middle ground can facilitate the comfort of all employees and help with energy levels and concentration. Another good example is addressing inequalities in office chores. If your workspace doesn't have a vigilant team of cleaners, issues such as clearing kitchen dishes can fall disproportionately into the hands of women and employees more used to caregiving responsibilities. Rotas are an effective way to combat this imbalance and ensure all workers avoid being overburdened with non-work tasks.

When we think about DEI, we often focus on the aspects of interpersonal interaction but our unconscious biases and the structural systems of inequality are also often present in the design and running of our offices and workspaces.

A sweep of your organisation's workspace for matters of inequality or exclusion is an effective way to facilitate comfort and security for a workforce and many adjustments require little to no budget. Sanitary products in all bathrooms are an excellent marker of an inclusive workspace and requires very little money. In addition, ensuring that decorative posters or reading materials are aligned with company values can go a long way in reducing the incidence of microaggressions.

Making sure a (fully anonymised) feedback form exists for raising issues within this space is important too. As with many facets of DEI, lived experience creates a lens through which some employees may notice issues before others of different experience. This pro-DEI approach to maintaining office spaces shows a pragmatic, hands-on mentality that takes DEI out of the employee handbook and displays it as a crucial facet of your company. DEI is about more than policy, social practices or platforming voices. It is also about creating spaces that allow all workers to feel secure, respected and supported.

A quick note on these strategies is that no matter how enthusiastic and resourceful employees may be with DEI, accountability for implementation should lie at a cross-company departmental level. As with more generalised company targets and goals, the responsibility must be shared between more than junior-level employees and their HR department. These ideas constitute opportunities to meet DEI goals, but those goals must be set and maintained by departmental leads.

Supporting DEI-enthusiastic employees

It is undeniable that utilising the broad skills, experiences and wisdom of DEI-enthusiastic employees is of immense benefit to any organisation implementing DEI strategies on a budget. Nevertheless, it is in making the most of our DEI-contributing associates that we must also be conscious of consequential labour imbalances.

Imagine the following scenario: a junior-level employee at an educational organisation has been forthcoming about their experiences with disability and accessibility issues in the workplace. They are given the opportunity to be interviewed as part of a workplace webinar on accessibility that is positively received across the company. As a consequence, they are approached by a project manager working on designing accessible teaching materials. The manager thinks the employee's insight and input would be valuable. Naturally, this employee is both curious and enthusiastic. However, three months down the line, this employee is struggling to meet goals in their set role as they are allocating time and overtime to consulting on this project outside of their department. The project manager argues that nobody else has provided the same calibre of knowledge and skill to this project and advocates to hold onto the employee's contributions for a bit longer. However, the employee is now feeling obligated to carry a workload far greater than outlined in their job description.

For employees from minority backgrounds, this story may be familiar. Very often, being open about one's workplace challenges can, very positively, attract the attention of people within an organisation looking to problem-solve these issues. If an employee truly has capacity, this can become a success story about the merits of cross-departmental collaboration. However, the vast majority of workers in corporate environments are already at capacity and the emotional obligations they feel towards this work may make it challenging for them to say no and set boundaries regarding their availability. It is an unfortunate irony that, in wishing to address matters of inequality and exclusion, employees can often bear the weight of extra work that better represented employees do not have to worry about.

So how do we address this imbalance? Although DEI matters can sometimes be intimidating, we can often transpose our approach to non-DEI issues relatively easily. For example, what we see in this scenario is an individual with specialist skills and knowledge who is enthusiastic about applying them. This is a huge bonus for their organisation and a scenario that can occur often in the context of non-DEI projects. Ultimately, there are conversations to be had with the employee, the project manager, and other senior managers. The optimal outcome would be for this employee to be permitted to incorporate their current DEI-specific work into their main job role, or for their more general responsibilities to be picked up by colleagues who have capacity. If the project is large or a more long-term commitment, secondment is also a reasonable suggestion. When an employee shows an impressive aptitude in a neglected subject area, we absolutely want to take advantage of it. This means that management needs to take responsibility to ensure that these employees are given the time and resources to apply their skillset to the benefit of the entire organisation and future employees.

Workplace challenges can lead to tension and stress, and it is far more likely for moments of conflict and exclusion to arise. DEI is not a soft subject. It is what patches the holes created in these challenging environments and keeps the ship afloat.

When faced with budget cuts, it is easy to feel disheartened about the state of DEI schemes in the workplace.

The examples provided here should convey an overarching message that the greatest material at your disposal as a DEI coordinator or champion are your colleagues. Bringing in qualified experts to talk on DEI issues is crucial for training and budget should be set aside for this essential service. However, once these frameworks of education and awareness are in place, much of that maintenance and propagation of DEI values can be supported by those already passionate and informed about the needs of their workplace. Some of the strongest voices in support of diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces are likely to be already inside your organisation. With the right support and encouragement, their contributions can help DEI to flourish, in even the most testing of times.

Related resources

Class inequalities in the workplace

Six steps to embedding a diversity and inclusion strategy

Webinar: DEI - A personal perspective, a practical approach

Five ways to make your employee networks more effective