5 ways to drive social justice in the workplace, starting with leadership

Creating workplace social justice is an increasingly crucial measures to determine organizational success

Angela Berg
Partner, Mercer (Marsh McLennan)
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  • Social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are now foundational business capabilities for global organizations.
  • Organizations are embracing new and different social justice actions to meet an evolving workforce’s shifting priorities.
  • Leaders are pivoting to more holistic social justice frameworks which value the voices of new types of stakeholders.
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As the pandemic continues to reshape societal priorities, many leaders are seeing a fundamental shift among their stakeholders. DEI and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) values were once the purview of the most enlightened organizations but are now table stakes for every business.

The ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the global workforce — and the attention brought to racial justice and accountability — have brought about incremental progress toward diversity and inclusion. In response to these calls, leaders are enhancing DEI awareness in their organizations and centring these values in a way that’s positively reshaping the communities they serve. Leaders who aren’t acting on these significant social changes aren’t only lagging behind, they’re putting themselves and their companies at risk.

DEI has become intrinsic to and synonymous with organizational health in the contemporary business world. This is, in part, driven by wider social forces, which encourage organizations to listen to and empathise with a broader group of stakeholders whose interests they affect, including customers, employees, suppliers, vendors, investors, communities and governments.

A new stakeholder model for social justice

This broader, more diverse stakeholder model means organizations are using new criteria to evaluate their performance. Moving beyond financial metrics, organizations are incorporating different dimensions of stakeholder capitalism throughout their operations. One emerging instance involves reporting on the representation of different demographic groups across career levels, job families, business units and geography.

Traditional financial investors and external shareholders are also beginning to include DEI criteria in their investment approach. In the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission has already started to require disclosures on human capital metrics, including DEI. Likewise, prominent investors such as BlackRock are prioritizing diversity and inclusion, while financial firms like Bloomberg are building investable indices based on DEI.

Establish social justice as a strategic business imperative

For DEI values to seep through a workforce, it must start at the top of an organization. Engaged leadership advance organizational buy-in to DEI values through positive behaviour that resonates with diverse worker populations.

Unilever offers a powerful example of this principle in action. One of the organization’s key business imperatives is to help build a fairer and more socially inclusive world. The CEO and leadership team stepped in to craft a plan which will see the organization spend €2 billion annually to boost the representation of suppliers from underrepresented groups and which equips 10 million young people with essential skills to prepare them for jobs by 2030.

Mercer has partnered with the World Economic Forum to document and explain this shift in how companies and their stakeholders are approaching DEI in a new white paper Pathways to Social Justice: A Revitalized Vision for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workforce. This paper breaks down the forces driving change and offers leaders a roadmap for hardwiring DEI into business processes. This includes the steps in which leaders can accelerate the DEI journey within their organizations.

Steps to create an impactful workforce DEI strategy

How to create an impactful workforce social justice strategy
How to create an impactful workforce social justice strategy Image: World Economic Forum and Mercer

To build a workforce strategy that is both impactful and actionable, one must measure and analyse DEI experiences through multiple lenses. We’ve identified different steps to show how that looks like in practice.

1. Engage: Create committed leaders aligned to DEI values

Where business-wide problems have significant impacts, senior leaders should engage with the issue and drive DEI efforts collectively. This effort should permeate the entire organization. Proper alignment involves:

• Ensuring that senior leaders engage in DEI efforts to the same degree

• Combatting stereotypes about any given group

• Training and equipping people managers to lead DEI efforts

• Designing mentorship and sponsorship programs to create diverse networks of champions

2. Diagnose: Root the strategy in proof, data and analytics

With an array of DEI interventions available, organizations often struggle to implement those that would have the most positive impact. Leaders should rely on comprehensive DEI data and insights to develop the strategy, set goals, and measure progress. This can be done by:

• Analysing internal labour market dynamics such as hiring, promotion and turnover rates by population or reward dimensions by population

• Conducting DEI benefit assessments to understand gaps in current policies and processes against best practices

• Capturing and measuring employee experiences through focus groups and surveys.

3. Take action: Integrate DEI into policies, practices and programmes

Hardwiring DEI into day-to-day operations across the enterprise ensures effective and sustainable results. While many organizations have taken some actions, leaders who are hoping to accelerate their DEI journey should consider opportunities such as:

• Updating key strategic business processes by considering broader social and political issues, such as creating anti-racism and anti-sexism policies

• Ensuring equal access to reskilling and upskilling initiatives

• Providing equal opportunities for career development and growth

• Strengthening grievance procedures through training to help employees feel safe about raising concerns without fear of retaliation.

4. Accountability: Set goals, measure progress and share transparently

One of the most critical indicators of successfully developing a DEI strategy is establishing accountability. To do so, organizations should be:

• Treating DEI goals like other business goals. DEI goals can be set in a measurable manner and linked to executive rewards

• Measuring progress and outcomes. DEI dashboards and scorecards can monitor workforce representation, measure progress and results. These tools can track key drivers of representation and inclusion. This will not only provide valuable data on how the DEI journey is progressing but can also help forecast where they can make adjustments

• Sharing results openly. Proactive and transparent communications establish credibility and commitment with stakeholders while driving accountability.

A critical indicator of a successful DEI strategy is establishing accountability

5. Change management and communication: Establish a strong foundation

Creating a holistic DEI strategy is not just a one-off project but a whole system change. To make it work, build a culture of DEI that reinforces and sustains values. Consider the culture broadly and consider how employees experience the impact of new policies and programs. Training managers to effectively communicate and support change will help foster an inclusive environment where employees are better prepared to embrace and positively participate in the change process.

To read more about the Mercer and Forum recommendations for keeping organizations current with DEI norms, we invite you to read the full white paper.

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