By Mason Donovan and Mark Kaplan

To truly make a difference with diversity and inclusion initiatives, it requires focus, investment, and energy. All too often this investment has a very short-term impact without a solid foundation to maintain movement. It is thus imperative for organizations investing in creating inclusive cultures to build a strategy that is framed to be sustainable.

One organizational change initiative where we often find parallels is safety. Walk through any manufacturing plant or transportation hub in corporate America and you will most likely experience an entire culture of safety, from signage to behavior to continual verbal focus. For example, UPS’ tradition is to have a safety talk every morning before drivers head out. Signs are in the building, the truck, and outside evoking safety precautions. Everything from how boxes are packed to where they step out of their vehicle has a safety component. Employees are awarded and recognized nationally for their safety records. They hit every level of what we refer to as the Levels of Systems Framework to ensure safety is not only saturated in everything they do, but also stands the test of time.

The same approach is required for a sustainable inclusion initiative.

  1.  Individual – Most D&I engagements start and stop at personal awareness. It is a great place to start, but inclusion cannot be sustainable if the only focus is on individual behavior. Raising the level of self-awareness and focusing on impact over intent will show progress at the individual level.
  2. Group/Team – Group memberships have a powerful impact on individual behavior. Insider/outsider dynamics are often at play under the surface and express themselves in unconscious bias. Affinity groups and leadership development on team management are a few solutions for this level.
  3. Systemic – Organizational biases are expressed in policies and procedures. These systems will often dictate “culture fits” or proscribe norms which when not mitigated will override any individual development over time. Focusing on systemic change and removing hidden biases will pave the way for the first two levels to achieve their goals faster and longer.
  4. Marketplace – Creating inclusive relationships is not just reserved for fellow employees. Companies should look to extending inclusion to their clients and service providers. Connecting D&I to the bottom line will provide needed executive support for the long term.

When combining these four levels into a cohesive strategy, any initiative has a far greater chance of survival.

On the flip side, if a safety initiative relied on just a few speeches and possibly an event every now and then, it would fail; so will inclusion initiatives. It is far too easy to start planning events without first taking a holistic view of the entire D&I paradigm. “Event-itis” is an easy trap to fall into, but the smart D&I leader will resist the temptation. Events should be part of the strategic initiative, not the initiative itself. Framing an inclusion initiative to be sustainable will continually provide dividends well into the future.

Mason Donovan and Mark Kaplan are principals of The Dagoba Group, a global diversity and inclusion consultancy focused on delivering measurable returns. They are co-authors of The Inclusion Dividend: Why Investing in Diversity & Inclusion Pays Off (Bibliomotion 2013).