What should inclusion at work look like in 2023?

DE&I remains a hot topic on the corporate streets. But how do diversity, equity, and inclusion show up in the 2023 workforce?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are the hottest topics on the corporate streets. Regardless of the industry, those three words, often abbreviated to DE&I, have appeared on every executive’s desk at some point in recent years.

Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Black in corporate America 2023 DE&I studies, Inclusion@Work Black workers study Prisca 
Photo: Getty Images

While many may presume DE&I is an offshoot of affirmative action, the recent surge is actually largely due to the Black Lives Matter movement, which was formed in 2013 by three Black women in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had been charged with murder after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. However, George Floyd’s murder in 2020 catalyzed change and action worldwide. 

As the world rallied together to protest this injustice, activism presented itself in various ways. From protesting to crowdfunding, one of the most noticeable actions was seen on the corporate level. Prior to 2020, it was rare to hear companies talk about race and the inequalities Black people face in the United States, let alone announcing tangible DE&I efforts. However, entering the conversation is only a first step in addressing the issues of equity and inclusion in the workplace. 

“It’s got to be something that becomes second nature. And so, to do that, that requires practice,” said Elle Arlook, who leads APCO Worldwide’s Equity & Justice practice. “I always like to equate DE&I to a muscle, right? If you’re going to build muscle, you’ve got to work out; you’ve got to practice; you’ve got to, you know, keep at it. It’s not something that you can do one time and say: OK, I’ve done it. I’m inclusive.” 

In the hypothetical DE&I workout room, research studies are like the weight rack. When used correctly, these studies help strengthen the DE&I muscle, eventually leading to growth. Often revealing the unspoken truths of employee experiences, research on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is crucial when seeking tangible change — but where should companies begin? The nonprofit organization Prisca and several sponsors gathered action-based metrics for executive leadership in their “Inclusion@Work: Black American Workers Study.” 

“Finding out what your workers think is meaningful is the first step. You might think you’ve done a great job, but is that what your employees think? Is that what your community thinks, what your customers think? Is it what your board and how your shareholders think? And is it what you’re selling to suppliers and service providers in your network? What do they think?” said David Morgan, president of the Multicultural Media & Correspondents Association and CEO of the BIPOCXChange. “The risk of inaction is a lot higher than it was in the past because the ground has shifted.” 

Despite operating on a hierarchical structure, businesses are an ecosystem in which each tier mutually needs each other to thrive. So when reevaluating and developing diversity and equity strategies, it’s essential to consider how they affect every level. But ultimately, major, impactful decisions start in the C-suite, hence the study’s focus on asking questions that “CEOs are too afraid to ask.” Here is a summary of its key findings: 

There is a significant risk of lawsuits.

It seems fighting for others’ justice inspired more Black people to advocate for themselves. According to the study, one thing Black employees agreed on was lawsuits. 27% of Black workers across generational, income, and gender lines have considered lawsuits against employers for mistreatment due to racial bias.

DE&I should be seen as an investment, not a pricey cost

“Companies have dedicated so much money into DE&I and inclusion trainings over the past couple of years. But there are really mixed results on whether those are helpful or even hurtful,” said Arlook. 

Too often, company executives view diversity and equity efforts as an extra dent in their budget when planning. But the actual cost accrues when corporations allocate that money to insincere DE&I practices. According to the study, 67% of Black workers believe racial issues cost their employers money, with an estimated 9% revenue loss. But on the other hand, research shows that if companies worked to improve their internal racial climate by just 50%, most Black workers (3 out of 4) believe employee satisfaction from these changes would mirror receiving a 12% salary increase. 

“[Taking] DE&I — which I think has been framed by a lot of folks as a business cost and framing it as a business investment that’s going to have a positive return that actually hits the bottom line, is a great way of reframing it,” Morgan emphasized.

Pour into your Black employees, and they will pour into the business.

What people are really hungry for is feeling in the everyday interaction with their company that they belong, and that doesn’t happen in training. It happens [when companies ask themselves] how are you making sure that DE&I is a facet in almost every single decision you’re making as a company and just in the everyday interactions that people have with you as an employer and with each other as colleagues?” Arlook explained. “I think that’s what people are really missing.”

Impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts manifest themselves in the staff, in the language used in formal and informal interactions, and, ultimately, in the decisions made. One action that can change a company’s racial climate is investing in employee resource groups (ERGs) and business resource groups (BRGs). Research shows 95% of Black employees say they are more likely to stay longer at companies with inclusion policies and ERG and BRG programs. However, when considering investment strategies for ERGs and BRGs, corporations must understand they are not social clubs but rather valued components embedded in your company and DE&I infrastructure. 

There is no singular way to invest in ERGs or BRGs. Pouring into these community-based groups can additionally mean giving financial support and/or compensation to ERG/BRG leadership. Similarly, it can mean taking their creative input for company initiatives.

“As a suggestion, step one is validating and strengthening, and making sure that there’s a lot of executive sponsorship for the organization is incredibly important,” advised Morgan on the topic of ERGs and BRGs. “Second is really important to leverage the insights and information to create a sub-environment where you can actually get accurate information and feedback.”

Ultimately, it’s time for corporate America to graduate from making baby steps in the work of  DE&I. As we approach the third anniversary of the events that sparked this current conversation, corporations must understand that workplace diversity and inclusion problems take time to fix, and the conversation is continually evolving. Initiatives and programs created in 2020 should be reviewed, renewed, and revamped annually with the support of the updated data gathered in studies like Prisca’s Inclusion@Work. 

“We’re coming off the high of a once-in-a-lifetime emphasis and investment on DE&I. I think we’re seeing that high come down a little bit, but we can’t get demotivated,” Arlook said. “We can’t give up. We can’t stand down. We can’t say OK, well, we made a little progress; maybe that’s enough. We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas and keep moving forward.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include David Morgan’s roles in the Multicultural Media & Correspondents Association and BIPOCXChange.

Haniyah Philogene is a multimedia storyteller and Lifestyle reporter covering all things culture. With a passion for digital media, she goes above and beyond to find new ways to tell and share stories.

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