DEI Is Where It Starts

by Joanna C. de’Shay, MAOM, M.F.A.

The one thing that going through a global pandemic for two-plus years has shown us all is that we all need and crave human interaction and connection. The overwhelming sense of isolation many of us felt was all too real and affected everyone, from the corporate CEO to the middle school student having to attend classes over Zoom. Now more than ever, we have an innate desire to be seen, validated and recognized for our attributes and collective contributions. 

In 2022, companies will need to get it right so their employees who are transitioning back into the workplace in person, virtually, hybrid or some other alternative arrangement in-between have a strong sense they belong in that corporate culture. Employees need to know that what they bring to the table in terms of their diversity and intersections is celebrated and genuinely valued. As we move along the continuum of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, the time is right to elevate our strategies and ensure we are not simply administering performative tasks that make us look diverse, but sustainable actions that speak to the amplification of diversity as a core business practice. Belonging essentially is the leveling up of an already strong Diversity Equity and Inclusion program, strategy or policy.

Belonging is one of the most primal of all human desires and is something that, when done well, can cultivate a workplace that is connected, purpose-driven and inspired. This primal desire is what Maslow points to in his Hierarchy of Needs theory. The theory presented in the early 1940s dissects human motivation and its direct correlation to human behavior. Each level or step on the pyramid addresses our basic needs and our more complicated “growth” needs. Belonging falls into the top-tier growth category on the hierarchy of needs pyramid, right before self-esteem and, ultimately, self-actualization. Part of adding Belonging into a business’s DEI strategy is being able to assess what its employees truly desire for them to grow within their job, team, department and company. Good leaders will take the time to understand the needs of their workforce, especially the individuals within that workforce who are marginalized and constantly othered.

In addition to Belonging being the next intentional level to a strong DEI program, strategy or policy, it can also be a strong indicator of a corporate culture that exhibits empathy for its employee’s well-being and overall mental health. This level of empathy is imperative in these post-COVID times and can be a solid accompaniment to any recruitment or retention strategy. 

To have an effective DEI program that genuinely moves the needle on Inclusion, companies will have to do more than treat their employees fairly and equitably. They will need to be intentional and demonstrative in their inclusive actions, behaviors and language. In these uncertain times of mass resignations and difficulty in recruitment, what business leaders do now to integrate Belonging can directly impact the level of engagement they see and experience from their workforce later. 

It may take more than just a healthy sprinkling of Belonging to develop a robust DEI strategy. Still, without recognizing its value, business leaders will have a colorful recipe with zero taste and even less nutritional value. Belonging is how businesses feed their employees’ souls and ensure that they are thriving. Leaders must recognize that the growth and success of their employees is, indeed, their responsibility as well as theirs to communicate what actions they need to see demonstrated to feel a stronger sense of connectivity and belonging.  

This is the year companies must also check for any blind spots that could compromise their DEI efforts. The value of true employee engagement is to evolve a DEI strategy into a DEI+B strategy.   

Joanna C. de’Shay is executive director of Diversity Leadership Alliance, the premiere education training organization in Arizona dedicated to eradicating racism, bias and prejudice. DLA’s goal is to create an inclusive community where each person is equally respected and empowered.

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