While many organizations are joining the conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s about more than just saying the right things and having the right policies; it’s about changing the systems that increase the success of diverse people in the workplace.

Ksenia Kamenskaya, head of people and culture, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc.

To make progress on issues related to DEI, businesses need to speak up and add their voices to the conversation in order to create awareness, foster social acceptance and, eventually, prompt a call to change.

And a lot of Canadians are thinking this way. According to a January 2023 survey by Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, 84 per cent of Canadians feel businesses should do more to solve society’s most pressing problems and help meet the needs of people.

Read: Expert panel: Employers embracing DEI to overcome labour shortages in 2023

But first, businesses must align their internal commitments to how they want to show up externally. They need to have a clear view of their corporate values — aligning and championing internal priorities. And, from there, set a plan to take action to achieve their objectives. It’s also important to assess how a company can make a difference.

At Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, we’re listening to change. This journey began many years ago, initially focusing on addressing the gender gap. Since then, we’ve expanded the variety of our listening tools and recently began measuring how likely our employees are to recommend RBH as a place to work to equity-deserving groups.

Supporting and elevating employee resource groups is another highly effective way to hold space for new and different conversations, while also giving underrepresented groups a louder voice to help action change internally. We don’t have it all figured out, but we’re taking action.

Read: Rothmans, Benson & Hedges highlights employee well-being, DEI in annual sustainability report

If the collection of voices that are asking us to listen right now are powerful, imagine how powerful it would be if organizations across Canada — no matter the size — lent their voices and resources to the conversation on DEI. That would be something.

If employers are quiet, we won’t make an impact. But I’m confident we can, so let’s start showing up in the conversation to drive real change.

Neena Gupta, partner and former co-chair of the diversity and inclusion council, Gowlings WLG

DEI is hard work and companies usually under-estimate the time, work and expense involved.

When an organization says all the right things about diversity, inclusion, gender parity and anti-racism, but doesn’t change the workplace culture, it creates a real dissonance. For people belonging to equity-seeking groups, it increases cynicism and mistrust. It may actually increase the attrition rate. From personal experience, there’s nothing worse than feeling hopeful because an employer makes great statements about DEI and seeing no real change in real life.

DEI done badly can create a backlash from equity-seeking groups, as well as those who feel they’re going to be losers because of DEI policies. It isn’t just about saying the right things and having the right policies, but changing the systems that increase the success of diverse people in the workplace. That’s a huge task. Too often, companies feel that, because DEI is the right thing to do, it should be done for free or as an added task for human resources. DEI can’t be accomplished on an ad hoc basis.

Read: Employers must do more to build diverse, inclusive workforces: report

Our workforce is increasingly diverse: women, newcomers, individuals with disabilities, employees who are neurodiverse and multi-generational workers. Managing such a diverse workforce is hard. Ensuring that all workforce participants have a chance to flourish in the workplace is even harder. DEI requires real time, money and expertise.

I’ve seen too many companies invest in a policy or training and think they’ve done DEI. We need to avoid ‘diversity washing’ — drafting great statements, participating in glamorous photo ops and improving the optics with well-designed marketing tools. We need to do the hard work of changing systems that impede the progress of real DEI.

Without relentless focus on actual change, DEI will simply be a corporate buzzword that’s bandied about in corporate boardrooms.

Read: Survey finds HR leaders believe accountability for DEI extends across employers