equity diversity and inclusion, organisational culture, organisational design

Why you need to invest in your EDI function

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Sometimes Inclusion and Diversity, sometimes Diversity and Inclusion, sometimes Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. There’s good reasons for all of those different nomenclatures,1 but whatever your organisation wants to call it, you need to build a strong EDI function.

You shouldn’t need us to tell you that there’s a strong business caseworker achieving greater equity, diversity and inclusion. But you might not be quite sure about how you organise your work towards those goals. Here’s why you should invest in EDI as a function, and some suggestions for how.

And, if you need advice about how to manage it in your organisation, contact us. We’re looking forward to working with you.

Why invest in an EDI function?

One effective way to understand who feels welcome and how your organisation can better serve everyone is through staff volunteer groups. These have various names—communities, committees, networks, etc.—and they’re often arranged around particular under-represented characteristics or identities. 

But having strong and empowered workplace equality networks is not the same as building a strong EDI function.

Why you shouldn’t rely on volunteers

It can feel tempting to treat staff volunteer groups as the whole solution. They’re often the people telling you shave you’ve gotten wrong. Why not bring them inside the tent and have them tell you how to fix it? A new policy that might have unexpected consequences? Just ask the networks to sign it off. A new process to check equality implications of a major project? Just ask the networks. They’re the experts, right?

This is a seductive idea, but it’s wrong. There’s a place for these networks as mutual support groups and as consultative bodies, but they shouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting. 

These networks are usually voluntary. These volunteers are experts in their lived experiences, and in what it’s like for them to work in your organisation. But they’re not experts in every aspect of EDI work. These are members of your team who are paid to do other stuff. They’re professionals in other fields. Sales, marketing, whatever it might be, you hired them for other capabilities. Why would they have the deep knowledge and evidence base to steer your whole organisation in the right direction?

And there’s another, insidious problem with using voluntary groups for this work. People often volunteer because they’re the people most affected when the organisation gets it wrong. Exploiting that vulnerability to get unpaid work from them is one of the quickest ways to kill trust in your organisation’s commitment to EDI.

Isn’t this just HR’s job?

Yes, EDI often lurks somewhere in HR, but it’s only HR in the narrowest sense of complying with anti-discrimination law. MIT Sloan’s Jan 2021 report Leadership’s Digital Transformation notes that the view of EDI “through a narrow compliance and human resources lens” is ineffective. Rather, “digitally savvy leaders” link EDI to “performance, purpose, and culture”, and they reap the benefits. EDI is about culture, who your workplace welcomes and serves, and how you bring people together to achieve your goals.

How to build your EDI capability?

This will sound gauche, but the answer is very simple. Pay money for it. You invest in your finance function by paying top-quality experts with accredited skills and deep experience in the specialism. You should treat EDI the same way. 

There are lots of EDI consultants out there, including us! If you need a particular boost of capability for one project or another, like an audit of your existing policies, analysis of your pay-gaps, or an independent review after something’s gone wrong, they’re a great option. But, at the risk of doing ourselves out of a job, buying in expertise isn’t enough to achieve long-term goals. Instead, you need to invest in the function internally. To truly make a difference long-term, your EDI function needs to know the organisation and have the resources it needs to build a foundation.

Do we really need more people?

You need more EDI professionals than you think. Small and medium organisations might be tempted to think that one is enough. Having one EDI Officer is certainly better than nothing, but just think about the job description for a second. From helping to broaden your recruiting pipeline, to supporting networks organising events (see our calendar for just how many options that are here!), and coaching and mentoring your leaders and managers, you’ll want their input across the board. One isn’t enough. 

The precise number you need will depend on your organisation, how it’s run, and what its challenges are. But, if think about your EDI team as complements to your HR business partners, who are working across every part of the organisation, you’ll start to get a sense of just how large the function needs to be to meet your goals.

1 Different names reflect different focuses. EDI is often abbreviated as DEI, where Diversity is front and centre, while other organisations privilege Inclusion by naming their function I&D (and HBR has a good explainer about why diversity by numbers isn’t good enough). There’s also a good reason for talking about equity—the state you want to achieve—rather than equality, which has echoes of “separate but equal”. This graphic is a very clear explanation of that distinction:

Two panels showing three people looking over a fence to try to watch a sports game. One is tall, one medium height, and one short. In the first panel, labelled "equality", each of them has a box to stand on. The short person cannot see over the fence. In the second panel, labelled "equity", the shortest person has two boxes, the medium-height person has one, and the tallest has none. All three can see over the fence and watch the game. They demonstrate one element of an EDI function: identifying what different people might need to help them perform effectively.