Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) definition
Diversity, equity and inclusion are three linked principles that aim to ensure all people—including those from historically under-represented groups such as but not limited to different races, religions, ethnicities, abilities, genders and sexual orientations—are welcomed, included and treated fairly in an organization.
It may sometimes seem like everyone is talking about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) these days. But what does it really mean? Savvy business leaders should look beyond the buzzwords to understand how DEI at work can support employees, clients and the bottom line.
Having diverse backgrounds, ways of thinking, identities and experiences in a workplace can lead to better problem solving, more innovation, an improved ability to attract and retain talent, and a greater understanding of the unique needs of both clients and employees.
To begin with, consider each individual word. According to Jonathan McEachnie (He/Him), Senior Advisor, DEI at BDC:
- Diversity is the presence of differences.
- Equity is fair treatment, access and opportunity for all, recognizing the individual needs each person may have.
- Inclusion means fostering an environment where everyone can feel a genuine sense of belonging and value.
Together, these add up to a workplace that is well-positioned to make the most of all employees’ talents, and where employees themselves feel heard, appreciated and valued.
How do they compare to each other?
Diversity, equity and inclusion are interconnected and build on each other, says McEachnie.
Diversity—For a business, this is about having a workplace that reflects Canada’s diverse ecosystem in terms of age, sex, gender identity and expression, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, colour, sexuality, physical and mental ability, education, language(s) spoken, and perspectives.
Equity—This is about ensuring each employee has what they need to thrive. But this doesn’t mean giving all employees exactly the same tools or advantages. It means giving each individual what they need so that they have the same opportunity as anyone else to excel at their work.
For example, an employee who must look after an elderly parent three times a week from mid-afternoon onward may benefit from a flexible schedule that still allows them to work 35 hours, whether by starting earlier on those days or working longer on others. Other employees may not need this benefit, but for the one who does, it ensures that they have the opportunity to contribute equally.
Inclusion—This is making sure everyone feels heard and valued, says McEachnie. “It’s about giving employees from all backgrounds a voice at the table when you’re making decisions. Doing so can help the business to leverage a variety of experiences.”
McEachnie says “it’s not just a matter of hiring from diverse groups and then thinking, ‘mission accomplished.’ Instead, go further and consider how you leverage that diversity: through equity and inclusion.”
Examples of DEI in the workplace
Wondering how you can implement these principles in your own business? Here are some examples to help you get started.
Take a look at the composition of Canada’s population in terms of race, religion, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation and so on. The goal is for your workplace population to reflect that diversity.
Gender offers an example. Canada is the first country to provide census data on transgender and non-binary people. The 2021 Census indicated that gender diversity in Canada is highest in younger age brackets. Nearly one in 100 people aged 20 to 24 self-identified as transgender or non-binary; only one in 700 people aged 65 and older self-identified as transgender or non-binary.
These numbers reflect today's reality in terms of the evolving acceptance and understanding of gender and sexual diversity and an emerging social and legislative recognition of transgender, non-binary and LGBTQ2+ people in general. That said, employers seeking a workforce reflective of the clients and communities they serve must consider evolving societal factors in their strategies for talent recruitment, retention and development.
Of course, diversity is not achieved if under-represented groups are mostly relegated to junior roles. The goal is to have representation at all levels.
If someone has a hearing impairment and you provide them with assistive technology, that’s an example of equity, says McEachnie: you’re removing barriers so the employee has the same opportunities as everyone else to do their best work.
There are many examples of accommodations to support equity, including the following:
- alternative means of communication—like sign language interpreters, braille and large print, text message writing (SMS) and alt text
- technologies—like screen readers, screen magnifiers and assistive listening devices
- accommodations—like flexible work arrangements, work-from-home or hybrid work opportunities, and scheduling or ergonomics assessments and supports
- workspace adjustments—like accessible and gender-inclusive washrooms, automatic doors, adjustable desks and different types of seating
Inclusion is an effort to ensure that all employees, including those from under-represented groups, are heard, valued, and have opportunities to contribute. For example, BDC has employee resource groups for women, visible minorities, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ2+ consisting of volunteer members who are either members of the respective communities or are allies. Members of these groups discuss issues and come up with initiatives to share their cultures, histories and backgrounds at work.
“This enables employees to bring their whole selves to work,” says McEachnie. “It’s one way to help everyone feel heard, welcomed and valued.” BDC also celebrates events like Black History Month, International Women’s Day, Asian Heritage Month and Pride Season, to name just a few examples.
For example, BDC’s Indigenous Peoples employee resource group organized a deep-dive webinar on land acknowledgements and how to create and deliver a personal and meaningful one.
You might worry that by trying to include absolutely everyone, you run the risk of leaving a few people out—but don’t let concerns about perfection stop you from trying, says McEachnie. Your efforts are still setting an example and showing your commitment to achieving better.
And if anyone does feel excluded, he says, “you can still have an open door and invite feedback. If an employee wants their particular heritage or experience to be included, you can take that into consideration for future initiatives.”
Many workplaces, including BDC, are also adding another letter to their DEI suite of considerations: A, in recognition of their commitment to accessibility.
Ultimately, promoting accessibility in the workplace is about removing any barriers that may prevent people from fulfilling their potential and contributing value to an organization.
A disability-inclusive workplace is one that gives all employees the tools they need to succeed. For example, those who use wheelchairs have access to ramps and/or elevators and accessible washrooms, while those who are blind or have a visual impairment have access to Braille signage, large print, text message writing (SMS) and alt text.
Flexible work policies also factor into accessibility: remote work and hybrid work arrangements can allow people with chronic pain, neurodiversity or mental health concerns to contribute more fully as well.
Why is DEI more important now in Canada?
As of 2021, immigrants represented 23% of Canada’s total population—and current government plans suggest the country will welcome another 1.5 million immigrants over the next few years.
It’s smart for businesses to recognize the needs and opportunities presented by Canada’s shifting population, says McEachnie. “You want to make sure you’re taking advantage of the talent that is out there.”
Of course, newcomers are also customers—and diverse companies are better at attracting, serving and retaining them.
Further, some studies have shown that millennial and Gen Z employees are more interested in working for companies that value diversity.
What are the benefits of DEI in the workplace?
A key benefit of DEI for businesses is productivity.
“If an employee is not equipped for success, they can get demotivated and discouraged. They can feel isolated, unheard and undervalued. All of those could lead to lower productivity for a company,” says McEachnie. “DEI helps avoid problems like absenteeism, tardiness, personal leaves and dissatisfaction.”
According to some statistics presented in a DEI toolkit from the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion:
- Feeling included contributes to more than a third of employees’ emotional investment in their work, improves their attendance, and increases both their interest in staying at the organization and their tendency to view it as high-performing.
- More than three-quarters of job seekers factor in diversity when considering job offers, and more than a third would not apply to a company that lacks it.
- Businesses with more diversity have higher revenues from innovation, and these increase even further when there are multiple dimensions of diversity.
- Businesses whose leaders have greater gender and ethnic diversity are more profitable.
- Diversity on teams increases their problem-solving ability, decision-making speeds, creativity, output quality, and conflict management.
In one survey mentioned in the toolkit, almost three-quarters of consumers said they would not purchase from a brand that didn’t support social justice.
“Embracing diversity drives better business results, employee engagement and retention, and generates innovative products and services for entrepreneurs,” says McEachnie.
How can businesses promote DEI workplace culture?
Think about the scope of your business and how you can start or continue your DEI journey. Ask yourself what quick changes you could make to show your commitment to DEI. Then make an action plan for solutions that may take more time to implement.
McEachnie offers numerous suggestions on how to get started:
- Create employee resource groups, such as those at BDC. These can keep DEI top of mind among all employees.
- Offer mandatory and online training courses.
- Set up DEI-focused teams to foster diversity among clients, suppliers and employees.
- Create listening circles—annual focus groups that give employees the chance to share their perspectives and feedback on DEI.
- Ensure your communications—whether internal or external—reflect diverse employee groups and DEI efforts.
- When you’re developing policies, procedures, products or services, create diverse focus groups and reach out to them to see what you might have missed.
- Organize and promote diversity-related events.
- Share webinars, articles, studies and other DEI information sources.
Ultimately, “DEI should be at the foundation of how you communicate,” he says. Appropriate words can empower individuals and make them feel included, but when used incorrectly, they can have the opposite effect. “Your language should be inclusive and accessible to all,”McEachnie says. Gender-neutral and jargon-free language can help foster an inclusive workplace. For tips on how to get started, check out Canada’s tips on gender inclusive language.
Although a company’s senior leaders should set the tone by emphasizing DEI and walking the talk, such efforts are equally important at the middle-manager level, says McEachnie. “You know the saying: people don’t leave a job—they leave a boss. Leaders at all levels should amplify a company’s DEI messaging.”
Finally, recognize that it’s okay not to know everything.
“Be okay with being vulnerable,” says McEachnie. “It’s important for leaders to admit they might not know everything—it’s a journey and a learning experience for them as well. An open attitude can help create the safe space that an employee might need to approach you with a problem or idea related to DEI.”