The world has evolved. Collective understanding and knowledge of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has advanced over the decades thanks to an ever-growing body of research. In light of this, the facets of an inclusive workplace culture must evolve as well.
The numbers speak for themselves:
There’s an impact on morale as well. Employees are 2.4x more likely to say they’re proud to work for a company that fosters an inclusive culture4. There’s proof and recognition that DEI is not a nice to have, but a need to have.
DEI is a mainstream business standard that is impossible to ignore. Avoidance or indifference is a business risk. The emergence of social media has brought more transparency, risk of exposure, and demand for accountability than ever before as it shines a spotlight on systemic inequity, discrimination, toxic work cultures, and failures in leadership. Social activism at work is at an all-time high due to a combination of outside influences and issues created and perpetuated by employers themselves. Businesses aren’t just fighting for market share or growth anymore, but mere survival. It’s critical to have and optimize the best talent in order to compete in both good and bad economies.
So while the data, acknowledgement, and business need may be there, progress is slow5 and impact is anemic when it comes to DEI. Gaps remain in advancing DEI as a whole. Whether it’s a failure to get the basics right, lack of a strategy, resistance to change, or inconsistency, the result is that conditions are not in place for diversity to thrive in many companies.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Organizations are uniquely positioned to address these issues. They have a common purpose, shared values and culture, more resources and the discretion to use them.6
The challenge for every organization is to determine how they themselves will address DEI. To ensure meaningful progress, it has to be:
More than the minimum. Cursory efforts lack meaning and appear inauthentic. It sets up an expectation of accountability where there is none. Getting the basics right, such as defining what DEI means for your company, establishing goals, recruiting for diverse talent, developing DEI capability, building trust, and following through are non-negotiables, but still not enough. These are the norms, not exceptions.
Strategic. DEI as simply an initiative can be short-lived. Reframing DEI as a strategy is one of the keys to sustainability.7 All DEI work should serve the same purpose as well as be connected, integrated, and mutually reinforcing. Efforts have to be dedicated, intentional, and focused while also being built into the way a company does business.
Differentiated. Copying best practices in their entirety and without consideration of the context yields mixed results.8 Doing what everyone else is doing is also antithetical to the meaning of diversity. If the aim is to compete for the best talent, then an organization must show how they’re uniquely positioned to better serve underrepresented employees. Avoid the “one size fits all” approach and customize your strategies to your organization and its people.
Scalable and consistent. DEI is not an end state. It requires continuous improvement and maintenance to cultivate and sustain it. After all, the conditions for DEI must be there all of the time, not some of the time. It has to be embedded in all parts of the company and grow with it. Consistency demonstrates commitment. Inconsistency erodes trust.
A positive impact. Most will recognize that DEI doesn’t happen overnight. It won’t even happen in a quarter. However, if day-to-day experiences stay the same and people don’t see positive change along the way, they lose faith. Showing progress and being transparent about your efforts (success and failures) builds trust in a company’s commitment to DEI.
Many organizations don’t know where to start when it comes to building a DEI strategy. The way I frame it when working with organizations as part of my consultancy, Co.-Design of Work Experience, is as follows:
“Culture communicates the boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable and manifests itself in how people behave, interact, react, and perceive reality. Culture is created, reinforced, and experienced by people. It includes not just what’s said, but what’s lived. Simply put, culture is made up of what’s acceptable, unacceptable or condoned.”
Therein, a lack of diversity is also a culture problem. You can’t address DEI without addressing the culture because it influences every aspect of how a company operates. It’s what sets or erodes the conditions for diversity to succeed.
By aligning DEI strategy with employee experience and workplace culture, the potential for success is that much higher. What needs to be done is known or can be discovered. What remains—and where many companies fall short—is execution. Crises (such as the one brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic) has exposed and even exacerbated systemic inequalities.9 An economic downturn puts a company’s commitment to DEI to the test as they consider where to cut budgets. But beware, those with short-term mindsets will choose to sacrifice long-term gains in exchange for long-term problems.
A deep understanding of the starting point (current state). It’s not enough to have a general sense of what’s going on. Just like any business endeavor, research is needed to identify the strengths, challenges, and unmet needs of the culture and employee experience. This work identifies the DEI and other cultural priorities.
A vision for where to go (future state). The DEI journey is never finished, but there are milestones along the way and levels to achieve. These define what impact and progress look like.
How to get there (roadmap). These are based on knowledge gained from a comprehensive review of the culture and a vigorous thought process that incorporates as well as aligns a diversity of perspectives.
Design of Work Experience framework10
Companies are not the only ones to benefit from diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s what all employees need to thrive at work, including, and especially, those who identify as Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Diversity opens up new possibilities in connecting people with different backgrounds while simultaneously providing a supportive community. Inclusion is about being respected enough to enable one’s participation. Equality is about sameness, but equity is about fairness and accessible opportunities for each individual.
The workplace culture in which all this happens has to be psychologically safe. That’s because it cultivates a shared belief that having differences is safe, supports learning, creativity, and productive problem solving and improves performance.11 Psychological safety, which Dr. Amy Edmundson of Harvard Business School describes as a blend of trust and respect12, is both the cause and effect needed for experiencing DEI.
Again, every company has its own DEI journey to make. However, few interventions support DEI and the dismantling of systemic inequalities as well as mentorship. This is evident when compared to traditional diversity training, which is limited in impact and sometimes hurts more than it helps.13
Employees of color need psychological safety. They need community. They need to be and feel valued. And they need opportunities to develop and grow their careers. Mentorship provides the space for two-way dialogue, a key step for learning, as well as building understanding and reconciliation when it comes to eliminating systemic challenges to an inclusive workplace.
Mentorship also gives people the opportunity to connect, expand their networks, and get to know one another, all of which are necessary preconditions for sponsorship.14 This is when influential leaders are willing to use their social capital to advocate opportunities for high-potential diverse talent.
When done well, mentoring can satisfy these needs while giving an organization the opportunity to demonstrate DEI and encourage access, belonging, and allyship. With accountability and structure, mentoring can be a powerful tool for your DEI strategy today and in the future.
We’ve already established that mentorship programs help organizations build a more inclusive workplace. However, knowing how to start a mentoring program can be easier said than done. Here are some tips for developing an impactful mentorship program for your workplace.
Ensure there are clear objectives and actionable goals that can be measured. Try tying specific topics like “encouraging more Black women leaders” to a specific goal, like comparing the number of mentees who receive promotions to the number of employees promoted without mentoring relationships.
Understand the groups you’re supporting and be sensitive to their needs. Include members of the employee groups you’re trying to serve in the design of the program. Follow up with regular roundtables to ensure the program is valuable, and gauge if there are ways to improve. In addition, don’t put all of the work on diverse employees. Do your part to review your organization and request feedback in order to build a mentoring program that enables and builds underrepresented employees rather than relies on them to teach and inform other employees of the challenges they face.
Make your mentorship program optional to join. Mentors and mentees should be excited and want to be active participants, especially since diversity mentoring requires careful thinking and active listening. Research shows that mandatory diversity training can have adverse effects within an organization. The same can be said for mandated mentoring. Make sure the benefits of the mentoring program are clear and incentivize the intended participants.
Building a mentorship program from scratch isn’t enough — you also need to promote it. Try sending customized emails and posting on internal message boards.15 Host informational sessions, encourage managers to inform people in team meetings, and have senior leaders talk about (and participate in) the program. And don’t be afraid to be direct: if you personally know of excellent mentor and mentee candidates, ask them to get involved.
Make sure to understand the preference and intent of your matching process. Some organizations prefer to match underrepresented employees with employees of a different background or demographic in order to build greater organizational empathy, while expanding networks. On the other hand, some mentees might want to be matched with someone of a similar background (mentors with the same identity) to find and build greater community within a company. Know what type of matching your organization is looking to enable. If unsure, refer back to the overall goals of your DEI mentoring program.
Basic mentor and mentee training contributes significantly to productive relationships. Educate them on how to best conduct meetings, offer feedback, and stay on track with goals.
It’s also important in diversity mentoring to train people about stereotypes and unconscious biases. It may be tempting to avoid discussing challenges or issues related to diversity or to dwell on them, but mentors and mentees need to be given guidance on how to approach sensitive topics in an empathetic manner.16
While starting and managing a mentorship program can seem overwhelming, the potential benefits far outweigh any downsides.
As organizations realize how powerful mentoring can be towards improving employee retention and increasing productivity, mentorship programs have become more commonplace. Over 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a corporate mentoring program in place, including Amazon, Comcast, Ford Motor Co., and PWC.17
Mentorship comes in different flavors depending on the organization, with some emphasizing one-to-one relationships and others highlighting a scenario with several employees. Here’s a rundown of the most common mentorship formats to empower an inclusive workplace:
A mentoring circle gathers together a group of individuals from all levels of an organization that meet on a regular basis to discuss a topic of their choosing. This could be a topic like inclusivity in the workplace and ways to network across the organization, or perhaps navigating work/life balance as a new parent and employee wellness tips. The group setting creates a safe mentoring space for all employees to candidly discuss the challenges they face, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, background or beyond. Mentoring circles enables underrepresented employees to share their workplace experiences with others of a similar background or a completely different background, increasing empathetic, interpersonal relationships within an organization.
Many companies choose to create employee resources groups (ERGs), which structure participants based on similar interests, characteristics or experiences. Mentoring circles is an ideal way for these groups to interact. The format successfully organizes employees and enables communication and builds accountability in the group. Mentoring circles can go a long way in creating a space of trust and rapport for employees.18
Career mentoring is traditionally a one-to-one professional relationship in which senior leaders share their knowledge and expertise with a more junior level employee to help those employees set goals, tackle challenges and ultimately make good choices along their career journey.
While some organizations may have an informal mentoring culture, formal mentoring is usually more effective in providing the accessibility and inclusivity of mentoring across an organization. In a formal mentoring relationship, mentors and mentees are matched based on skills and development needs. They outline and set goals, agree upon time commitments and hold one another accountable in order to help diverse employees meet their goals, develop within their organizations and ultimately, in their careers.
When Paychex, a provider of integrated human capital management solutions, implemented a high-potential career mentoring program for women employees, the results after only two years were significant.19 Mentoring participants reached a 94 percent retention rate, 14 percentage points higher than the company average. The program also found participants were more likely to see a change in position and job band.
Reverse mentoring pairs younger employees with senior-level leaders to mentor them on various topics of strategic and cultural relevance. Many of today’s programs focus on how executives think about strategic issues of operations and the mindset with which they approach organizational culture. But reverse mentoring programs place a larger emphasis on younger employees sharing knowledge and expertise in areas like emerging trends and organizational culture leaders might not be as integrated with day to day. The relationship also offers younger employees a level of transparency and recognition they’re seeking from management.
For example, PWC launched a reverse mentoring program in part with its diversity and inclusion strategy focused on better understanding minority issues, especially of its LGBTQ employees and employees of color.20
A Buddy Program pairs experienced, high-performing employees with newer employees. The pairing is meant to integrate the employee into an organization, and to help build self-confidence in their new role. Buddies are tasked with helping their partners navigate the organization, build a network, and understand the company’s workplace culture. For companies focused on hiring and retaining diverse talent, a buddy program can help to make new hires feel welcome and included, and ultimately help them settle more quickly into their roles.
Depending on your company’s overall DEI mission, one format (or multiple) may fit your needs better than others. Choose the mentorship format that best helps your organization achieve its goals.
Organizations energized and committed to improving diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace often want to jump straight into launching programs and running full speed ahead to start making change. But when establishing an impactful mentoring program, the most effective way to begin is at the end.
In order to build a more inclusive workplace culture, you’ll need to determine the overall outcomes you’re looking to achieve. In addition, you’ll want to make sure these outcomes are in alignment with your organizational goals. This is a vital part of measurement, because if your DEI goals are disconnected or even at odds with what the organization is trying to achieve, you’ll quickly lose focus, support and maybe even budget.21 Make sure you understand why this mentoring program should exist.
Are you trying to increase representation of Black employees in managerial positions?
Are you trying to retain more Latinx employees across specific functions?
Are you trying to hire more employees of color by 2022?
Being clear about your intentions and goals will help you determine the metrics you’ll follow and the way you design your mentoring program.22
Once you’ve determined your goals, work backward to identify which metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) will be most representative of your objectives.23 Consider setting mentoring program KPIs that look at several areas:
This will help you determine where within the program you need to put your energy and effort. For example, if you have a large pool of mentors, but don’t have enough mentees from the demographic or group you’re looking to engage, you’ll need to increase promotion in your organization in the channels and spaces these employees frequent and engage. On the other hand, if you’re trying to increase the number of women in the leadership pipeline, you’ll want to measure the promotion rates of women participating in the program compared to those in the organization but not in the mentoring program.
On top of identifying the metrics you’ll need to capture, you’ll also want to take extra care to break them down by demographics in order to see how you’re performing across identities within your mentoring program. This will help you understand the outcomes for different groups of employees to ensure equity. Here are metrics to consider when building a mentoring program for an inclusive workplace:
With this mix of qualitative and quantitative measures, companies can achieve a better idea of where their DEI initiatives are through the experience of employees.24
This brings us to benchmarks. In order to understand the impact your program creates, you need to know how you’re performing prior to the launch.25 If you’re looking to affect retention, know what the company’s average retention is currently. This is what you’ll compare your program participants’ retention number against. Again, you’ll also want to breakdown your benchmarks more finely across demographic and identity lines to understand the experiences of various employee groups. For example, you’ll want to understand your benchmark for the retention of Asian female employees compared to Latinx male employees, LGBTQ female employees or white male employees. Get into the habit of establishing the benchmark for how your company is performing across your demographics, and then understanding how the participants of your program are performing in that same metric.
In our recent Mentoring Benchmarks Report: Quit Navigating in the Dark, we breakdown mentoring benchmarks for three specific areas — enrollment, matching and engagement. This will help you to know how your organization is performing against industry peers, as well as competitors.
Finally, once you’ve identified all of your goals, KPIs and benchmarks, it’s time to track and report the impact of your program. Without this step, no one knows what kind of role mentoring is playing within your inclusive workplace culture. Connect the data points you’re tracking to the story of diversity evolving within your organization. The use of mentoring software can make this part a lot easier for you, often providing reports and dashboards at your fingertips as evidence.
But whether you have a platform to help you pull these numbers or you’re pulling these manually, you have to connect the data back to the organizational goals you established in the beginning—laying out the narrative in a comprehensive manner that allows stakeholders to not only understand the impact, but also pass it along to others. Telling the story will help you continue the work you’ve started, scale the program and make real strides in your mission of diversity, equity and inclusion.
When building an impactful mentoring program that enhances your DEI strategy, intentionality is vital. Assuming pieces will fall into place puts your organization at risk of creating an ineffectual mentorship program. Utilizing mentoring software introduces accountability to your program and its goals—not just for the organization, but for your participants as well. With the help of mentorship software, you can automate your program, more easily match your participants and track the progress and impact over time. This also allows you to scale your inclusive workplace across teams, functions and locations.
The time and effort it takes to manage a manual mentoring program is enough to make any administrator want to call it quits. At a certain point, a program gets too large (usually around 100 participants) for one person, or even a small team, to effectively manage.26 Having to spend hours hunched over spreadsheets and participant profiles in order to match the right mentor with the right mentee, as well as keep track of where everyone is in their mentoring relationship can feel overwhelming.
When it comes to informal mentoring, underrepresented employees can sometimes fall through the cracks, feeling like the program is not meant for or targeted to them. They can also hesitate to join if an inclusive environment has been previously lacking from the workplace. Software allows you to build your intentions into the DNA of the program itself by automating and structuring the system to overcome these typical challenges.
The presence of a mentoring platform keeps both admins and participants on track, providing accountability and structure so everyone stays on track to complete their goals and milestones.27
With mentoring software, admins can establish the matching criteria they would like the software to adhere to when pairing mentors and mentees, and match large numbers of participants all at once, saving time and alleviating pressure. Robust software solutions allow you to build the matching algorithm to meet the unique needs of the program. This means elevating diversity questions and criteria in order to match people across genders, ethnicities, nationalities, neurodiversity and beyond—all while keeping function, tenure and desired skill development in mind at the same time. This focus on diversity matching allows you to drive high match rates and satisfaction within your mentoring partners.
Within the matching criteria, software can help you select the matching approach that works for your organization. For example, a mentee might want to be matched with someone of a similar background (mentors with similar identities) and other times it makes sense to try to encourage cross-identity mentoring for building greater organizational empathy, while expanding networks. When this type of matching is necessary, it’s important to design your program with a system that is flexible to your needs. At times, these adjustments can make all the difference.
All of your well-intentioned efforts to increase diversity and inclusion will fall by the wayside if you’re not able to show the impact mentoring is playing in your organization’s DEI strategy. When focused on specific objectives, mentoring has the potential to make great strides in engagement, retention, promotion velocity and overall employee satisfaction. But what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.28 With the help of mentoring software, your program’s impact can be at your fingertips in a matter of clicks.
Through surveys, reports and dashboards, mentorship software can help program admins keep a pulse on the overall health of a program, while also showcasing mentoring’s impact on the key metrics leadership and stakeholders care about most. Oftentimes, companies get so caught up in wanting to make immediate strides in diversity and inclusion that they focus too much on outputs rather than outcomes. Software can help you gather the KPIs and feedback you’ll need to properly measure your program using the following methods.
All of this information can be stored in your mentoring software, and made easily accessible when needed. With the help of mentoring software, you can see a holistic view of how mentoring is helping your underrepresented employees move within the organization (whether through the leadership pipeline or laterally in new roles), while also identifying improvements in retention and how this relates to your company’s overall DEI strategy and goals.
Mentoring software can help you elevate successes and showcase program impact to stakeholders, all while keeping your employees and their needs front and center in your initiative. Together, this holistic approach fosters a more inclusive workplace culture.
Human connection has become critical in the past few years as workers seek to balance productivity and engagement with the responsibilities and concerns of their lives outside the workplace. Whether working remote or in a physical workplace, all employees need to feel safe and secure bringing their full selves to work. But in order to build and sustain an inclusive workplace culture where all employees have equitable opportunities to thrive, organizations can’t rely on leaving things to chance.
In order to see real change, organizations must invest in holistic solutions rather than check the box fixes. Mentoring establishes measures of accountability, fosters a truly inclusive workplace and can exist across all stages of your employee experience. This powerful approach can move the needle in creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace.
*See references and contributing author information in the whitepaper.