“The most important thing is the company finds this work to be important enough.”

Diving into the intricacies of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), exploring ways to measure organizational diversity, and understanding the vital interplay between DEI policies and strategies were just a few topics touched upon in the interview with Sarah Cordivano, who shed light on these essential aspects of DEI. Sarah, an active voice in the DEI sphere, who recently spoke at OPEN Conference 2023, brings to the table profound knowledge from her book 'How to Succeed at an Impossible Job', navigating us through the complexities and subtle nuances of DEI across different organizational settings.

WeAreOpen: Your book’s title is „Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: How to Succeed at an Impossible Job”. But what is an impossible job?

Sarah Cordivano: By "impossible job," I essentially mean that when we work in DEI, we often find ourselves in a situation where our specific expectations for the work clash with the different expectations of our stakeholders. Additionally, we frequently lack the resources or support to fulfill all of those expectations. So, we're stuck in this impossible situation where we deeply desire to do well for our employees but aren’t fully empowered to do so. When I say "impossible job," I'm referring to navigating through this challenging situation.

Once you understand all those conflicts – between expectations, resources, and limitations – you can introduce some structure and still perform high-quality work even under these circumstances. I hope that we can accomplish some positive things even while operating in such a situation. 

We don't need to change the position; it’s more about the immense job of making an inclusive workplace for everyone involved, right?

Exactly. It's about realizing how big the job is and helping the company that's hiring us to understand what it takes to actually make the workplace more inclusive. It's not as simple as just organizing a Pride event; it’s way more complicated than that. That's the theme of the book.

So, your job is to make the impossible possible.

I suppose so. :)  

And how do you achieve it?

The book serves as a guide for anyone who finds themselves in such a situation. It provides practical tools for developing a DEI strategy and tracking your progress. It also shows you how to manage that conflict of expectations and how to deal with the personal frustration experienced in the role. There’s a whole section in the book about dealing with the feeling of inadequacy like you're not doing enough. While it may not turn the impossible into possible, it can help people manage their emotions surrounding this job.

Or maybe it helps them realize that there are no impossible jobs?

Only very difficult ones.

What is the difference between a strategic and opportunistic DEI approach?

Opportunistic means that you have someone working in DEI in an organization, but they might be doing it on top of their day job. They already have a full-time job, and they’re adding this on. They might organize an event once in a while, or they’re working on projects that pop up, maybe someone has an idea and it comes to life, but there's no strategic vision. 

A strategic approach is when you have a vision with goals that are aligned with the leaders of your company. Everyone stands behind those goals. When you work on this strategic approach, the initiatives you’re putting in place help you achieve those goals. You have much more impact with a strategic approach because you have everyone on board who is important for your success. All your stakeholders understand that vision and they’re working in the same direction with you.

Why is a localized diversity approach needed for multinational companies? How can we manage it?

Let's put ourselves in the shoes of these multinational companies. They have a global DEI strategy. Typically, that strategy takes one of two forms. 

The first one doesn’t prioritize any location, so it’s generic, it's meant to suit the needs of all locations. But, it’s so generic that it doesn’t truly fit any specific needs. The other situation is is the strategy is just US-focused. That typically happens when the employees based in the US are the loudest voices advocating for DEI in the global company. Unfortunately, it means that those challenges are prioritized over everything else. 

When we think of global DEI work, we want to make sure that initiatives are intentionally relevant for different parts of the world. We're not just saying that we need the same training all across the world. Because we understand there are cultural differences and unique local challenges, even different legal requirements. Because of all that complexity, you need to have a local approach to your diversity strategy. It doesn’t have to be a massive, complicated strategy just for one country, but there needs to be a way to connect the global efforts with the local challenges and local employees working in the company.

This can be, I guess, religion, this can be politics, this can be the law, as you said. But there are many, many things. So, if someone reads your book and thinks about all these challenges, what should they pay attention to? What are the main local problematic challenges?

Every country is a bit different. Some have restrictions on what data you can collect or can’t collect. I typically suggest talking to someone local, like an HR manager in that country or an Employee Resource Group there. For example, in India, one of the challenges often discussed is sexual harassment and safety, both in the workplace and in society. When I worked with offices in the Middle East and North Africa, we understood that it can be very dangerous to even discuss LGBTQ+ topics, so we didn’t want to put our employees in those countries in danger. You need to have local context to understand local challenges.

When we talk about all these topics, mostly we talk about multinational companies. But what about companies that don't have a global footprint? What are their difficulties regarding the topic?

I think it depends on their size. Their challenge might be that they just don’t have the money or resources to put towards DEI work. They also might not have leaders who feel pressure from employees or investors to prioritize DEI. So, they might not see DEI as a topic they need to address. I’m not saying that every country and every business needs to have a comprehensive DEI strategy. However, it is difficult for the company to figure out how to approach DEI work if they don’t have a global headquarters giving them some sort of blueprint. 

Or simply, they might not have the staff to put a strategy in place. Then it ends up that employees do this as a grassroots effort. That can make it more difficult for the company to do strategic DEI work.

Is money a big factor in this whole system? Are there any ways to make all these DEI programs without money, or with less money?

I think in some ways money is just one part of the resources and power that you need to implement DEI work. And it depends on the industry and the country. For example, if we’re talking about a tech company, they might need to solve a problem around hiring more women because they're in such a male-dominated industry. In the end, they might need to spend a lot of money because they’re competing in such a competitive market. 

But money is not everything. It’s good to have some budget associated with your work because it shows that the company finds DEI important enough to allocate some amount of budget to DEI work. But even if the budget is not there, the most important thing is that the company finds this work to be important enough for them and they want to prioritize it. So when they're making business decisions, they consider DEI a factor in those decisions, or when they're developing new HR processes, they want to consider equity as they do that. That might not necessarily cost money, but it costs energy and time.

What is an ideal DEI budget for a multi-company organization? 

It depends on the size of the company, where they're located, what industry they're in. It's a tough question. I think for someone like Microsoft, it's millions, but for a more local company, like a smaller tech company it could be that they have 20-50k for DEI. I recommend this blog post that explores how much DEI work costs, both in time and money.

What is the relationship between a DEI policy and a DEI strategy?

When I think of DEI policies, I think about all the different policies that a company must develop to guide employees and their behavior such as a code of conduct, anti-discrimination policy, or anti-harassment policy. 

When I think about a DEI strategy, I think about the actual commitment that a company is making to implement DEI initiatives over the next several years. Likely, a company needs both policies and a strategy. 

Let’s talk about considering DEI in our HR policies, for a moment. You need to have policies that provide explicit guidance to employees on how they should act, what they're allowed to do, or what they are not allowed to do. DEI plays a part in that. 

If you have a work-from-home policy, but it doesn't consider how parent and caregiver employees can work from home, whether they have a different, more permissive policy, allowing them to work from home more days per month, then you end up building these policies that are fit for everyone on average, everyone gets the same policy. But we know that the whole concept of equity is about understanding that different people need different things. And to give everyone a chance to succeed and everyone a chance to have fair input in decision-making, you need to have equitable processes. You can't have HR-related policies without thinking about DEI.

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You need the strategy to make sure you are considering DEI in HR policies.

Exactly. Oftentimes you need the strategy to explicitly say, "We are going to consider DEI in our policies" so all our stakeholders including everyone who owns those policies, know they need to consider DEI. Without that direction, they often don't do it.

How does an Employee Resource Group Program fit into an inclusive workplace?

ERGs essentially are identity-based groups that are centered around community and advocacy. Oftentimes they build community and provide support to their members. But they also support an inclusive working environment. An ERG Program helps these employee groups to form, mature, and have an impact within the organization. 

The real power comes from this two-way communication between ERGs and the organization. The ERGs are creating a more inclusive workplace for their members. But then the company can ask for feedback or insight from the ERGs and use their experiences to improve the work that the company is doing. ERGs are super important to organizations, but it's also often volunteer work that employees do within companies. There's a big question about how companies support those ERG organizers and how they help them do this type of work, which it's not always easy. This blog post explores the topic of recognition and reward for ERG members in depth.

We just talked about the local diversity challenges. ERGs can be so helpful regarding those because these people know the situation of the country or the area.

Exactly. They often are the voice from the grassroots about the challenges those employees are facing, and that can be valuable. A company also must recognize that these employee groups can't be the entire strategy. The company also needs to allocate paid staff time (maybe it's the HR team or some other team within the company), to work on DEI. Otherwise, it just becomes a burden on the already marginalized groups that are using their volunteer time to drive this work.

Let's say that we've developed this strategy, we have done what we could, and we have spent the money that we could. So how is it possible to measure the diversity within an organization? What are the metrics here? 

In order to measure diversity,  many companies conduct a self-identification survey that also includes questions about inclusion. 

This will help you understand the diversity of your organization whether employees feel included and how that inclusion varies by identity. This is where the real metrics come from because if you're doing all this DEI work but you're not able to see whether it has an impact on diverse groups in your company, then it's hard to show to your stakeholders that your work is valuable. You might ask specific questions about whether employees are comfortable expressing opinions that are different from the rest of their team or whether their manager demonstrates inclusive behavior. Asking questions like that gets to the core of that feeling of inclusion for employees. To learn more about launching an Inclusion and Identity survey, check out this blog.

How much time does it take to feel the change in the company?

It takes time. The process of developing a strategy might take three to six months, and that's just trying to get everyone to agree with where you're trying to go. The lifetime of that strategy might be three or five years. The individual initiatives within the strategy may be quite short, like setting up a training program may take just six months or one year. 

However, evaluating all your HR policies might be an ongoing initiative. Every time you have a new policy, you must think about DEI again. It takes a long time, probably the entire lifetime of your strategy.

I think that's why a lot of people feel demotivated. They think: "I've been working on this for so long, and I can't see anything change." But again, this comes down to expectations. If you understand that this work takes a long time, then you don't get as frustrated when, after a year or so, you can't see that much change. There is so much foundational work to do before you start to see change.

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So, if you build up a strategy, maybe we shouldn't have any deadline.

I think it's okay if the lifetime of the strategy doesn't have a final deadline, but it is helpful for the initiatives to have some plan of action, like a roadmap of which initiatives to work on first, and about how long they will take to complete. But you need flexibility because everything’s going to take a bit longer than you expect.

How would you summarize the business case for diversity?

It depends on the geographic location. Some countries have legislation requiring specific DEI measures and data tracking, like reporting on the gender pay gap. In some countries, investors are also asking questions before they decide to invest in your company. They want to know if you have a DEI strategy in place, and they want to know if you track data. Also, when you're hiring, potential employees are looking out for specific things and whether a company is inclusive or not before they apply. Those are external factors that push a company to consider DEI to be compliant with legislation and attract investment and top talent. 

But if you think about the inward-facing business case, it boils down to the fact that research shows diverse organizations are more innovative. And with innovation, you build better products. And why is that the case? It's because, with diversity, you're able to build something that suits the needs of different types of customers. Ultimately you come up with better solutions to complex problems and can differentiate yourself from your competitors. 

If you have a diverse company with inclusion and your different employees can contribute, you are likely to solve problems better than your competitors.

You are so passionate about this topic. What made you become a DEI expert?

I try not to think about passion because I feel like this is exactly how we end up exhausting ourselves: we're so passionate about DEI that we try to do 110% and then burn out. 

I rather think about the impact that I can have. Before I worked in DEI, I was working in data analysis and project management (which is a pretty good skills match for DEI work, by the way). I felt like I could have a greater impact by transitioning into DEI work because it's not just about helping a company make more money. It's about improving the experience of employees who work at this company. And for me, that's my motivation. It's not just about the bottom line, but about what experiences employees are having and I can have an impact on that.

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Sarah Cordivano

Sarah Cordivano (she/her) is an expert in the field of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, with a focus on implementing successful DEI strategies and developing initiatives to create more inclusive workplaces. She brings along expertise in data analytics in order to implement impactful, data-driven DEI work. She is also a professional speaker and writer, having recently published “DEI: How to Succeed at an Impossible Job.” Sarah is from Philadelphia originally and currently lives in Berlin.

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