What does diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mean in the workplace

May 15, 2024

DEI in the workplace is wanted by employees (and candidates) and needed by business leadership. See what DEI means in the modern workplace and how a company’s DEI commitment can drive measurable outcomes in organizational culture, employee engagement, and business success.

This is the first article in a three-part series on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and practices in the workplace emerged in the mid-1960s, as social movements and new legislation filtered into corporate America. Initially focused primarily on ethnic diversity, DEI programs have evolved and expanded over the years to encompass a wide range of backgrounds.

DEI in the workplace remains an important priority because employees (and candidates) demand it and because it’s good for business outcomes. Today, more than half (56%) of working adults in the U.S. support DEI policies in the workplace, according to Pew Research Center. That figure is much higher among younger generations. A survey by Monster revealed 83% of Gen Z workers consider a company’s DEI commitment when evaluating potential employers. Diversity is also closely linked with performance. In one study, McKinsey reported that companies with ethnically and gender diverse teams outperform their less diverse counterparts, and a separate report found that companies with the most diverse board memberships are 27% more likely to outperform financially than companies in the bottom quartile.

In this article, we’ll provide an updated take on what DEI means in today’s workplace — for leaders as well as other employees — and we’ll share insights into how a company’s DEI commitment can drive measurable outcomes in organizational culture, employee engagement, and business success.

What does DEI mean today?

Today’s modern workforce is more diverse than ever. As we know, diversity doesn’t just mean employing people of different ethnic backgrounds. Employees that represent different gender identities, religious affiliations, sexual orientations, disability status, and generations all contribute to the diversity of an organization’s workforce.

While there have, historically, always been a range of age groups represented in the workplace, we are currently at a unique point in time, as older generations of workers are retiring and younger workers are primed to make up the majority of the active workforce within the next few years. Right now, it’s crucial for organizations to seize the unique benefits of a multi-generational workforce. AARP found an age-diverse workforce brings business benefits, and 83% of global executives recognize that multigenerational teams perform better, lead to greater worker satisfaction and produce greater revenue for companies.

The U.S. workforce is fast becoming more diverse than ever. And DEI is reflected in many areas of corporate policies and practices. Alongside the increased diversity of the modern workforce, we’ve seen an uptick of organizational leaders using DEI priorities to shape the following:

  • Hiring practices and compensation
  • Inclusive policies
  • Training and education
  • Rise in Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
  • Level of leadership commitment
  • Safe and respectful organizational culture
Benefits of promoting DEI in the workplace

For people leaders, DEI is the lens through which policies and practices must be considered. This approach ensures that behaviors within the organization align with company values and commitment to DEI issues. As we mentioned before, most employees want to work at an organization that prioritizes DEI — meaning that DEI efforts can support retention and talent attraction. At the same time, those same practices can help drive productivity and profitability, making your business more competitive and more sustainable.

Here are some of the specific ways that your DEI commitment benefits employees:

  • Fosters a positive work culture. Employees benefit because inclusivity reflects a positive work culture. DEI creates a thriving work culture where all employees feel comfortable coming to work, sharing ideas, and connecting with colleagues.
  • Promotes business ethics. If ethical business practices are a part of your company values, DEI fosters loyalty because employees know their employer is doing the right thing. When that is the case as far as ethical business practices, chances are the company is also doing the right thing when it comes to managing their workforce. This is why DEI experts often advise that creating policies and programs that support DEI is less about complicated metrics and more about doing the right thing.
  • Improves an organization's brand. DEI initiatives become a beacon for top talent. They want to work for a company that supports such practices. As we mentioned earlier, more than half of all adults working in the U.S. support DEI practices in the workplace and the figures are higher among the youngest workers. When companies behave in such a way that demonstrates a commitment to DEI—and tells DEI-related stories in its recruitment marketing efforts — it may be easier to attract candidates and foster engagement throughout the recruiting process and beyond.  
  • Drives innovation. When organizations prioritize DEI in meaningful ways, the result is a culture that values input and ideas from different types of people. And when employees feel comfortable contributing their suggestions and feedback, the best solutions can rise to the top. The reason that teams with more diversity have higher productivity and higher likelihoods of profitability is the direct result of bringing people with different perspectives together to collaborate on problem-solving and innovative solutions.
  • Enhances employee morale. It’s crucial to recognize that DEI initiatives are about people, ultimately. By definition, prioritizing DEI in the workplace fosters a more comfortable, inclusive environment for all employees. And how well a company approaches DEI issues is reflected in employee satisfaction levels. According to a CNBC survey, employees who say their employer is “not doing enough” to prioritize DEI have a Workforce Happiness Index score of 63, compared with the average score of 72.
When DEI falls short, so does the bottom line

Companies that do not prioritize DEI initiatives — or fail to align actual practices with aspirational commitments—may be more likely to struggle to achieve the successes we listed above. At the same time, such organizations may also face additional challenges, including:

  • Limited talent pool
  • Limited innovation
  • Decreased engagement and morale
  • Negative brand reputation
  • Poor customer perception
  • Additional legal and compliance risks
The Circles/Sodexo approach to DEI

Following the George Floyd incident in the summer of 2020, Circles felt compelled to put more thought into DEI, and thus formed the DEI Committee. At Circles, as well as our parent company Sodexo, we have always had DEI initiatives throughout the business. Sodexo’s commitment to DEI is a pillar of the brand. Circles’ DEI committee was created to actively contribute and implement initiatives to foster a more inclusive and equitable workplace culture. Within our organization, Stephanie Ann Leslie, regional director of operations at Circles North America, leads the charge.

"Diversity, equity, and inclusion are fundamental to creating a work environment where employees feel valued, empowered, and motivated to contribute their best. By creating the DEI committee at Circles, I helped spearhead important DEI initiatives that will clear the paths for future generations in the workforce. I am committed to driving progress so that we can all lead fuller lives and enhance the success of our organizations.”

-Stephanie-Ann Leslie, Regional Director of Operations, Circles

With a global presence, we recognize the significance of reflecting the diversity that exists worldwide. The importance of fostering an inclusive environment at Circles cannot be overstated, as it directly impacts both our employees and our clients. Our company is deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in every facet of our operations. For our employees, we prioritize fostering a culture of inclusivity and belonging. We offer company-wide diversity training at all levels, extending from entry-level staff to people managers and executive leadership. Furthermore, we provide a dedicated Teams channel and company intranet where we actively promote diversity-related events and content, encouraging participation and open dialogue. We also encourage employees to join and actively engage in employee resource groups to further their personal and professional development. Our Human Resources team plays a pivotal role by undergoing unconscious bias training and implementing blind recruitment techniques and gender-inclusive applications, ensuring that our hiring processes are fair and inclusive.

In our commitment to DEI, we extend our efforts to our clients as well. We curate and share valuable DEI content within our client portal and in customized newsletters, providing our clients with valuable insights and resources to foster inclusive environments within their organizations. We actively seek diverse partnerships for our client discounts and special offers, ensuring that our clients have access to a broad spectrum of businesses and suppliers. Additionally, we proudly support our clients' ERG events, actively supporting and lending our resources to make these events successful.

DEI: A Pathway to Business Success

DEI initiatives are not moral imperatives but critical business strategies. As the workforce diversifies, companies must embrace DEI not only to attract and retain talent but also to drive innovation, enhance morale, and improve brand reputation. The Circles approach exemplifies this, with a dedicated DEI Committee, comprehensive training, and inclusive practices fostering a culture of belonging. By prioritizing DEI internally and extending efforts to clients, Circles demonstrates the tangible benefits of DEI in promoting inclusivity, driving business success, and positively impacting both employees and clients. DEI isn't just a checkbox — it's a pathway to organizational excellence and societal progress.

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