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‘When Your Employees Are Thriving, Your Business Is Thriving:’ Why DEI Strategies Should Be a Business Imperative

Sharra Owens-Schwartz on why implementing DEI strategies should be a business imperative and can help decenter conventional narratives

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are all vital components of a safe and respectful working environment. For a company to move in a positive direction, there must be a focus on DEI to ensure that every employee is treated fairly and can trust that their unique perspective will be valued.
 
An expert on this topic is Sharra Owens-Schwartz, the senior director of inclusion, diversity, and equity at Rocket Software, who works to implement these critical DEI approaches into the company’s strategy every day. 
 
“We made our DEI plan accessible to the entire organization by outlining our three pillars—diversity, equity and inclusion. The work that we are doing under each pillar lends itself to achieving our stated goals of where we want our organization to be in one year, two years and in five years” Owens-Schwartz says. 
 
From Day 1 at Rocket, Owens-Schwartz has committed to creating real, ground-level change at an organization that she believes already had a great foundation. Her priority when first entering the role was to listen to people across the organization, including those from different geographies, demographics and positions to address any existing DEI concerns or challenges. From there, she has worked to build and sustain a truly inclusive workplace environment. 
 
“It’s really critical that organizations make a commitment to DEI,” Owens-Schwartz says. “If you don’t invest in DEI, you’re going to be left behind.” 

Laying Out the Terms

When businesses talk about DEI in the workplace, they need to recognize how the terms are both unique and interconnected. 
 
“Diversity, equity and inclusion are all interconnected, and I believe that in a workplace in particular or any type of environment, you really need to have the three of them working together,” Owens-Schwartz says. “People need to be able to come to work and show up as who they are—their authentic selves.”
 
When asked the difference between the three interconnected terms, Owens-Schwartz likes to think of each of them like this:
  • Diversity refers to who people are, including their backgrounds, lived experiences, intersections and perspectives
  • Equity refers to treating people fairly and giving them access to unbiased opportunities and necessary support structures for them to succeed
  • Inclusion refers to ensuring that people’s diverse and unique perspectives are actively included and valued in decision-making 
“All of those together really help to provide an environment for engaged, thriving employees,” Owens-Schwartz says. “When you have all of these in place, you begin to create that environment where people feel like they belong.” 

DEI as a Business Imperative 

As much as a businesses needs to implement DEI into their strategy, it means setting aside time and resources toward this commitment. But Owens-Schwartz urges leaders to look at DEI implementation as a business imperative. 
 
“Leaders need to understand that DEI is not this idea or an adjunct piece to the business or some recreational type of activity that is optional. They should distinguish between an idea and a business imperative when they’re talking about DEI and building strategies to execute DEI initiatives.”
 
Making DEI a business imperative means leaders recognize that a commitment to a fair and safe work environment is necessary for the success of the business. Failing to implement DEI cannot be an option because physical and psychological wellbeing plays an essential role in an employee’s ability to engage meaningfully in the workplace. 
 
“When I talk about psychological safety in the workplace, we’re talking about creating an environment where people can take good faith risks, where they can say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need help’ or ‘I don’t agree’ or even express what might seem like a wild idea without feeling as if they’ll be shamed, punished or dismissed.”
 
Creating this psychological safety in the workplace can allow businesses to dismantle systems that have historically excluded the voices of people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and others—but that all starts by treating DEI implementation as an imperative.

Changing Central Narratives 

Owens-Schwartz also wants people and businesses to become aware of how they choose to center stories, particularly in the U.S., where the perceptions of white, able-bodied, heterosexual men have often been looked to as the default narrative. 
 
“There are so many perspectives. We need to change the language around how we talk about people,” Owens-Schwartz says. “People often refer to someone who does not fit the profile of a white male as ‘diverse.’ This means everyone else is diverse and only the person who fits that profile is at the center.”
 
Referring to someone as “diverse” if they do not fit this conventional narrative can be very damaging to the individual as well as the organization. However, this kind of exclusion can change as an organization’s language and conversations evolve.
 
Owens-Schwartz suggests one way to positively change this central narrative is to examine the use of organizational language. One example of this is that, during the hiring process, businesses should view groups of people as a “diverse pool of candidates” rather than calling an individual “diverse.”
 
Representation at all levels of an organization is vital but businesses need to be aware of whose narrative is being centered in these types of conversations. The implementation of DEI strategies is a core part of this process. 
 
Implementing DEI is the right thing to do and it’s the smart thing to do. When companies make DEI a priority, you’ll find that it creates an environment for people to be more deeply engaged,” Owens-Schwartz says. “They will innovate. When your employees are thriving, your business is thriving.” 
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