Building Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives

March 25, 2021 | By: Molly Looman

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are not to be viewed as boxes to check or numbers to achieve, but rather as strategies to ensure the competitiveness and longevity of an organization. With new vocabulary and concepts emerging about implementing inclusion in the workplace, it has become clear that there is no right answer, rather embracing these principles an ever-evolving journey that is imperative for organizations to maintain a focus on

The following insights are not meant to serve as a hard and fast road map, rather a step in the direction of education and a broadened perspective for commercial real estate professionals.

Diversity as a Sustainability Initiative

When sustainability is discussed in commercial real estate, it usually refers to the strategies surrounding environmental sustainability and the considerations for the future of the planet. However, the same strategies surrounding environmental sustainability, such as keeping the organization competitive and overall bettering a property, can be brought to the conversation surrounding demographic and thought diversity in the workplace.

Eleni Reed, head of sustainability, Americas at Lendlease, has made inclusion programs a centerpiece in her goal to increase opportunities in the construction sector. Reed and Lendlease have utilized external partnerships to enrich the lives of people in the communities they have a presence in.

“The goal is to look at how we can remove barriers to employment in the construction industry,” Reed said. “We are seeing that in general there is a labor shortage and there is a bit of a skilled workforce gap, at least pre-COVID. We are also seeing that there is an under-representation of minorities and women in the construction trade.”

Through partnerships with Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, HIRE360, and Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT), Reed and her team have thought about sustainability not just for their organization but the communities at large. Reed said that diversity and its purpose go far beyond demographics.

“One of the imperatives we have is through our work is: how can we drive sustainable economic growth, and the social piece of that is: how can we create economic opportunity through the work that we do in a community where we have a presence,” Reed said.

Generating Internal Systems

Beginning a DEI initiative in a workplace requires self-awareness and research. Once a plan is in place, the organization needs to consider if it should have an external DEI statement and Internal DEI policy to demonstrate intent and commitment.

Haven Cockerham, the founder of Cockerham & Associates, a strategic consulting and technology business for human resources, said that the first step to creating a cultural shift is to understand the most current definitions of the DEI vocabulary.

“I like to refer to diversity and inclusion as the noun and the verb,” Cockerham said. “The noun is what exists. The verb requires some action, it requires you to do something different. It requires you to make it work for everybody in the organization.”

Cockerham’s business has helped multiple organizations of various sizes with their human resources initiatives. Whether the goal is hiring more veterans or creating a broadened succession strategy, Cockerham and Associates work with a few strategies in mind to achieve the client’s goal. One of the main ones is employee resource groups (ERG).

“They emerged as a result of individuals of color in particular not feeling that they were being seen, not feeling that they were being considered for opportunities, and not learning about what’s going on in the organization,” Cockerham said.

Now, ERGs are a common tactic to help different groups of people excel in the workplace. Not only do they provide employees a space to innovate and express concerns, but they also provide more opportunities for individuals to be seen by leadership and considered for different positions. Pipelines like this are essential to creating an overall culture of diversity and inclusion focused on bettering and sustaining the organization.

Looking Towards the Future

There are many pitfalls when creating inclusion initiatives or beginning the journey of a cultural shift within your organization: over-generalizing, stereotyping, or lack of education. One of the biggest pitfalls is forgetting the purpose. Cockerham said that most organizations go through a cultural redefinition every few years and that a one size fits all approach will not increase retention or generate results. He said it is about finding what works for your company and approaching change with earnestness and intention.

“You can pay people more, you can give people more benefits, but if all the other cylinders are not functioning properly, people are going to leave anyway,” Cockerham said.

For Lendlease, they keep their goals and mission in mind when embarking on different initiatives. By taking a comprehensive view of diversity and looking for needs to be met, they can create a lasting impact on an industry and their communities. Whether it be establishing a fund to offset childcare, transportation, and equipment costs or working with a partner to develop training programs, the mission is always clearly defined.

“Our goal is the bigger question of how to address the labor shortage and how to promote diversity within the construction trade,” Reed said.

Developing DEI within an organization is about more than meeting benchmarks. It involves education, training, and willingness to self-examine. Developing specific goals and accepting that it is an ongoing process will increase the longevity of organizations and keep them competitive by having a more diverse pool of talent creating solutions. One size does not fit all, so organizations need to approach this realm with the same strategic and creative mind they use to approach the rest of their business practices.