As America’s largest companies and their CEOs increasingly embrace a new leadership role in advancing racial equity, they face a confounding question: What really works? Despite decades of research and a growing corporate focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) over the past few years, many executives are unsure what actions are most effective at increasing diverse representation, improving feelings of inclusion, or making progress on other DEI goals.
Integrating DEI into organizational practices is nuanced, complex work—and relatively nascent. Robust, comparable multiyear DEI outcomes data is hard to come by. Even among those companies most committed to defining and measuring DEI progress, results take time, and there are few benchmarks against which to measure them.
Many studies exist of specific employer DEI efforts or practices that have led to strong DEI outcomes, but parsing through that literature to make data-driven decisions is challenging. At Bain and at Grads of Life, we frequently hear C-suite leaders say, “I don’t know where to start,” or “the amount of information and tools is overwhelming.” Many simply want a blueprint for what’s been effective for other companies.
To that end, we have developed a short list of the strongest evidence-based DEI actions, based on a thorough review of more than 100 research sources, primarily academic literature, and informed by our experiences supporting our clients and engaging with DEI thought leaders (see our methodology below).
Ultimately, we found 10 actions worthy of increased employer attention and investment today:
Each of the actions above resulted in one or more positive outcomes for an organization’s diverse or underrepresented talent, including:
- improved rates of recruitment and hiring;
- increased levels of representation in an organization;
- increased feelings of engagement and belonging; and
- increased rates of retention and internal promotion.
We also examined how widely implemented these actions are, and, for those not yet widely implemented, we examined the biggest barriers to accelerating adoption. We evaluated these actions within a framework that spans all the core areas of business operations (see Figure 1).
The most effective diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies span key areas of business operations inside and outside of the company’s walls
Our analysis also revealed that half of the 10 actions are not yet mainstream despite the strong research behind them. Employers should prioritize these actions and explore how to overcome potential barriers to implementation. The remaining actions are already quite common, yet companies need to be aware of important nuances in order to implement them effectively. While many employers already have experience with these actions, there are ways to connect them more effectively to DEI strategy and outcomes (see Figure 2).
The 10 most effective actions include 5 that are not yet mainstream and 5 that, though common, can often be deployed more effectively
We also found that a combination of several, or all, of these actions is more powerful than any one action on its own. While many of these actions alone can drive improvements, when taken together, the actions are mutually reinforcing: The more you implement, the greater likelihood of seeing strong DEI outcomes. In conjunction with this report, Bain & Company and Grads of Life have released The DEI Opportunity Identifier, a self-assessment tool that allows companies to assess themselves against all the DEI actions described here as well as many others.
In each of the individual action pages that comprise this report, we present a synthesis of insights from the research about the action, analyze what it takes to successfully implement each action, and explore why some of the actions are not yet pervasive among US employers despite their strong evidence base.
How employers can take action
Many employers have already articulated or expanded a commitment to diversity over the past year. There are several concrete ways employers can use the information in this report to help fulfill those commitments.
- Connect and learn: Consider joining a local or national business coalition committed to adopting actions such as the ones articulated here. OneTen, the Business Roundtable’s Multiple Pathways Initiative, CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, and the New York Jobs CEO Council are all examples of corporate coalitions focused on taking action to increase equity through employment. Many of them engage in frequent peer learning, knowledge sharing, tool development, and, in some cases, technical assistance on implementation.
- Assess and invest: Explore which of the 10 key actions outlined in this report are ripe for further investment at your company. While these actions are defined to be universally applicable to companies of all sizes and industries, DEI looks different at every company, and each company is at a different place on its DEI journey; individual context remains essential in analyzing what to do from here. We encourage employers to conduct a self-assessment on progress against goals using the Opportunity Identifier and to explore ways to apply the evidence-based actions described here to their organizations.
- Measure and report: Similar to most business strategies, DEI comes with continuous learning and improvement. There is still much to discover about the nuanced approaches to these actions that are most effective in driving results. We encourage employers to rigorously measure outcomes of each intervention and, where possible, report on those outcomes to employees, researchers, and other employers to help inform working knowledge in this field.
How investors can take action
Investors are increasingly interested in, and demanding, meaningful human capital data as one means of assessing a corporation’s total value. Over the past two years, a global outcry for racial justice, coupled with the effects of the Covid-19 crisis, have resulted in increased scrutiny from investors, consumers, and other stakeholders on environmental, social, and corporate governance factors that help paint a picture of a company’s total social impact. We encourage investors to use the data and evidence in this report to monitor and measure key human capital actions and their outcomes among the companies in which they invest and to use their position to influence companies to be more transparent on DEI data.
We hope that other stakeholders, including members of the philanthropic community, grassroots organizers, and policymakers, also find value in the findings summarized here and will take the opportunity to share relevant insights with their networks. Investments into DEI have positive effects that go far beyond the four walls of a corporation; they ultimately lead to greater community and national prosperity and well-being.
This report would not have been possible without the significant research, analysis, writing and editing support of Kelly Graham, Joana Ortiz, Alanna Rodgers, and Nandita Jariwala. We thank them for their significant contributions.