Companies' diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) strategies have been evolving rapidly in recent years, with businesses going from simple workplace representation to broader acceptance of different circumstances and challenges, and from a programmatic to a systematic approach.
This is the natural next step in diversity and inclusion, says Lauren Guthrie, VF Corporation's global head of inclusion, diversity, equity and action. VF Corporation, one of the world's largest workwear and lifestyle companies, is the owner of well-known brands such as Timberland and The North Face, and has been using its reach to drive inclusion and equity in the communities it serves – following an IDEA strategy that adds the concept of action to the existing DE&I.
People Matters asked Lauren for her take on the evolution of DE&I and the place that action needs to hold in DE&I work. Here's what she told us.
What are your thoughts on the wider global trends around DE&I? How do you think these trends are influencing companies' strategy today?
The original positioning of diversity and inclusion work was anchored on the importance of diversity to creating an innovative culture internally. But over the past few years, many layers have been added on to this value. First and foremost, the concept of culture has grown far beyond the the lens of innovation and collaboration, to encompass a working environment in which associates aspire to show up in their full uniqueness every day and truly feel respected and appreciated for the individual contributions that they're able to make.
The dimensions of diversity have also gotten broader. A lot of the original focus in DE&I work was around gender identity, particularly within the United States. Globally, the initial focus was also on race, ethnicity, and culture. But now, particularly as we've moved into the question of public health issues, it's transformed to include how companies think about supporting associates – not only for who they are but how they're uniquely affected by global or local events, because that affects how they can present themselves at work every day.
What I've seen very clearly is a broadening of how we think about diversity into how people have been affected by the pandemic, how they approach work, what they need to feel successful. There is a growing acknowledgement of the different levels of ability people have to deal with these matters. And neurodiversity is a really strong current within this, closely tied to mental health and mental well-being.
Could you share more about the evolution of VF's own IDEA strategy? What does today's approach look like?
For us at VF, there has been a lot of emphasis on how we embed the currents of inclusion, diversity and equity into our ways of working. Our approach to minimising the impact of bias in our systems and our processes has moved from the more programmatic, to how we think about learning and education, to more systemic interventions. We have also shifted from an internal to a more external focus: from supporting those within our immediate corporate environment, to supporting the communities in which we live in and operate. For a company like us, with a large house of brands, we also need to consider how we are supporting our consumers around the globe more fully as well.
This work of broadening our scope is relevant not only in how we think about our work, but how we execute that work on a daily basis.
There is no growth, no meeting, no conversation in which this these principles aren't relevant and play a role in driving us to stronger solutions.
You have an 'action' component to VF's strategy, which is something not very common in DE&I so far. How did that come about?
Originally, our team was named D&I – diversity and inclusion – and it was focused on diversifying the internal demographics of our population. We had a leader come into the business about four years ago who really emphasised the importance of inclusion as a cultural tenet, and because of that we flipped the naming convention to inclusion and diversity in order to lead with the cultural concepts of building allyship, advocacy, and ultimately authentic belonging for our associates.
Over the past few years, we've seen much stronger and more holistic corporate social responsibility efforts. And for us that has meant an opportunity to really connect some of the activation that's happening from a workers' rights perspective, as well as a responsible sourcing and sustainability perspective, with the associated experience and community engagement. And that's the equity piece: looking at how we're deconstructing systems.
With that came a need to more directly address transparency and accountability, and that's the action piece. How do we move beyond rhetoric and language and into really measurable impact that has long term goals, where we hope to really seek and drive change on behalf of our stakeholders around the globe?
Action to us is a promise, first and foremost, to our people that we are committed to this work for the long term. It's not about saying the right things, but about really committing to doing the right things, and in doing so, seeing the measurable impact of that work.
What do you think is one common misconception that holds companies back from incorporating action into their DE&I strategies?
It's not necessarily a misconception, but maybe a hesitation that keeps companies from stepping into this sphere, because at the heart of a lot of conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion are conversations about identity: conversations that are influenced by social movements and even political domains. It can feel very big, and it keeps people from stepping into the work, I think, because they're not sure what's going to drive meaningful impacts.
This brings up a conversation around intention versus impact. And I think a big misconception in this space is that intention is all that matters – we want to do the right thing, we want to be good people. But it takes work to drive impactful DE&I strategies, and that is about really applying all the strategic prowess that organisations have to build cohesive long term plans, to build the right testing mechanisms, to build all of the structure that you would around any other business strategy or imperative.
And another common misconception is that there's a finish line for this work. Well, the biggest job security I have is that there is no finishing line for this work! Certainly, how we define diversity will evolve the impact on people, but feelings of marginalisation will also continue to evolve and will need to be addressed. I think that's the beauty of this work, but it can also be overwhelming for people.
On the topic of impact, what are your thoughts on the business case for DE&I and how that reflects on the bottom line?
Holistically speaking, it's part of a broader human capital management conversation. I think diversity and inclusion are indirect measures of success from a return on investment perspective, but they're really important measures. And so we look at a broad set of KPIs to define our progress. First and foremost is employee sentiment. We use surveys to measure the impact of our programmes over time and understand what's resonating with people, and we take this beyond internal demographic data. We definitely want to understanding how we're actively diversifying our employee base, but we are also looking at brand health: how the work that we're doing for our brands is resonating directly with consumers.
In some cases, we look at tangible product initiatives that are driven around either insights derived from DE&I, or DE&I-driven product collections. We watch these from an immersion perspective and a sell-through perspective to understand how those efforts are resonating. But ultimately, we must speak to key stakeholders, and it's our progress in the sentiment from both of those stakeholder groups I mentioned earlier that really drives and define success.
If the reason why a company is driving this work is based purely on revenue, then the ROI has not been defined clearly enough.
You mentioned earlier that the greatest challenge is actually to take the first step. What's a good way to get things moving?
A call to action. A really clear positioning around why this work is important to the organisation. There are a few ways to find this positioning, such as data. Data does not hide the truth. It can unveil where there's an immediate need, especially in human capital metrics such as talent acquisition rates, promotion rates, hiring rates, attrition, and other KPIs. Once you start to look at these through different levels of diversity, you can start to see where there may be bias impacting your organisation and your systems. It provides a really clear place to start.
You can further advance this by asking questions about the why, really getting to the root cause. Have conversations with your people around their experience and ask really direct questions about their sense of belonging. That can also unveil really clear opportunities to get started in this work.