Warp and weft: How weaving fabric can teach companies about successful DEI programs

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By Nate Vaughn

When weaving fabric, there’s warp and weft. The warp runs vertically or longitudinally, while the weft runs horizontally or transverse through the warp. Throughout the weaving process, the warp is frequently under extreme tension, while the weft receives little in the way of stress or strain.

In addition, and important to know, fabric can only be made with warp and weft. It doesn’t work with only one thread, rather the two threads act in a symbiotic relationship, giving and taking from the other, coming together to create something meaningful.

So what does fabric have to do with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs? More than one might think.

The critical relationship between warp and weft

Without the warp and weft, fabric falls apart. It can’t be made. It’s much the same for DEI programs.

In our example, leadership is the warp and DEI programs are the weft. Corporate leadership often is under significant pressure to develop DEI programs and may face complicating factors when it comes to implementation, much like the warp is under intense pressure in the weaving process. Conversely, weft carries much less tension, but is critical to the success of weaving fabric; DEI programs are the weft.

The best events. The greatest programs. And the most innovative classes don’t have a chance without an organization’s full and unconditional financial and strategic backing.

Without ongoing support and a high level of commitment from leaders throughout the company as well as C-suite leadership, the warp will stretch uncontrollably and snap, causing the weft to fail, as well.

The future without warp

Companies that fail to fully support DEI should expect a fair amount of employee churn and future attrition. A survey of more than 1,300 full-time employees from a range of organizations and industries across the United States undertaken by Deloitte and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, found employees care deeply about DEI initiatives. So much so that they’re willing to quit and find an employer that more closely mirrors their values:

  • 80% said inclusion is important when choosing an employer
  • 39% said they’d be happy to leave their current employer and work for one that’s more inclusive

As for Millennials who have joined the workforce over the past few years and are firmly entrenched in the corporate world, DEI has become deeply ingrained in their psyche and values: “They (Millennials) are less focused on ‘demographic’ representation compared with previous generations and are more likely to focus on inclusion as an essential component in business strategy,” according to the Deloitte report. (I wrote earlier about why the best business case for DEI is no business case at all, and it’s a thought that carries through to organizational support of DEI. No one questions the need and funding for legal, compliance or operations: It is what it is, as they say. DEI demands the same respect.)

In addition, any generation that uses social media for news or exchanging ideas will see through sub-standard and disingenuous leadership support.

“What’s become clear to me is that, despite the increasing urgency from stakeholders of all kinds for corporations to take on a greater role in social change, a large proportion of leaders are vastly unprepared or even unaware of these expectations,” writes Lily Zheng in the Harvard Business Review. “If they choose to take action at all, they more often than not follow a long-outdated playbook of one-time corporate donations, hastily delivered unconscious bias trainings, and social media posts that come across as the corporate equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers.’ These efforts may be seen by stakeholders as not only inadequate, but also as potential indicators that corporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are ‘performative,’ or similarly done for show but not effectiveness.”

Being open, honest and sincere is the only way to commit to DEI and weave a strong organizational fabric that demonstrates real change is taking place. It’s evident building the DEI process at the leadership level may be a challenge within some organizations. Some leaders may not have the time to fully participate, and others may not agree with the mission. Either way, explaining the importance of taking or making the time or exploring DEI from a business, rather than a personal perspective, is crucial.

DEI is about engaging people throughout the organization and leveling the playing field so that everyone—from leaders to team members—learns from one another. Within any organization, we’re marketing to others, whether that’s current or prospective employees or the customers that the business serves. All of whom need representation. Which brings us to the weft.

Weft: Bringing it together

DEI must be at the core of all business practices and competencies. The business must care as much about the success or failure of DEI as it does about operations, finance or any other department or attribute critical to achieving business goals. Companies that don’t put a high priority on DEI or don’t make it part of core business practices potentially face a future with a smaller talent pool from which to draw: Almost 80% of employees say that they want to work for a company that values diversity, equity and inclusion, according to a CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey. Not only do employers potentially face a future with a smaller talent pool, but they may lose out on recruiting employees who will act as champions for a more diverse and inclusive corporate culture.

A good place to start is by creating employee resource groups (ERG). These employee-driven groups can be extremely important to an organization. ERGs give employees a strong voice that can help push a company in the right direction by bringing up concerns and social issues that exist in the organization.

Everyone throughout the organization has tremendous ideas and thoughts about the way DEI can be improved. Employees, I’ve found, want to get involved. Want to offer suggestions. And want to build programs, committees, classes and events that highlight what makes them unique while inviting their colleagues to participate and join with them.

Businesses must understand that DEI is a core competency and that without it the bottom line may be negatively affected.

“In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, our business-case findings are equally compelling: in 2019, top-quartile companies outperformed those in the fourth one by 36 percent in profitability, slightly up from 33 percent in 2017 and 35 percent in 2014,” according to a McKinsey report.

Simply put, DEI must be woven into the fabric of everyday business practices.

Joining the warp and weft together into a single, strong fabric that supports all facets of DEI is the only way to make these efforts succeed in the long run. Attempting to build DEI programs without warp and weft, or even one weak thread, will cause the fabric of any DEI program to tear, fall apart and, ultimately, fail.

Nate Vaughn is Chief Diversity Officer at Modivcare.

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