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What Does DEI Really Mean?

A conversation with Zakeana Reid from CCDI Consulting


Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) is a hot topic these days. In fact, we talked about this back in January as one of the most important areas of focus for 2023 and in years to come.

But what does DEI actually look like in the workplace – and why is it so important?

We had the opportunity to sit down and tackle some of these big questions with Zakeana Reid, Interim CEO of CCDI Consulting, a specialized consulting group that helps employers and HR practitioners effectively address the full picture of diversity, equity and inclusion within the workplace.

According to Reid, the fact that DEI is often considered the “right” thing to do is not necessarily a great starting point because real change starts from the top and often needs to be aligned with strategic business goals. “Thankfully,” says Reid, “there’s definitely a strong business case for investing in DEI for most organizations.”

The first reason is simple demographics.

Canada’s population is growing at a steady pace thanks to immigration (not birth rates) which means there are more and more people from other parts of the world in the Canadian job market. Ensuring your company is a welcoming space for newer Canadians may seem like a nice thing to do – but it’s also just good business sense.

We also have an increasing number of women ready to engage in full-time work with the advent of more flexible options around where and when we work (thanks partly to COVID). Plus, the Indigenous population is now the fastest growing demographic in Canada – and including that perspective is critical for so many reasons, not the least of which being an opportunity to better represent the communities you serve.

Thanks to mounds of research in this area, we also know that employee engagement is a major driver for multiple business results.

Reid says engagement is made-up of a couple of factors, much like Maslov's hierarchy of needs. “You get discretionary effort from individuals when they feel physically and psychologically safe, when they feel that they work in a space that is fair and equitable, and when they have a sense of value and belonging.” Meaning it’s one thing to have a diverse employee population, and an entirely different thing to ensure they each feel included.

Reid continues, “we also know the direct impacts of engagement…you see reduced shrinkage in the retail space, you see reduced absences and sick leaves, you see reduced health and safety incidents, all of these things that directly impact business outcomes.”

A diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace also allows your business to leverage increased creativity and innovation opportunities, which will ultimately help you compete in a culturally diverse marketplace. When people with different experiences and ideas come together, they can generate unique solutions to problems, and think of new and innovative ways of approaching things. And it’s no secret that new ideas and solutions are critical to the success of most businesses.

Okay, so now that your CFO is on board - what does DEI really mean for a workplace?


When thinking about DEI and your own policies it’s important to understand that everyone approaches that conversation with their own unique perceptions of what the words diversity, equity and inclusion actually mean.

As Reid puts it, “it's not until you start having conversations that you realize those definitions can really be quite varied, and that what you're talking about might not actually be what everyone else in the room is talking about. For example, a faith-based charity might be different than a LGBTQ2S+ rights group, on what their definition of diversity and inclusion means.”

However, just because definitions can vary slightly from one company to another, it doesn’t mean that the definitions are wrong. The key is aligning the definitions so everyone is on the same page. Zakeana and her team start with a very broad definition of diversity and often refer to a “Dimensions of Diversity” diagram to help visualize all the different factors that can influence someone’s diversity.

This broad approach helps the groups CCDI Consulting works with to recognize the wide variety of both internal and external factors when it comes to diversity. Things like age, ethnicity, where you went to school, if you chose to get married, where you have worked, the community you live in, and the global events you’ve experienced – just to name a few. Diversity begins internally with many factors that we are born with – and then expands out to encompass external factors that we do have some choice in.

However, according to Reid, you can have diversity without inclusion. Once you have a better understanding of diversity and what it really means for each individual on your team, the next step is to create space where everyone is genuinely included.

So how do you make each of those people and all those perspectives feel like they have a voice and a space to contribute to a safe and inclusive space?

The answer is equity.


Defining equity can be a little bit trickier as it is often mixed up with equality. To help better understand the difference between those two critical terms, Zakeana shared her experience from a previous role in Oil & Gas:

“I used to work in engineering, and we talked about PPE a lot - Personal Protective Equipment. One of the barriers to entry for women in construction for a long time was things like PPE. Steel-toed work boots weren't designed with female feet in mind. They were only built for men for a long time, then they only had pink boots for women. And now you have unisex, male, and female steel toed boots. That's equity. Equality is everybody gets a pair of size 11 steel toes. Equity is everyone gets a pair of steel toes that fits their feet right.”

In other words, once you have a better understanding of the diversity of your team the next major step is to learn how to approach each person as an individual with their own unique needs and goals. Another well-known analogy for this is the image of children watching a baseball game behind a fence:

This is a very simplistic visualization of equality vs. equity vs. justice – especially as it is only addressing basic biological diversity with height differences – but it can be helpful for some people to see what the goal is with all of this and to understand that it is a long-term commitment. As Reid puts it, “it's a journey...not a destination; you're never going to be saying, ‘okay, we implemented diversity and inclusion and now it's running smoothly, it's on the wall and we're good.’”

It Starts at the Top

So, how does a DEI strategy actually show up in a workplace?

“Similar to any other HR strategic initiative, if you don’t have understanding and buy-in at the executive level, it doesn’t actually matter what you do or what you say,” suggests Reid.

Identifying your leadership’s beliefs and understanding of DEI is the true driver of the approach; determining whether the drive is coming from simply wanting to be compliant and starting to build a framework or wanting to be more proactive by truly growing and educating employees. Neither is right or wrong, it’s just important to know what the starting point is so you get buy-in from your leadership team. Understanding that critical stance, says Reid, “is really what’s needed to determine what can even be done, where you can start, and how far you could go.”

For small to medium sized businesses who might not be ready for a comprehensive DEI Strategy, a great starting point is to simply review whether your employee base reflects the customers you serve. “Understanding your customers and your customer demographics and then ensuring you have representation within your workforce that aligns to the demographics of your target clients will help ensure you’re creating products or services that meet the needs of those demographics and that they land appropriately,” says Reid.

For any organization interested in getting a better idea of where your company is at in terms of DEI, there is a free tool that Zakeana recommends called the Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Benchmarks. It’s a comprehensive free resource created by over 100 experts across the world to help companies determine strategy and measure progress when fostering DEI. 

Reid explains, “it’s a great place to start and it can just give you some really simple tools that are easy to implement. It’s the same idea if you really want a solid HR practice, you need a couple of policies, right? Like you need to put a line in the sand and define what matters to you in your values and choose what makes sense for your organization. It's a starting place and it will give a really great foundation for a lot of organizations.”

Overall, diversity, equity, and inclusion are essential for creating a healthy and productive work environment that benefits both employees and employers. By embracing DEI, companies can unlock the full potential of their workforce and achieve greater success that impacts everyone involved - and your bottom line.


If you’re interested in learning more, check out the CCDI Consulting website:


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