In early 2023, SALT engaged Ocean Strategies and Totem Consulting to explore the intersection of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) and social responsibility in the policies and practices of companies. The project had three main goals:
- assess how DEIA and social responsibility policies are integrated in the corporate culture of businesses,
- determine the fundamental principles that connect them, and
- illuminate conceptual entry points for advocacy.
Diving into philosophical and practical overlaps between DEIA and social responsibility, the research sought to understand how companies can leverage each of these topics to amplify the other. The findings inform actionable guidance for companies as they build and grow their DEIA and social responsibility programs.
To assess DEIA and social responsibility policies and practices within companies, the team identified Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) across the domains of people, process, and culture. KPIs were developed with the goal of understanding strengths and weaknesses of companies’ policies and of identifying points at which they do or could intersect. The project investigated 18 companies through desktop research, highlighting existing best practices and assessing opportunities to leverage one policy type to advance improvements in the other.
Key Findings & Takeaways
DEIA commitments are far behind social responsibility policies
One of the key findings of this research is that DEIA programs are less established than social responsibility programs in companies’ policies and practices. Existing social responsibility programs are typically operationally defined and have measurable goals. Companies implement social responsibility programs methodically and conduct audits to measure impact. The research team found that most companies are not even defining DEIA policies operationally nor measuring and reporting on their impact. It is, however, important to note that while many companies are monitoring and measuring their social responsibility impact through social audits, research consistently shows that audits have significant limitations when it comes to assessing human and labor rights issues; without meaningfully engaging workers and supporting worker-led approaches, companies cannot accurately assess the effectiveness of their social responsibility efforts. In other words, companies are taking action on social responsibility, but not necessarily the right action.
It was somewhat surprising to find social responsibility momentum out ahead of DEIA considering all the progress yet to be made on human and labor rights as well, but further research suggested a couple reasons for it. According to the findings, there is broad acceptance in industry that social responsibility is an important component of supply chain management and, hence, is more ingrained in companies’ infrastructure. DEIA, on the other hand, is a newer topic, one which really came to many companies’ attention following the murder of George Floyd by police in the United States in 2020. Therefore, DEIA is less established in companies’ infrastructure; these policies are mostly reactive and managed by public relations and legal departments, rather than being ingrained in company operations and culture.
Social responsibility and DEIA policies evolved and are managed separately
Building off of the first finding, social responsibility and DEIA policy arenas evolved as independent governance topics, and companies have implemented them separately. Of the companies researched, McDonald’s was the only one that explicitly linked their social responsibility and DEIA policies. Companies may lack awareness about overlaps between these two topics, which presents a roadblock in aligning them philosophically to propel progress. Currently, DEIA and social responsibility are often managed by different teams, using separate terminology, and with distinct drivers.
This finding suggests an opportunity for companies to approach these topics more holistically, with consistent and comprehensive strategic planning. By tackling DEIA and social responsibility in more connected ways, companies can not only increase resource and staffing efficiencies but also amplify the impact of their work across these two arenas.
Terminology in both policy arenas is inconsistent
Finally, the terminology in both the DEIA and social responsibility spaces is inconsistent. Different actors may use the same term to describe different concepts or different terms to describe the same concept.
THIS FINDING HIGHLIGHTS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR MORE COLLABORATION ACROSS INDUSTRY AND STAKEHOLDERS WORKING ON THESE TOPICS TO STANDARDIZE TERMINOLOGY AND, CONSEQUENTLY, EXPECTATIONS FOR COMPANIES.
While consistency in terminology is important to provide clarity to stakeholders and ensure that companies are working from the same foundations, it is also essential to note that the substance of policies matters more than the semantics.
All policies affecting human well-being are part of a larger corporate governance system. Terminology for various policies are not applied uniformly across industries, or even within small industry groups. For clarity, key terms for this report are defined as follows:
Social Impact Policy. Any corporate policy affecting human welfare, and/or recognizing the prevalence and impact of systemic discrimination or human rights abuses, including both DEIA and social responsibility policies.
DEIA Policy. Defined corporate practices around the fair treatment of all people groups in company business. DEIA policies commit to standards of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility among its leadership, workforce, and business partners.
Social Responsibility Policy. Defined corporate commitments to and practices around human and labor rights standards for the supply chains within which it operates.
Ethics Policies. Any corporate policy affecting the moral principles of business operation, both within and outside the company’s immediate leadership and workforce. This includes ethics around decision making processes, code of conduct standards, DEIA practices, social responsibility, and environmental responsibility, among others.
Social Justice/Climate Justice. Broad social movements that highlight the inequitable outcomes that result from systemic racism, sexism, and classism, and are often exacerbated by climate change impacts.
Research has shown that, when implemented well, DEIA and social responsibility policies create more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and successful workplaces that result in increased innovation and measurable financial success. Effective DEIA and social responsibility practices improve business resilience and supply chain stability, promoting worker wellbeing and productivity, protecting companies from costly controversies, and mitigating disruptions in business operations. However, most businesses to date see no direct tie between financial success and DEIA programs; stakeholders – including non-profits, civil society organizations, academic institutions, government agencies, and shareholders – have an opportunity to socialize research tying DEIA, social responsibility, and business success with companies, highlighting not only the ethical rationale but also the practical business rationale to implementing effective policies.
So, what do these findings mean for companies?
Companies have an opportunity to implement more effective DEIA and social responsibility policies, promoting the wellbeing of their direct employees and workers throughout their supply chains as well as promoting long term, sustainable business improvements and supply chain resilience. The guidance below outlines key principles and steps companies can follow as they work on building their DEIA and social responsibility policies and practices.
Create a holistic vision for impact
One of the essential insights from this research is the potential to integrate DEIA and social responsibility, implementing them in a combined, holistic approach that allows amplification of both efforts. DEIA and social responsibility as well as environmental responsibility are all fundamentally connected within a vision for sustainable business. Companies have the opportunity to build business practices that benefit from the intersection of ethics, market stability, and profitability.
By deepening the relationships between DEIA and social responsibility, companies can improve the outcomes of their policies and programs, maximizing the efficiency of the time, resources, and people they dedicate to these initiatives. Given social responsibility is further along in terms of impact measurement and reporting metrics, the best way to build and improve DEIA policies and practices may be to use social responsibility as the hallmark, acknowledging the limitations of the traditional social audit system and moving towards worker-led and worker-centered approaches to human rights. In creating a holistic vision for impact, business leaders can better integrate both DEIA and social responsibility values in company culture and ensure the success of these initiatives is folded into operational success.
Connect and collaborate with allies
Corporate DEIA and social responsibility programs exist to tackle problems that are systemic – resulting from larger historical and societal patterns. As a result, DEIA and social responsibility can sometimes seem overwhelming in scope. However, companies can take steps to make this scope feel more approachable and manageable, starting with direct conversation internally as well as with supply chain and business partners. Since it can be challenging to know how to begin engaging these topics directly, this Conversation Guide can help you jump start the dialogue.
Connecting and collaborating with allies are key to making DEIA and social responsibility feel more approachable and manageable and to promoting standardization and alignment. Cross-industry collaboration can catalyze change, helping companies not feel alone in tackling these challenging issues. Moreover, connecting with allies in the social justice space can enable companies to sort through some of the complexity and confusion around these topics. Together, businesses can socialize key ideas internally as well as externally, including upstream in the supply chain and with shareholder groups. Civil society and multi-stakeholder initiatives can help raise awareness as well facilitate information gathering and learning.
Be bold, and walk the talk
The last piece of guidance emerging from this research is to push companies to be bold and take the first step. Taking action on both social responsibility and DEIA can be intimidating – but companies cannot delay engagement on these topic. Companies have a responsibility to tackle these issues urgently and to build programs geared toward facilitating long term, sustainable change that redistributes power equitably in the hands of all workers. Companies can begin by conducting a scan of current DEIA and social responsibility policies and impact metrics across their supply chains. Reviewing existing commitments and practices, businesses can understand successes and challenges to date, and design more impactful processes moving forward.
Companies should leverage the resources at their disposal to make their DEIA and social responsibility efforts as impactful as possible. While there may be differences in how terminology is employed, and while promoting standardization and alignment is important, what matters the most is the action that businesses take and the impact they have. Walking the talk is critical; together, companies can learn and grow as they tackle these important topics. Being first movers can be intimidating, but it is also essential that leaders set an example for what a successful, resilient, equitable, and socially responsible business looks like.