Over the past two years, many businesses and organizations have turned an important corner when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The US racial reckoning in the summer of 2020 inspired conversations in the workplace that simply weren’t happening before. And those conversations, in turn, inspired organizations to look within and determine how racial inequity could be impacting their own employees and customers.

One of those companies was health insurer (and Forrester client) Humana, which has done some inspiring work to thoughtfully develop an EDI organization — an important spin on the conventional “DEI” acronym, as equity comes first and creates the conditions for diversity and inclusion. Forrester’s work with Humana on this groundbreaking initiative has provided some key learnings that other organizations undertaking a similar journey could benefit from.

For starters, it’s imperative that those involved in developing a DEI (or EDI) strategy have an intimate understanding of the business and its customers — it can’t be done in a vacuum, and it can’t be outsourced. If you’re going to stand in front of your company’s leadership team and pitch them on the benefits of embedding diversity and equity into your business, they’re going to want to understand the business implications and organizational outcomes that the initiative is meant to improve. For Humana’s members, DEI means removing barriers to healthcare access, developing community trust, and addressing social determinants of health (i.e., institutional and structural barriers, such as access to transportation to see a specialist). Those factors aren’t the same for every company; they vary based on the business, market, and other factors. In short, your DEI strategy can’t be just press releases and petition signings.

Secondly, to understand what’s truly happening in your own organization, you need to create the space for honest and authentic conversation and dialogue among underrepresented communities. That means empowering employees and providing a safe space to share experiences and perspectives — and committing to following through once those perspectives are heard. In some cases, that can mean broader employee surveys, and in other cases, it could mean small groups or one-on-one interviews to gather input and feedback. Executives often feel that they have their finger on the pulse of their organization, but the truth can sometimes be eye-opening — and hearing it directly from their employees, not in charts and reports, is important. Employees are often hesitant to bring up negative experiences in the company, and this feeling is heightened for underrepresented communities, especially around experiences of bias and micro-aggressions. Instead, they may choose to transfer to a new team or leave the company without the issue ever being resolved, perpetuating a noninclusive culture. Opening the door to authentic communication is key to building a strategy that will drive equity, diversity, and inclusion. Developing more diverse leadership also helps build credibility, understanding, and trust among employees.

This brings up another key point: Perhaps the only thing worse than not hearing your employees’ stories is not acting on them after you do hear them. Asking employees to open up and provide honest, often emotional feedback and then not acting on it could increase employee apathy when they ask, “Why did I even bother opening up if nothing ever came of it?” When listening to employees, leaders should focus on identifying opportunities to create an equitable, diverse, and inclusive organization, followed by committing to action with a measurable goal set and communicating transparently about the organization’s DEI goals and progress.

And this is where an external partner such as Forrester can add value. Humana brought its healthcare and DEI expertise to the table, and Forrester provided the change management approach and strategic guidance to shape Humana’s DEI objectives and outcomes, ensuring that Humana addressed the concerns of employees and the needs of underserved/underrepresented member communities. The best collaboration happens when the partners come from a place of empathy and understanding and bring together complementary resources to address root causes of inequity and create lasting change.

Intrigued? You can hear the specifics of Humana’s DEI work at Forrester’s upcoming Technology & Innovation North America event. In a special session at the event, Stacy Brooks, Humana’s IT Lead for equity, diversity, and inclusion, will provide the detailed steps the firm took to establish a dedicated equity, diversity, and inclusion strategy team.