Posted: 13 Oct. 2022 6 min. read

Making Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Real: Focus on the frontlines

How consumer companies can build more equitable and inclusive workplaces

Authored by Danielle Hawkins and Kim Betts

Without a doubt, the last few years have been challenging for employers and workers alike, especially in the consumer industry. After the initial surge of the pandemic, employers reckoned with the “Great Resignation” and historic levels of turnover. Specifically, frontline workers were quitting at an alarming rate. Often a company’s first connection with customers, frontline workers play a starring role in a company’s success—and in driving organizational productivity and customer engagement. In addition, as consumer sentiment and behaviors shift, frontline workers have an increasingly important role in creating the customer experience, especially as consumers prioritize engaging with workers and brands that mirror their own diversity and authenticity.   Frontline workers often know the customer the best, and given the constant operational pressures they face, have little appetite for things that are not practical or tactical.

From hotels and restaurants to retail stores and airlines, frontline workers tend to be individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences. However, there’s limited research that focuses on frontline staff and their experience of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) challenges. To learn more about their unique perspectives, Deloitte embarked on a research program to identify specific barriers and improvement opportunities for companies looking to create more equitable and inclusive experiences for frontline employees.

Our survey of 3,000 frontline workers—across various consumer industries, including automotive, consumer products, retail, travel, food service, and hospitality—revealed a few surprises. Although many organizations have strategies for enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, these programs might not be as effective as their sponsors hoped. Only 38% of surveyed frontline workers think their company’s DEI initiatives are truly focused on creating a better workplace experience for all. Less than a third (31%) of frontline workers feel their company is very accepting of family and/or personal commitments. Further, only one-third of frontline workers (34%) feel they can always be their authentic selves at work, and only 64% feel a sense of belonging at their company. These findings indicate opportunities for companies to improve their DEI strategies and create more inclusive workplace environments.

Frontline workers are also skeptical of their opportunities for advancement within the organization. Only slightly more than half of frontline workers feel their company provides effective sponsorship, where established leaders advocate for more junior employees. The gap is noticeable between men and women, with less than half of surveyed women (47%) feeling their company provides effective sponsorship opportunities compared to nearly two-thirds of men (64%).

Consumer companies can do more to promote and sustain DEI at all levels of an organization and provide a compelling proposition for attracting and retaining frontline talent in the process. Here are a few considerations for those looking to build more equitable and inclusive workplaces:

  1. Make DEI come alive for all workers. Consider engaging frontline workers in the process as you design and build a DEI program to ensure its initiatives meet their needs. Their insights and ownership of the program can help ensure a successful, meaningful implementation. Frontline workers are also the most knowledgeable about how to translate DEI concepts into real-world language to make it more concrete, tangible, and easily relatable. Corporate DEI “speak” can often seem theoretical and “squishy” to operators on the front line.
  2. Recognize and align to organizational differences. Allow field managers the flexibility to activate and drive DEI initiatives at the regional and individual business unit levels. For example, a retail store in an urban setting may not have precisely the same work environment as one in a suburban location. Are your store managers equipped to respond appropriately?
  3. Elevate DEI accountability. Communicate DEI as a priority from the C-suite and make it a shared responsibility for all departments. For example, tying performance management to DEI goals sends a clear signal that DEI is more than an HR issue.
  4. Focus on sponsorship vs. mentorship. Instead of focusing on mentorship programs, encourage senior leaders to engage in more impactful sponsorship behavior to actively support the career progression of diverse employees on the frontlines. Help junior workers see the long game and provide a framework that helps them find a path that works for them, offering encouragement and advocacy along the way.
  5. Live the DEI mission. Align the lived experience among frontline employees with external messaging around DEI to build trust with the company’s workforce. Consider recognizing individual workers and showing the company’s appreciation for doing well in their jobs. Better employee engagement, productivity gains, and more compelling customer experiences can result.

Making DEI real for the frontline can unlock an individual worker’s full potential to create compelling experiences for customers. In today’s competitive consumer environment, better customer service and personalized engagement drive critical business outcomes, including satisfaction and loyalty. Fostering a more inclusive workplace can also improve worker retention and advocacy, helping to increase productivity and lower recruitment and training costs.

Are you ready to unlock the full potential of your organization's DEI initiatives? Consider conducting an assessment of your current performance to gain a baseline understanding of where you currently stand. Explore the key findings from the 2022 DEI among frontline workers study to see how you compare with others in your sector. Then, we encourage you to reach out to learn more about applying these insights and establishing a roadmap for improvement.



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