Posted: 26 Apr. 2022 8 min. read

Designing for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace

Key DEI considerations for the organizational design process

Demands for action against systemic inequities are not new. Organizations must act boldly to advance equity by transforming how they architect their structures.

Organizations constantly undergo changes to stay resilient in the face of market disruptions, but they should consider making bold advances in how they’re structured to attempt true overall transformation. Leaders currently have the great opportunity to redesign the systems that dictate how works gets done, who does the work, and who is involved in the decision-making process.

Often, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are only considered once the organization design (OD)—including teams, reporting lines, role and responsibilities, and decision rights—is already determined. The focus is typically toward filling roles with talent from underrepresented backgrounds, rather than on the systemic structures that either promote or impede DEI. Incorporating a DEI lens earlier, throughout the OD process, is a critical starting point and key differentiator to how organizations can systemically advance equity.

Introduce an OD committee
One solution is expanding who’s involved. Usually, the functional leader and their respective HR business partner lead the process. In addition to these traditional decision-makers, nominate a couple of people who have shown commitment to advancing DEI. They should be empowered to keep the broader team honest in how decisions impact equity and have influence over the future-state design. Incorporating this step could increase the likelihood of architecting more inclusive organizations and decrease unconscious bias.

Conduct a workforce analysis
Once this committee is established, seek to understand DEI gaps. Many organizations begin the OD process with a current-state assessment to understand pain points and opportunity areas as they relate to how teams collaborate and share information.

Standard HR system data may only contain information like race, age, and binary gender to meet compliance requirements. This provides only a quick glimpse into the workforce composition—not the full picture. Recently, many organizations have launched voluntary self-identifying surveys, so their workforce can provide information on gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, veteran status, etc. Analyzing self-ID data allows organizations to pinpoint gaps in representation. For example, standard HR data would show that women are promoted to managerial roles at far lower rates than men, but further analyzing the self-identified data may likely show that the progress in representation is even slower for women of color or women identifying as LGBTQ+.

Lastly, the increase in virtual work and the usage of networking tools have unlocked a wealth of collaboration data, which organizations can analyze to generate a visual map of who shares information, makes decisions, and influences others. Pairing network analysis and workforce composition data can unearth insights about marginalized groups that are isolated from information-sharing and decision-making. For example, an organization could visualize who has decision-making and knowledge-brokering power (by ethnicity, gender, etc.), and then target specific pain points as they architect their new organization.

Incorporate DEI considerations earlier
Once they’re prepared with workforce analysis insights, the team can make informed design decisions. Organizations can ask the following questions to pressure test developing a more inclusive design:

  • Who does what work, and how is it assigned? Assigning work can be fraught with bias.1 Women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are expected to repeatedly prove their capabilities, while white employees are more likely to be evaluated on their potential.2 Additionally, women and BIPOC are less likely to receive high-visibility or stretch assignments.3 This perpetuates inequities in pay and career advancement. Create straightforward roles and responsibilities, so achievement is clearly outlined according to descriptions instead of personal attributes. Then, develop a way to equitably identify and assign how projects outside of these roles and responsibilities will be assigned to ensure both administrative and strategic work are distributed equitably.
  • Who makes which decisions, and how? Is decision-making authority pooled at the top, pushed to the front lines, or hidden among influencers in a network? While there is no “correct” decision-rights model, leaders should understand who’s swaying decisions and whether they’re representative of diverse identities. This way, they can determine how to assign decision rights to marginalized members of the workforce.
  • Where should the teams and roles be located? Historically, talent sourcing was limited by geographical location. Now, with remote work possible for many roles, organizations can source from more diverse populations, and make the opportunity more available and—even the work itself—more accessible.
  • How do we cultivate the talent and develop the skills to support our future model? Analyzing management-to-staff ratios is one way to understand if the organization is structured in a way that will support development. A manager with too many direct reports doesn’t have time to equitably nurture everyone; similar problems occur if too many levels between a leader and their team member. If the organization isn’t structured thoughtfully, negative impacts exist for everyone, but especially for employees of color. An in-depth, six-year study revealed that people of color had to manage their careers more strategically than their white peers, and had to do more before being promoted.4

What organizations can do to advance equity in the organization design process?
An organizational transformation is an opportunity to advocate for equity, but DEI often comes too late in the conversation. However, taking three tactical, DEI-focused steps can help to advance equity through OD:

  • Launch a small DEI committee of individuals who are committed to advancing DEI and who can provide insight on the design
  • Expand the current-state assessment to include workforce-composition data and collaboration data to identify inequities 
  • Question (and pressure-test) how the OD will advance equity

DEI can no longer be an afterthought when designing the organization; long-term, systemic outcomes are only possible if organizations thoughtfully consider—and include—the workforce while architecting systemic structural change.


1. Evelyn R. Carter, “Restructure Your Organization to Actually Advance Racial Justice,Harvard Business Review, June 22, 2020.

2. Stanford University, “Part 2. Subtle Gender Bias and Institutional Barriers,” Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment, accessed March 18, 2022.

3. Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhaup, “For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly”, Harvard Business Review, March 5, 2018. 

4. Laura Morgan Roberts and Anthony J. Mayo, “Toward a Racially Just Workplace,Harvard Business Review, November 14, 2019.


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