DEI Is Foundational to Workforce Resilience

This commentary is part of the "Innovation for Resilience: A New Framework for Security" series, a new project from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). This initiative is a partnership between CSIS's Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Program, Energy Security and Climate Change Program, International Security Program, and Strategic Technologies Program.

In the past decade, many events linked to geopolitics, climate change, and technology have created disruptions and unpredictable change. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these trends and increased the urgency for organizations to rethink their response to rapid change. The pandemic has been a catalyst for organizations to invest in organizational resilience—the ability to withstand unpredictable threats and emerge stronger—in order to stay relevant, innovate, and ultimately thrive. Organizations can develop this ability by building financial, operational, and workforce resilience. An ADP Survey conducted in 2020 found that only 19 percent of U.S. workers are highly resilient, emphasizing the opportunity for organizations to prioritize workforce resilience.

Workforce resilience is used to describe a work environment in which employees can better adapt to adverse situations, manage stress, and retain motivation. There are three core indicators of resilience in the workforce:

  1. Sense of security at work
  2. Strong sense of belonging with the employer
  3. Adaptability and motivation employees need to reach their full potential

Resilient organizations foster a diverse and inclusive workforce, one in which everyone feels included and is expected to perform their best even during times of crisis. These organizations’ cultures and processes foster security, belonging, and adaptability. If the federal government wants to build workforce resilience to survive any future shocks, it needs to focus efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. These initiatives will lead to employees feeling a sense of security at work, a strong sense of belonging, and the ability to adapt and stay motivated, especially in times of crisis.

Sense of Security

Trust in organizations is foundational to employees feeling a sense of security at work. Research shows that employees who do not trust their organizations are more likely to question job security and the impact they can make. On the other hand, employees who trust their colleagues, managers, and leaders are 42 times more likely to be highly resilient. Trust also reinforces psychological safety at the individual and team levels. Psychological safety is an environment that encourages, recognizes, and rewards individuals for their contributions and ideas by making individuals feel safe when taking interpersonal risks. Feeling safe allows moderate risk-taking, creativity, and innovation, which are all crucial to agile responses in the face of disruption. Studies show that all high-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety. Therefore, the federal government should build trust and psychological safety, not only to engender a sense of belonging in employees but also to reap the benefits of high performance.

Organizational trust is built through fairness, or in DEI terms, equity. Without equity, individuals feel othered and are at risk of disengaging, or worse, leaving due to feelings of insecurity. Equity in teams acknowledges that every employee brings a unique set of identities, backgrounds, and perspectives and these are all to be celebrated and valued. Teams and individuals with trust in their foundation can build relationships with one another. Professional relationships buttress psychological safety and create a solid support system in difficult times. To achieve equity in workforce representation, the federal government should revamp its hiring and recruiting processes. Changing hiring practices requires identifying and eradicating biases and systematic barriers that have historically marginalized certain groups. To achieve equity in workplace experience, the federal government needs to identify where employees are perceiving inequities (e.g., compensation, benefits, promotions) and address them. However, the work does not stop there—to achieve true equity, the federal government should overhaul its advancement and succession planning practices as well.

Sense of Belonging

Social belonging is a fundamental human need. Research shows a high sense of belonging is linked to a 56 percent increase in job performance, a 50 percent drop in turnover risk, and a 75 percent reduction in sick days. These are all metrics used to measure employee resilience and in aggregate, workforce resilience. Diverse representation is a precursor to fostering belonging and inclusion. The first step is to ensure that every element of diversity is represented and valued within the workforce (e.g., background, education, socioeconomic status). The federal government has better representation at junior levels, but this declines within senior levels. A truly diverse workforce is one that is representative of the U.S. population. The federal government can achieve this diverse workforce by reconstructing its sourcing, recruiting, and hiring practices while also examining representation at every level of the organization.

Representation alone, however, is not enough to build belonging; it should also be done by engaging employees in meaningful ways and addressing high priority needs. Engagement can occur through recognition of employees’ unique contributions. Another way can be to proactively communicate about changes and opportunities. Open and transparent communication can also spur belonging, not just between colleagues, but also from the senior leadership to the full organization. Open channels of communication require leadership to gather feedback regularly from employees and involve them in the decisionmaking. Involving employees in decisionmaking instills feelings of inclusion by giving employees ownership over outcomes. The biggest result of employees feeling a sense of belonging is workforce retention. Strong retention rates help the federal government avoid the long and cumbersome process of backfilling roles that require niche expertise and high security clearances.

Adaptability and Motivation

The federal government needs to focus on engaging its employees by offering them a purpose connected to organizational strategy. That purpose should be reinforced through investment in holistic employee well-being. These efforts will lead to a more motivated, adaptable, and agile workforce.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also shifted the focus of the U.S. workforce. Ongoing isolation and lack of connection coupled with the new flexibilities of remote work have allowed certain employees to redefine their purpose and values regarding their organizations. This paradigm shift has spurred the “Great Resignation” as employees quit jobs to pursue passion projects, join organizations that align with their personal values, and attain work-life balance. A larger share of the workforce and especially millennials and Gen Zs prioritize environment, social, and governance (ESG) and DEI when selecting an employer. Research also shows that women and Gen Zs are most likely to want flexible working environments. The organizations best suited to attract and retain top talent are those who can articulate their purpose and synchronize it to their employees’ and prospective candidates’ values. If the federal government does not prioritize communicating its strategies in these arenas, it risks failing to attract and retain top talent. Purpose drives motivation, which in turn drives productivity and engagement.

Employers are concurrently facing a burnout crisis brought by the pandemic—with employees reporting mental health declines, challenges meeting basic needs, and feeling exhausted. These feelings drive absenteeism in the workplace: around 63 percent of employees are more likely to call in sick if they are feeling burnt out. Companies in the United States lose $300 billion per year as a result of workplace stress. The World Health Organization estimates that lost productivity at work costs the global economy $1 trillion each year. To combat burnout, several organizations have offered additional resources for mental health support (e.g., digital apps), customized financial wellness counseling, and caregiving support. The federal government needs to consider the demands of a shifting workforce that is both burnt out and increasingly prioritizing institutions that deliver on holistic employee well-being. When employees feel healthy and secure in their personal lives (e.g., physical, mental, and financial health), they are more likely to engage at work and be resilient against changes in the workplace. Additionally, when employees feel supported to combat sources of stress, they feel more confident in their ability to weather adversity.

In an increasingly unpredictable world with political, environmental, and socioeconomic challenges, building workforce resilience will be a salve for the federal government. By fortifying its workforce, the federal government is better suited to address risks to national security and provide integrated solutions to complex global problems. Secure, included, and engaged employees will readily tackle future crises in an agile manner. Taking an employee-first, DEI-based approach to building workforce resilience will strengthen institutional resilience and allow the United States to effectively lead on the global stage.

Hadeil Ali is deputy director of the Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Naz Subah is a program coordinator with the CSIS Diversity Leadership in International Affairs Project.

This project is made possible by the generous support of Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Hadeil Ali
Director and Fellow, Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project
Naz Subah

Naz Subah

Former Program Manager, Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project