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Leading at the front(line)

Diversity, equity, and inclusion imperatives

Companies in the consumer sector have recently weathered a plethora of pandemic-related challenges, including the “Great Resignation,” which has resulted in historic levels of employee turnover, especially with respect to frontline workers.1 Often comprised of a group of individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences, frontline workers play a vital role in driving organisational productivity and customer engagement. However, there has been relatively limited primary research conducted to date that focuses on frontline staff and their experience of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) challenges.

About the study

Deloitte surveyed over 3,000 frontline workers in the United States between April 6 and 21, 2022. The data gathered represents the opinions of workers across a variety of consumer industries, including automotive, consumer products, retail, travel, food service, and hospitality. The research was designed to start a conversation within the industry about building more equitable and inclusive workplaces for all frontline employees.

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It is often said that companies looking to affect positive change have to set the proper tone from the top of the organisation. It requires a level of connection and trust at all staff levels, including frontline workers. However, while 79% of frontline workers surveyed for the study said they trust their immediate coworkers, 71% said they trust their company’s leadership team. The level of trust frontline workers feel for senior leaders also differs significantly by company size: 84% of frontline staff working for companies with 250–999 employees said they trusted senior leaders, compared to only 57% that work for companies with 5,000 employees or more.

Ultimately, a lack of trust can manifest in a variety of damaging ways, including lost productivity or lack of employee retention. It is particularly important when it comes to DEI given how personal it is for each member of the workforce. It can also feed a perception among frontline workers that the company’s focus on DEI is more about looking good than it is about truly creating a better workplace for all employees (figure 1).

Another major challenge is that many frontline workers often feel discriminated against. Study results indicate that a significant number of frontline workers report having been discriminated against by either a coworker (32%) or customer (40%). Digging deeper, nearly a quarter of women and a third of Black/African American frontline workers report having been discriminated against by either a customer or coworker, on the basis of their gender and race/ethnicity, respectively. In fact, only half of Black/African American and Hispanic/LatinX workers report having not been the victim of some form of discrimination. This contributes to a variety of outcomes, including the fact that only a third of overall survey respondents feel they can be their authentic selves at work (figure 2).

How can companies improve? Over the years, companies have become adept at designing tools and training programs to address all manner of challenges and performance deficiency. However, even here, study data points to noticeable gaps when it comes to the percentage of men versus women who report having access to proper training on the tools necessary to do their jobs (78% versus 68%). There is also a sizeable difference in the percentage of women versus men that believe their company provides effective mentorship (63% versus 75%) and sponsorship (47% versus 64%) programs.

Many consumer companies are struggling against stiff economic headwinds and ongoing supply chain disruptions all while tackling ambitious targets to reduce their environmental footprint. Efforts to promote and sustain DEI represent a significant opportunity for businesses to differentiate themselves by providing a compelling proposition when it comes to attracting and retaining frontline talent.

Here are a few ideas to start the conversation around building more equitable and inclusive workplaces:

  • Make DEI come alive for frontline workers: DEI programs and initiatives designed at the corporate level may not be flowing down to workers on the frontline. Build a DEI program specifically with the needs of frontline staff in mind and engage them throughout the design.
  • Recognize and align to organisational differences: Equip field managers to activate and drive DEI at the regional and individual business-unit level of the company to account for organisational differences that can affect critical outcomes.
  • Elevate DEI accountability: Company leadership should communicate DEI as a priority and shared responsibility for all departments in the organization (i.e., send a clear signal indicating that DEI is more than simply an HR issue by tying performance management to DEI goals).
  • Focus on sponsorship versus mentorship: Move beyond a focus on mentorship programs to have senior leaders engage in more impactful sponsorship behaviour to actively support the career progression of diverse employees on the frontline.
  • Live the DEI mission: Align the lived experience among frontline employees with external messaging around DEI to build trust within the company’s workforce. This can lead to better employee engagement, support productivity gains, and help create more compelling customer experiences as well.

To delve deeper into these insights and to learn more about DEI among frontline workers in consumer industries, download the slide deck.

Human Capital


Today’s business challenges present a new wave of HR, talent, and organisation priorities. Deloitte’s Human Capital services leverage research, analytics, and industry insights to help design and execute critical programs from business-driven HR to innovative talent, leadership, and change programs.

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The authors would like to thank Paula Payton, Daniel Han, David Levin, Kim Vu, Kate Casolaro, Jessie Anderson, Janet Chang, Miya Sharpe, Srinivasa Reddy Tummalapalli, Srinivasarao Oguri, and Dinesh Tamilvanan for their significant contributions to this article.

Cover image by: Jim Slatton

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