Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has become a priority for most organizations as recent events in our nation have brought into clearer focus the critical need for companies to create diverse and inclusive cultures where everyone can thrive. Enhancing awareness, addressing unconscious biases and creating an environment where all feel comfortable being their authentic selves are practices that should be part of every organization’s workforce development strategy. After all, who wouldn’t want to support and work for a company that values inclusion? DEI in the workplace is a great idea – right?
But what happens when DEI in the workplace goes wrong? What are the unintended consequences of using ‘diversity and inclusion’ only as buzzwords but never moving beyond that toward innovation? We have all seen it happen before: people, companies or organizations whose poorly executed DEI efforts feel inauthentic, unworkable or worse, offend the very people whom they are trying to include.
I’ve experienced my fair share of companies that have placed DEI statements on their websites and on social media but practice quite the opposite. And as a Black woman who comes from an historically (and currently) marginalized group, and someone who cares about undoing historical legacies, these words aren’t meant to be thrown around lightly.
So I joined my organization’s work to advance DEI with mixed emotions: excitement, skepticism and even a little fear. I feared falling victim to tokenism and worried that my opinions of equity and inclusion would be misrepresented as the opinions of all of our minority employees (or of all African-Americans, period). But the honesty and frankness of our approach to the work and the commitment to getting it right rather than just saying the words helped me to let my guard down, bring my full authentic self and engage thoughtfully in the process.
And I am so happy that I did.
“We have to find a way to do DEI right. This is not our first attempt at a ‘diversity and inclusion’ committee, but we certainly hope to make it our last. It is our goal to integrate equity and inclusion throughout the entire organization. DEI should be present in our external work, internal processes and overall culture – instead of treating it as a separate silo or after-thought.”
This is not to say that the process has been perfect or there haven’t been growing pains along the way. However, there have been a few key steps in our journey that have made me feel like we are headed in the right direction:
- Defining DEI: We began by defining what the terms diversity, inclusion and equity mean, and what implications they have on our work. Understanding these terms and using common language was an essential step into having deeper discussions. We also gave considerable time to imagining DEI on an organizational level, team level and individual level.
- Measuring DEI: Like the old saying goes, what gets measured, gets done. So we established metrics and deadlines that we held ourselves accountable to with reports to our Board of Trustees.
- Not assuming that everyone has ‘bought in:’ We conducted interviews and thoughtful discussions at all levels of the organization about why DEI is even needed or important. Without buy-in and understanding our why, we recognized that we can’t expect authentic engagement and sustained DEI efforts from staff.
- Creating safe spaces: Discussions around race, gender and biases can be uncomfortable. Creating ways to demonstrate respect for other’s opinions, listening intently and setting guiding principles to bring everyone’s voice into the conversation is a must.
- We may not have the internal capacity (or expertise) to accomplish these things on our own… and that’s okay! DEI work is a LOT of work, and it may not be doable on our own. Careful selection of a consultant that can meet our organization’s specific needs is both necessary and worthwhile.
While this is just the beginning of our developing our own DEI strategies, I look forward to what’s to come. Instead of asking myself what happens when DEI in the workplace goes wrong, I now find myself asking, what happens when it goes right?