A Case for (Still) Prioritizing DEI at Your Company

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

You’re probably wondering: why should we invest our organization’s money, time, and energy into a billion-dollar industry that’s “failing?” And while I think that’s a fair question, I also think we need first to discuss why some DEI initiatives fail and what we know works. As a DEI consulting and training agency, we have a deep and unique experience and understanding with individuals and groups working to create change within their organizations. We’ve witnessed certain intentions and efforts yield slow yet effective results for some organizations, and we’ve also witnessed the exact opposite. There are numerous reasons why organizations have varying results. In this blog post, I’ll work to debunk a few common myths about DEI work within organizations and what you need to consider at your company to create a positive impact.

Myth 1: DEI Training causes more harm than good

We’ll be the first to say that not all DEI training (e.g., unconscious bias workshops, microaggressions webinars, management coaching sessions, etc.) are created equal. DEI training shouldn’t be approached as a one-size-fits-all. While certain topics are foundational and needed, not all strategies, tips, or tools will work for every company.

Training and initiatives that often cause harm are:

  • Made mandatory without proper communication and transparency as to how and why the organization is choosing to prioritize DEI
  • Limited viewpoint and skills gap of what type of DEI training is needed and desired by employees 
  • One size fits all approach and framework when discussing, training, or coaching on DEI-related issues 
  • No concrete connection between practice and organizational strategy and goals 

There are key differences between harmful training and one that’s much more intentional and effective. To combat some of the above points, organizations and leaders have to have an understanding of their employees’ current strengths and opportunities for growth, a connection between training and overall organizational strategy, and a well-thought-out learning journey plan to not only ensure that employees are on board but also to make sure that the external or internal trainer is well prepared before the training. If you decide to outsource externally for your training, be sure to work with an agency that has training assessments, learning journey options, and/or the possibility to adjust curriculum so that you can work to build employee capacity and support various DEI-related practices.

Myth 2: A DEI Head, Chief, or Manager will “fix” all of our DEI issues 

If this myth were true, so many of us wouldn’t still have DEI-related issues to fix. Change takes time and requires a collective effort, especially when the change involves more than one person. Below are some ineffective action steps that make it difficult for DEI leads to succeed within companies that believe this myth: 

  • Demand unrealistic DEI-related outcomes in a short period because there isn’t enough internal knowledge, skill, or practice of what it’ll take to make meaningful change
  • Lack of support for the DEI lead to execute 
  • Organizational pressure and expectations that lead to burnout and lack of confidence in the DEI lead 
  • Assuming the DEI lead knows how to address every DEI-related issue because of their title or identity, especially if they have one or more marginalized identities.

While it’s important to have one or more dedicated paid employees to lead and support DEI strategy within an organization, it isn’t their sole responsibility. Like most other roles, organizations need to know what is needed as a baseline for DEI to be successful and how they can build a team around DEI so that their DEI leads don’t burn out. When this happens, we assume that DEI is the issue when it’s the systems within organizations that don’t know how to sustain DEI work. The bottom line is that we must become more aware of our organizational needs, research best practices, find people trained and well-versed in DEI to support organizational efforts, and implement DEI goals and strategies within the employee life cycle so everyone is involved in the change-making process. 

Myth 3: Hiring more diverse candidates will prove to be effective and help the culture of our company 

We can easily focus on “tangible” outcomes and numbers when doing DEI work. Hiring people with identities that have been historically oppressed or denied basic human rights is just one piece of the puzzle. While representation is essential to DEI work, having a non-inclusive culture or policies can make our diversity quotas meaningless and cause more harm than good, as well as see attrition rates of those with marginalized identities increase. Here are some ways in which only focusing on diversity quotas can hurt your DEI efforts:

  • Hiring people of color, women, people within the LGBTQ+ community, etc., as individual contributors or entry-level positions but not at the management and leadership levels 
  • Celebrating diversity numbers but not addressing concerns or constructive feedback from your “diverse” hires 
  • Asking “diverse” candidates to speak on behalf of their identity group or cultural background 
  • Bringing in “diverse” candidates but not assessing how the organizational culture or practices can negatively impact employees’ mental health and overall well-being. 

Having a goal to meet your diversity quotas can come from positive intent, but the impact can be detrimental to employees, especially those seen as numbers or quotas. While representation has been a key pillar within the DEI world, it isn’t enough to truly witness the potential of healthy and transformative shifts within our workplaces. Workplaces need to be responsible for assessing, aligning, and adjusting internal systems so they’re not replicating manifestations of oppression and bias at work. It’s important to ask ourselves: who are our workplaces created for? What is our culture, and who does it benefit? Who doesn’t it benefit? How can we adjust and make changes not just because we have to but because we care and are committed? 

Being curious in this way allows us to be open to changes and shifts in the organizational culture and expands our capacity to do more and deeper DEI work.

Myth 4: We don’t have enough time, resources, or money 

This is my favorite myth because it’s probably relatable to other areas of our lives. For example, how often do we tell ourselves that we don’t have time to do what we say we care about or is important to us (e.g., self-care practices, recycling, reading books, having fun, going outside more, etc.)? While some barriers and setbacks can impact what we choose to give our time, resources, or money to, we often have to ask ourselves: what’s important to have in our lives so that we may live to our full potential? Similarly, what’s important to have in our workplaces so that both the company and employees can experience their full potential? Here are some ways we consciously or unconsciously derail our DEI-related hopes, dreams, and aspirations:

  • We realize there are so many DEI-related issues to address, and because it feels so big, we decide to wait or stall until we have a perfect and clear solution 
  • Work and other deliverables seem urgent, and therefore, we put our DEI-related goals on hold until things are much calmer or “better” 
  • We prioritize fast and quick solutions that allow our businesses to grow fiscally without considering the impact or importance of “going slow in order to grow” 

If we approach DEI as a “nice to have” or an item on a wishlist, we may never truly witness its potential in our workplaces and personal lives. Perhaps the fast-paced, capitalistic way of working and living is what we need to de-center, and it’s what DEI is attempting to address. One of my favorite therapists, Nedra Glover Tawwab, recently said that things can feel normal and still be unhealthy. This is especially true for workplaces that may justify their current workplace demands and culture  as a way to not prioritize DEI. 

How can we be fervently intentional and compassionately critical about our work environments and what we truly value? How can we make time or find resources to support better workplaces in all areas, not just financially? Based on our answers, we may find ourselves de-prioritizing other aspects of our day-to-day tasks in the workplace. We may try to include small yet impactful practices we can incorporate into our roles. We may even want to revisit the budget and allocate funds toward DEI initiatives, events, and other resources. Whatever it is, we can take action steps that can slowly remind us that if our systems and structures are ready to shift, we can make more time for DEI work.