How to Check if Your Organization’s DEI Initiatives Are Making an Impact or Simply Performative

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts and initiatives have risen in visibility over the past few years, companies have started to realize that not all DEI initiatives have an impact. Unfortunately, some efforts end up being more surface-level, as opposed to initiatives that are engaged with creating and fostering real change. The critical question for many organizations and employees is: are our DEI efforts making a genuine difference, or are they merely performative gestures?

Let’s start by defining what performative DEI looks like. Performative DEI work relates to actions that are done just to show that you’re doing something, without consideration for the deeper issues or considerations underlying the action. We frequently term this kind of DEI as a ‘check-the-box approach.’ Some examples of this kind of work include: 

  • putting up a black square on Instagram after the murder of George Floyd,
  • spending money on rainbow-branded merchandise during Pride Month,
  • bringing in unpaid speakers during various cultural history months, 
  • making PR statements without taking any action, 
  • offering an unconscious bias webinar or training and thinking that will fix everything, and 
  • rolling out a DEI program based on feelings rather than data. 

Organizations that engage in this sort of approach may do so for many reasons. For some organizations, this is the most that leadership will allow. This kind of surface-level work is often seen as an easy way to signal that they care about DEI without having to make a significant investment (in time or money) to actually engage in DEI initiatives. Some organizations are just starting out on their DEI journey and aren’t always aware that what they’re doing could be considered performative. For these organizations, at least they’re trying– but this is where a DEI initiative review can be really helpful, as it offers an opportunity to learn what’s working, to focus on the areas that need greater focus, and to go deeper.   

Here are five indicators that might signal a performative DEI initiative:

  1. Superficial efforts. This looks like having a one-off or one-time event or making a symbolic gesture with no action associated with it. An authentic approach is focused on lasting change instead of a one-time gesture. 
  2. Lack of accountability. Does your DEI program have any goals? Is progress tracked? Is anyone accountable for outcomes? If the answers to these questions are no, then your program may be performative. 
  3. Tokenism. Do your efforts tokenize individuals from underrepresented groups? If your efforts are solely focused on addressing quotas, this may be a flag for performative work. An authentic approach will consider inclusion and equity, not just representation numbers. 
  4. Resistance. Is feedback considered thoughtfully? How does your organization handle criticism of its DEI initiatives? An authentic, genuine approach embraces feedback as necessary for growth and improvement. 
  5. Inconsistency and discrepancies. Are there any disparities between what your organization says and what it does? If there’s a disconnect between what your organization says are its values and what it actually practices, this might be an indication of performative behavior. 

Authentic, impactful DEI initiatives are generally long-term, ongoing structural, systemic work. These initiatives should be connected to your organization’s business goals (ideally, baked into your overall business strategy instead of having DEI be a separate or ‘nice-to-have’ focus). Authentic DEI work involves intentional centering, genuine interest, and involvement of people with marginalized identities. This kind of work relies on acknowledging and leveraging privilege to foster, focus, and increase workplace equity. Impactful DEI doesn’t ‘fix’ things right away. It took us hundreds of years to enact and support inequitable practices; it’s going to take a while to undo a lot of this work.