I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what DEI work actually is, especially within an organizational context. Over the last few years, we’ve seen DEI practitioners and leads become crisis managers. I’d argue that DEI work isn’t the same as crisis management work. Companies are more and more frequently putting their DEI leads in the position of having to act as a PR or crisis response leader, and then these leads get blamed, criticized, and sometimes even fired when the crisis response falls short. It’s my belief that organizations will automatically be setting up their DEI staff to fail if they consider that DEI work is inherently the same as crisis work.
What is DEI work?
There isn’t a universal definition of what DEI work actually is. People and organizations have differing views of what DEI work entails. Part of the reason for this is that many different frameworks and paradigms exist within the DEI space. For example, some DEI approaches focus on cross-cultural awareness and understanding, whereas others may focus on the business case for diversity. Additional approaches include anti-colonialism, anti-Blackness, anti-racist, compliance, liberatory work, access and legitimacy, learning and effectiveness, and more.
We believe that the primary aim of DEI work within an organization is to create and foster a diverse environment of belonging and equity. This environment and workplace culture should value, respect, and celebrate differences in individuals’ identities, as well as highlight the representation of various identity groups. A comprehensive DEI approach involves working toward change on multiple levels, including individual, team, organizational, and systemic change.
- On an individual level, employees must do their own introspective work to understand themselves, their biases, and what personal work they need to do to take responsibility for their continued learning and understanding.
- Team-level, or interpersonal, work includes what day-to-day interactions look and feel like and how growth is supported by managers (for example, promotions and performance reviews).
- On an organizational level, DEI work informs a company’s policies, processes, and procedures that encourage representation, belonging, equitable practices, and support of the company’s employees, customers, and other stakeholders. An example of organizational-level work is the presence and support of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or affinity groups. ERGs contribute to an inclusive culture by providing a sense of community and support for employees with shared backgrounds or experiences. They provide a structured way for company leadership to collaborate with employees and can help identify issues that relate to organizational policies and practices.
- Systemic-level work goes beyond the boundaries of the organization to examine underlying oppressive systems and disparities at a societal level. This kind of work involves initiatives and strategies that are designed to rectify inequities in order to achieve long-lasting and widespread change. For example, systemic-level work could look like a university examining the educational barriers that are baked into our society that might prevent or dissuade students from certain racial or socioeconomic groups from applying. Or, this could also look like a real estate company adding land acknowledgments to their business practices and establishing partnerships with community organizations located in the physical neighborhoods that the company works in.
DEI practitioners focus on harm reduction within their workplace environment. They use an equity and justice lens to advocate for and support employees in an effort to minimize or eliminate the impacts of oppression. DEI work centers the importance of dialogue over debate, holding space for people to come together to share, listen, and reach an increased understanding (not always a concrete conclusion or agreement). DEI practitioners are meant to be organizational change agents, speaking truth to power. This work naturally places the DEI role in a position where it’s common to advocate for and discuss ways of working and responding that may not align with the business’s traditional way of approaching workplace issues.
What is crisis management work?
Crisis management refers to how an organization can strategically plan, respond to, coordinate, communicate, and mitigate crises. A crisis could include any or all of the following: natural disasters, workplace accidents, a public relations scandal, cybersecurity threats, or any unexpected event that poses a significant (perceived) threat to the organization. This work raises awareness of possible business threats, including the type, magnitude, outcomes, and behaviors the organization and its leadership team can take to reduce the threat. Crisis management attempts to minimize ‘analysis paralysis’ within leadership teams when a rapid response is critical.
A good crisis management plan includes planning how your company will react if a crisis occurs. The plan should cover how to identify the crisis and what roles and/or actions are needed to manage and contain the crisis, minimize damage, and restore business operations as quickly as possible. Also included in a crisis plan are the following elements:
- Risk assessment: identify potential risks to business continuity.
- Crisis response team: identify who should be included on the crisis response team and what each person’s role should be.
- Planning: develop mitigation strategies.
- Crisis communications: crisis communications is a sub-specialty of public relations work. This kind of communication is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation.
- Crisis recovery: how to learn from an incident or crisis and adjust the crisis plan.
Why are these approaches different?
These two approaches are related (DEI work can also be considered planning) but different. DEI work is ongoing, collaborative, adjusts in response to data and measurement, and ideally involves all stakeholders. On the other hand, crisis management work is often limited to a quick, pre-planned response by a crisis management team. This response would entail executing a previously outlined plan to collect, process, and disseminate information required to address the crisis.
Another way of putting this is that DEI work uses an equity lens to minimize harm, provide support, and move toward lasting change. In contrast, crisis management is a tangible plan that focuses on a specific situation in order to reduce business interruptions and return to business as usual. The DEI practitioner should be included in an organization’s crisis management plan, but the burden of crisis management should not rest solely on their shoulders.
In many organizations, the role of the DEI lead has evolved to include all of the organization’s crisis management work. While DEI work can and should inform crisis management work, it differs from crisis management work in the following ways: approach and goals, timeline, stakeholders, and desired outcomes. DEI work focuses on creating an inclusive environment and mitigating harm and should be executed collaboratively over time. Crisis work is an immediate response to an unexpected event or a threat, running on a previously established plan to ensure safety and security and maintain business continuity.
Both of these kinds of work are key, but they address different elements of organizational work. We need to consider a DEI lens in creating a crisis strategy and during the crisis response, rather than relying solely on the DEI lead to coordinate and lead the crisis response. As such, the DEI lead should be part of the crisis response team, but they shouldn’t lead crisis communications. With this in mind, it’s not difficult to understand why DEI-exclusive crisis responses often fail or fall short.