Confused about diversity? I understand why…
Over the past two decades, I have been afforded the opportunity to sit at countless workforce development tables. Along with numerous respected leaders, subject matter experts, and cross-sector practitioners, I’ve added my voice, ears, and perspective to discussions about the critical need to build Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategies in the workplace. From engaging in expansive, regional initiatives launched by government officials to supporting localized, community-based programs, I have been privy to conversations (on and off the record) that have often rendered me decidedly encouraged and, sometimes, deeply concerned. In most cases, what I have found is that capable leaders are wrestling to understand how to pivot away from bench pressing diversity-based anxieties and move toward building stronger DEI muscle. Ultimately, most leaders are interested in leveraging DEI as an organizational asset. Few, however, understand how to get there, how to arrive at diversity, equity, and inclusion done right.
These are some of the common categories I see organizations, and their leaders, fall into.
1. Paralyzed by Panic
No organization, or its leadership, can afford to stand frozen in its own status-quo.
Some organizations are so worried about not wanting to do “the wrong thing,” about diversity, they do nothing instead. By choosing to be idle, they can actually do more organizational harm than good. With emerging majority populations exceeding that of existing majority populations by 2050, no organization or industry can afford to stand still and employ hope (“we hope we have an inclusive culture,” “we hope we can attract the right talent,” “we hope our leadership will reflect the demographics of the future,”) as a strategy. Fear of failure or of making mistakes is not an option. Engaging in the work of diversity is an imperfect journey. No organization is inoculated from making missteps. And no organization, or its leadership, can afford to stand frozen in its own status-quo, paralyzed by panic.
2. Sprinting to a Magical Finish Line
An effective diversity strategy is not an event. Instead, it is a slow and deeply deliberate process.
The good news? The “sprinter” organizations are not quite stuck in a state of inertia. They have decided to take a step, or two, or maybe even three toward building their diversity core. The bad news, however, is that some believe they are running a 50 yard dash instead of fully preparing for, and participating in, a change management marathon.
These organizations may take an important first step, like hiring someone to lead their diversity charge. But they may also mistakenly believe that by taking that tiny step, they have crossed a finish line in the race to achieve inclusion.
Hiring a DEI officer is not an organizational magic wand. Neither is taking any other singular step that checks off an immediate box. Quick “fixes” like hosting diversity pot lucks, hiring a certain percentage of diverse people, or closing one’s doors for a “Diversity Day” where all staff members are trained using cookie-cutter content in one large swoop typically yields superficial, shortsighted results. To be clear, these steps are not without value. They can, and likely will, yield some incremental results. But they should be used as part of a diversity continuum that includes conducting an organizational assessment, raising awareness, and then gradually building toward developing conscientious competence. After all, an effective diversity engagement is less a sprint, more a cross-country race (steep hills and all). It is not an event. Instead, it is a slow, and deeply deliberate process.
3. Prioritizing with Courageous Discipline
Prioritizing an organization's diversity needs requires commitment, courage, and the organizational discipline to do the work with intellectual honesty.
Effective organizations see diversity as a strategic investment and provide it the resources, time, and thoughtfulness any true institutional priority requires. Leaders understand that a sound diversity strategy will need to be holistically embedded in programs, policies, and culture. They also know they cannot stop at cultivating diversity and inclusion. Equity is a critical component of the seeding process. Simply put, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is like a three-legged stool. While each can be employed in isolation, it is their combined presence that will make the work stand more fully. Ignoring one will yield lopsided results that will cause the tactics set on it to eventually fall flat.
Strong(er) organizations that are fully committed to this work will consider issues of race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomics, generational differences, religion, physical and/or cognitive abilities and sexual orientation, among others. They will deal with microaggressions, cognitive, implicit and explicit biases and the “isms” in all of their more intentional iterations (willful racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.). And although all of these issues merit attention, smart organizations will exercise disciplined courage and will do the hard work of assessing and prioritizing them in the order in which they will be addressed. They will then build a customized solution that is cognizant of their specific presence but is also mindful of the inherent intersectionality in which they will also present themselves. For example, it is ineffective to address the gender pay gap issue without considering the intersection of gender and race. Companies must consider how tightly braided together they are. By doing so, they will find that when it comes to pay, all women are not treated equally. Women of color’s (Latinas, Native Americans, and Black women–in this order) average salary for comparable work is severely less than that of men and White women. In order to truly arrive at equity and narrow the gap fully, race and gender must be considered jointly. Equity and intersectionality matter.
This kind of comprehensive, below the diversity iceberg approach is a “toothy” one and at times will bite at established and well-liked norms, people (including some high performing leaders- and this is sometimes the largest elephant in the room!), and beliefs. Still, it is especially necessary to address. Prioritizing an organization’s diversity needs requires commitment, courage, and the organizational discipline to do the work with intellectual honesty.
Let’s Take This Diversity Journey Together!
Engaging in the work of diversity can be a heavy, but deeply valuable organizational lift. Whether you are confused or fatigued, paralyzed by panic, taking your first tiny step forward, or already implementing a courageous diversity strategy, there are a few things to consider as you work to strengthen your DEI core. The good news? You are not alone in this work. Over the next few weeks, I will provide you a few pointers to get you moving away from confusion and toward the road to Diversity Done Right.
Let’s start with a critical question to prep us for the journey. When it comes to DEI, is your organization committed to carrying the weight of courageous leadership luggage or is it more comfortable lugging around status-quo baggage?