What’s Missing from DEI Initiatives?

What’s Missing from DEI Initiatives?

What’s Missing from DEI Initiatives?

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By LeRoy Thompson, DPA Senior Consultant

With all of the attention that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have captured, a few things are still missing.

First, from the plant floor to the board room, there is a need for clarity around the terms and implications for each area of emphasis. Second, as with many previous efforts to address the underlying issues, many organizations have been unable to establish and communicate the business reason for spending the requisite time and energy. Third, industry executives are grappling with developing a straightforward process for moving DEI from meaningful symbolic gestures of allyship to substantive action plans to produce the desired internal and external outcomes.

Filling in the missing pieces is not all that difficult. But the emotional content of these issues, the haunting history of inequity, and the inertia of organizational culture have exacerbated our challenges.

A Look in the Rearview Mirror

Before offering some concrete insights and guidance, let’s understand that we’ve come a relatively long way since the 1990s when “diversity” was last a hot topic. Back then, it was simply a code word for gender and ethnic discrimination. The idea of equity and inclusion was not even a consideration. Companies were struggling to achieve greater workforce diversity and develop workplace cultures that valued the idea that cultural differences were an asset to a high-performing project team, business unit, or department.

However, outside of an emphasis on awareness training designed to prevent further conflicts, managers placed little attention on root cause analysis or rethinking recruitment and retention policies. The training and development focus was on changing employee attitudes about cultural differences. As noble as it sounded, using attitude change as an effectiveness metric was way too ambitious. In addition, attitudes are nearly impossible to measure. In hindsight, the attitude was not the lever that could move workplace culture. Attitudes have a minimal correlation to achieving organizational outcomes.  Some current research suggests that a focus on changing someone’s attitude can end up strengthening biases.

The complex dynamics involving perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors made the “rules” governing diversity confusing. Most traditional trainings taught employees what not to do to avoid an instance that could be considered to be inappropriate. The result was that employees avoided many normal and necessary workplace situations out of fear of “making a mistake”. The unintended consequences of this were several:

  1. Key people were left out of important decision-making activities
  2. There was less valuable dialogue around issues
  3. Employee productivity and morale decreased.

Not much thought was given to understanding how to help employees comprehend and apply what they should do to address bias and use the elements of diversity to increase productivity.

Thirty years after our initial attempts at diversity, equity and inclusion, things are a bit differentThere’s hard evidence that organizations that embrace DEI in the right ways consistently outperform their competitors.

It’s important to recognize that there is a neurobiological basis for understanding and addressing inequity and exclusion. From childhood, well-meaning people provided us with social guidelines largely designed to protect us from the “unknown.”

The “unknown” included groups of people who were not a part of our social sphere and were therefore perceived to be potentially dangerous. Any encounter with a person perceived to be dangerous stimulates a cascade of neural pathways emerging from the amygdala and hypothalamus. Neurotransmitters and electrical activity drive stereotypical (biased) perceptions, assessments, and decisions in an unknown situation. If these unknown groups are allowed to become “familiar” through positive interactions, the brain’s capacity for plasticity creates new neural activity that then results in dismantling biases.

Finding the Way Forward

Our current opportunity to move the needle on DEI has to be based on establishing clear definitions and real-world context for the terms we are using. For example, having diversity is, by and large, not the issue. Surprising maybe, but across industries, companies now have diverse workforces in terms of gender and ethnicity.

There are certainly instances, however, where the diversity of a company’s workforce is not in proportion to the community it serves. Or diverse representation at the working level may not translate to diversity at leadership levels. One organization trying to improve diversity in leadership roles is Deere and Co., which focuses its global DEI initiatives on Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and mentoring programs that are aimed at increasing exposure so talented employees get noticed.


Equity looks at systems and processes that have imbalance built into them, regardless of the intent of the person who is operating. According to Race Forward (a significant influencer and resource provider for DEI work):

“Racial equity is about applying justice and a little bit of common sense to a system that’s been out of balance. When a system is out of balance, people of color feel the impacts most acutely, but to be clear, an imbalanced system makes all of us pay.”

The bottom line is that equity looks at systems and processes that have imbalance built into them, regardless of the intent of the person who is operating.

Here is a key: for most organizations, a focus on equity will be directed externally more so than internally. A health care organization, a mortgage lender, or even a resume service may end up perpetuating disparate treatment for people based on their ethnicity. Their software programs’ decision-making algorithms may have been developed by individuals with “implicit” biases. The system will generate a different risk profile for patients, raise barriers to grant mortgages in certain communities or fail to forward resumes with non-native English-sounding names. There is also a chance that on the inside, hiring, promotion, and reward systems have the same built-in bias. Largely, the internal issues that organizations need to confront are about “inclusion”.


Developing A Game Plan

Because DEI issues often carry significant emotional content, a well-structured process is required to move people and systems along. It has to be recognized that there are critical stages that need to be managed or else more damage than benefit can result. Rather than create a DEI effort with lots of pomp and circumstance, you may find it valuable to take an incremental approach. There is initially a communications phase where leadership articulates its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion by linking it to organizational values, performance standards, and business objectives. This provides a platform for broad engagement, enabling almost everyone to find a place for themselves in that commitment. It also goes a long way towards developing that critical mass of support that any change effort needs.

Next, there will likely be an opportunity for some education around the DEI concepts and tools. Again, having a focus on the business reasons is important. Interestingly, current research suggests to not make seminars or workshops mandatory. The goal, using an incremental mentality, is to create a compelling message around DEI and let the commonsense draw people to it. It’s clear when you create a safe space for the necessary dialogue and discussion around the issues there are lots of people who really do champion respecting and valuing their colleagues.

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