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What's Missing from DEI Initiatives? Root-Cause Analysis, for One

Oct. 18, 2021
Filling in the missing pieces is not all that difficult. But the emotional content of these issues, a history of inequity and the inertia of organizational culture have exacerbated our challenges.

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. The idea of equity and inclusion was not even a consideration then. 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 that sounded, attitudes are nearly impossible to measure and attitude changes are not the lever that can move workplace culture or achieve organizational outcomes. And some current research suggests that a focus on changing someone's attitude can actually end up strengthening biases.

The complex dynamics involving perceptions, beliefs and behaviors made the "rules" governing diversity confusing. Most traditional training taught employees what not to do to avoid an instance that could be considered 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 different. There's hard evidence that organizations that embrace DEI in the right ways consistently outperform their competitors.

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."

For customer-facing organizations, equity efforts may be directed externally, to address disparate treatment of the people they serve. There is also a chance that on the inside, hiring, promotion and reward systems have the same built-in bias.

Inclusion addresses the biggest obstacles to becoming that high-performance organization. We'd define inclusion as recognizing and addressing the institutional and interpersonal barriers preventing everyone from fully contributing in the organization.

Studies show that many people of color and women feel excluded. In one study, only 30% of African-American tech professionals responded that they felt otherwise. Exclusion presents itself in a number of correctable ways. Most are embedded in the culture where certain groups of people are subliminally viewed as not belonging. A significant amount of exclusion emanates from leaders with implicit biases who are poorly managing staff involvement and engagement. This is why a focus on changing behaviors rather than attitudes will mark the way forward.

Developing A Game Plan

Because DEI issues often carry significant emotional content, a well-structured process is required to move people and systems along. 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 their 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 the initiative. 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 common sense 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.

Inequity and exclusion have distinctive features and efforts around them have different desired outcomes. If you assess that there are significant systemic biases present, then you'll need to do further data-gathering, data disaggregation and root-case analysis. Stakeholders will play an important role validating both your assessment of the source of the inequity and whether efforts to restore balance are successful.

As for inclusion (or most often, lack of inclusion), feeling excluded can be a very subjective judgment. But the subjectivity doesn't mean it's untrue. It's vital to hear from those affected by exclusion to get down to the specific organizational activities where the impact is most strongly seen. You need to collect those insights and prioritize which areas to address. Once the high-impact areas are addressed and progress is clear, you can then move on the next. For example, being a part of project teams can be a huge factor in one's growth and development. If patterns of exclusion exhibit themselves in the selection process  it will be important to craft solutions to fix them. Generally, these solutions are easy to come by, especially if the display of inclusive behaviors is a part of one's KPIs or other performance metrics. It's still true- you get the behaviors that you measure and reward.

What's Next

We all recognize that there is much more progress to be made. For some, it will be worrisome to adopt this incremental mindset. Those who been most negatively affected by inequity and exclusion have a valid argument that change is too long overdue. Anything other than incremental change may be less likely to be sustained. If we lose this moment with so many minds and hearts open to real change, the fear is that it may not come again.

Daniel Penn Associates Senior Consultant LeRoy Thompson has 30 years of expertise in delivering solutions to meet a wide range of organization development, executive coaching, managerial, supervisory, and employee training needs. He works with a broad range of clients in racial equity, diversity, and inclusion.

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