March 28th, 2022

For purposes of this article, I use the following definitions:

Diversity – all the ways that people are different in the workplace and customer base, including background, experience, traits, approaches, any other differentiator

Equity – fair treatment and access to opportunity for all people, accounting for and removing barriers that have prevented the full participation of all groups

Inclusion – creating an environment where people are valued, respected, supported, and evaluated for who they are without expectations of conformity (other than to articulated company values)

Ask Dr. Google “why is DEI good for business” and all the reasons and data you need will be there — from how DEI increases innovation, production, and profits, to diverse teams routinely outperforming homogenous teams, to attraction and retention of key personnel. In this article, I am not going to make the case for DEI — the majority of workplace leaders claim not to need it. Rather, this article is directed to people who do not have to be convinced that diversity, equity, and inclusion matter and, instead, are focused on how to sustainably incorporate a commitment to DEI in their workplaces.

Go to almost any company or organization in the US (and increasingly throughout the world), and you will hear about their DEI commitment as part of their organizational culture. Many will pull out initiatives and activities that demonstrate this commitment. Yet often, employees, particularly those who consider themselves “diverse” will say that their efforts are “not working”.

Moving beyond the DEI tithe

Among the key reasons why DEI efforts don’t achieve intended results is that DEI cannot effectively be pursued through check-the-box activities – which I call the DEI Tithe, meaning we do it because we feel we have to but without connecting it to our core business, performance expectations, or compensation. Too often, DEI is seen as a stand-alone effort and not a business imperative, delegated to HR, DEI leads, or Employee Resource Groups to promote and not operationalized into how the organization engages with and how managers are held accountable for their people.

Of course, no other valued part of the business operates that way. With real business objectives, there are goals and metrics that are fully incorporated into relevant business activities and connected to key business results and outcomes. Absent this connection and accountability, DEI efforts fall short, because they are not prioritized as business imperatives. We then must rely on isolated instances of apparent “success,” people who do not fit the corporate mold but who have made it to levels of organizational success shared by most people who do, to enable us to forgo looking at the norms that prevent so many others from achieving the same.

So – what do we do? To start, if DEI is a true organizational imperative and is going to be successful as a means to increase representation, expand opportunities and remove barriers in the workplace, then maybe we need to start the conversation with a different letter. When we start with programs that focus on the D, we are asking people to come in and rise above any of the inequities and exclusions that pervade most work environments. We are relying on individuals to overcome systems that are not welcoming or forgiving – and pointing to the success of those individuals as our organization’s DEI success. We focus on who we are bringing in versus what we are bringing them into. And in these instances, inclusion really means conformance (not inclusion in uniqueness) and the ability to thrive on those terms.

Being “other” in a (seemingly) straight (mostly white) male workplace

As a young  lawyer (and former high school basketball player) in a man’s world, I knew the quickest way to fit in was to find myself in a basketball game with some of the male attorneys. A few swish shots over a colleague’s head and I was running down the court getting an “atta girl” butt slap just like the rest of them. And that camaraderie translated back to the office (although, thankfully, I only once—yup, really—got an “atta girl” butt slap after a successful client meeting). I became “included” within those cultures by fitting into what was already there. That dynamic repeated itself as I continued to engage in traditional male, and often predominately straight white male, environments.

Yet how many times throughout my career, as a driven and relatively successful female professional in predominantly male-dominated work environments, was I also told that sometimes I seemed too “aggressive,” or “competitive,” or “direct” — traits rewarded in my male counterparts, but ostensibly not acceptable in a female package. I even remember being told more than once that my expressing disappointment or displeasure with someone’s work was worse than a male colleague’s rant, because people expected me to be more nurturing and thus it was harder to take in those times when it appeared that I wasn’t. What I was supposed to learn, then, was that I could fit in and be included, as long as that fitting in was within the parameters of the environments in which I operated and the expectations of my gender (or sexual orientation, or religion, or fill in the blank).

Add to this calculation people’s predisposed notions of race and ethnicity, and the expectations of inclusion as conformity skyrocket because systems and the playing field become increasingly unlevel. Just do a quick straw poll among colleagues asking them for their initial reaction when an African American woman asks for a modified schedule to take care of her kids after school versus when a white man simply takes summer afternoons off to coach his child’s sports team (bonus points if it’s his daughter’s) – neither asking to have their workloads reduced. Or ask their unfiltered reactions when an Asian man versus a Latino man comes late to an interview, both blaming their tardiness on traffic.

Some people call these instinctual reactions based on a characteristic (not one’s capability) “implicit bias,” and I have conducted hundreds of conversations and trainings on this subject. But, somehow, the idea of “implicit” bias gets us off the hook — as if our perceptions and behaviors are ingrained and if we don’t see them, we don’t own them. No, when I refer to systems and structures, I am referring to explicit bias – the very real societal norms and social constructs that have been put in place for years that tend to favor one group (generally the majority group and/or group in power) over others. I am calling on people to act with intentionality, to disrupt the systems – implicitly developed or explicitly accepted — that confer tangible advantages to some groups and disadvantages to others.

The impact of lagging DEI efforts is clear

These systems have real consequences. As just one example, the indisputable wage gap favoring  men over women  (a finding reinforced in virtually every pay equity study that has been conducted related to the gender wage gap), increases when white men are isolated in the male category or when the female comparator is limited to women of color. Not to mention the psychic and opportunity tolls that being just as smart, working just as hard, and having the potential to be just as effective takes on people who are told day after day — subtly and directly — that they do not come in the right package to afford them equal opportunities or rewards for success.

Our awareness (or even openness to acknowledge) systemic racism, sexism, and a multitude of other isms have jumped to the forefront with the tragic murder of George Floyd – not because these are new concepts or realities, but because at this moment in time, more people appear to be listening. (And, yet, one only needed to have seen a small portion of the recent US Senate Supreme Court Associate Justice nominee hearings and the persistent condescension and disrespect directed without consequence by white male elected officials to the female, African American, renowned legal scholar and previously confirmed federal jurist to be sadly reminded that we still have a long long way to go.)

Yet, who do we expect to change these realities in the workplace? When we start DEI with the “D,” we put the burden on those who come in who do not “fit in” to break out or change the dynamics, structures, and perceptions of what is. We tell ourselves if we just get a “critical mass” of XX, they will come in and change our culture. We rely on them to disrupt embedded ways of operating and engaging. We point to their failures as “bad hires” when this does not happen, and to their successes as evidence of our DEI commitment when it does.

A call to reshuffle our approach to DEI

When we start with E and I, we — the perpetuators of existing systems and structures — own that it is those systems and structures that need to change if we are to truly level the systemic ism playing fields, celebrate people in their uniqueness, and remove barriers to people’s full participation and contribution. We understand there are many paths to success, and different types of backgrounds, styles, and approaches to get there. As cultural leaders, we must take on the burden of change rather than requiring those who do not fit our norms to change us or be perceived as the reason people can’t behave or advance as they want to or feel they are entitled to.

My work over these years as a lawyer, HR executive, consultant, and board member has led me to believe that even as the specifics of what any organization can do may vary by its nature, lifecycle, size, and geographic reach, the playbook is the same. If a commitment to DEI, particularly E and I, are among the values of an organization, then sustainable progress related to DEI can only happen when accountability starts at the highest levels of the organization – the board, the CEOs, the executive teams – and not relegated to HR or specifically designated groups or initiatives. Impactful progress must be seen as a business imperative and embedded into every facet of the employee lifecycle, including job descriptions, interview processes, performance expectations, appraisals, incentive compensation, policies and procedures, and leader accountability. Culture and engagement skills cannot be relegated to “soft skills” with those who are otherwise perceived as high performers excused from antithetical conduct.

The last few years have elevated some painful realities and brought some new “normals.” Covid has escalated our reliance on technology for engagement and challenged our prior assumptions about workplace versus remote, in-person versus video, retention versus the Great Resignation. We must now, out of necessity, revisit and revise our current structures relating to people and engagement if we are to remain competitive for talent in the marketplace. What better time to disrupt those entrenched inequities in our workplaces than now, by necessity, and establish new operational norms.

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