Many organizations are looking inside their own walls following protests against police brutality and racism across the country. Creating an effective policy, however, isn’t simple, says Michael Bach, author of Birds of All Feathers: Doing Diversity and Inclusion Right.
“D&I, when it’s done effectively, isn’t a program, but a shift in how organizations operate,” he says. “It’s accepting that things like privilege and bias exist and many of us bring those things to work with us every day with no understanding that they’re happening. We don’t know what we don’t know, and it’s simplistic to think we can fix things quickly with little effort.”
If you’re creating a D&I policy or updating the one your company already has in place, you can work toward creating a workplace that welcomes and engages everyone by avoiding these eight mistakes:
1. Thinking of D&I as a Function of HR
The biggest mistake is to think that D&I is exclusive to HR and the department’s sole responsibility, says Bach. “D&I that lives in HR will often die in HR,” he says.
The ideal state is for D&I to sit outside of HR and layer over everything the organization does, including things such as clients, marketing and communication, IT, suppliers, and facilities.
“D&I works in collaboration with HR to examine the inclusiveness of HR practices, but also collaborates with other functions to ensure a D&I lens is being applied to everything the organization does,” says Bach.
2. Falling Short with Training
Organizations should not consider training a one-time event or box to check off. While training builds a framework and vocabulary to talk about challenging issues in the workplace, it doesn’t actually drive behavior change, says Lauren Romansky, managing vice president in Gartner’s HR practice. “HR needs to push further into talent processes and systems that underpin decisions and focus on the foundational trust in manager-employee relationships,” she says.
Some companies only provide training to management teams, which may seem like a cost-efficient idea, but discrimination and biases don’t solely occur at a managerial level, says Esther Hernandez, HR representative at Slate Law Group, an HR services provider for small businesses. “If D&I training is not implemented at every level of the company, marginalized employees will not be effectively supported, and the culture at the company will not shift,” she says. “To be effective, D&I training should be accessible, and everyone should be encouraged to attend.”
Be careful with training, though, cautions Cheryl Fields Tyler, CEO of Blue Beyond Consulting, a human resources firm. Well-intended training programs can’t make your company more diverse or inclusive if they’re delivered under negative messaging or forced attendance.
“Sometimes such training makes things worse by reinforcing stereotypes and making diversity a compliance program, boosting resistance and resentment for diversity efforts,” she says. When employees perceive the training as an attempt to stay compliant and simply check off a box, they will usually be more resistant to the teachings, adds Hernandez. “If a business is not genuine in its reasons for offering the training it will be harder for employees to absorb the information effectively and willingly,” she says. “This creates a less successful program overall and does not enact meaningful change.”
3. Putting Policies on Paper (But Not in Action)
Policies that look good on paper, yet aren’t applied in the workplace, can infuriate employees, says Nannina Angioni, a labor and employment attorney and partner of the law firm Kaedian LLP. “Employees can smell mere lip service from a mile away,” she says. “HR teams must maintain a consistent dialogue with company leadership about a program’s key features and how they plan to implement it practically in the workplace.”
The company, as a whole, needs to commit to the program for it to be effective. Angioni suggests that HR managers collaborate with leadership and answer questions such as:
- What does the team intend to accomplish, and how do they plan to get there?
- Are the expectations reasonable?
- Who will be responsible for carrying out specific objectives, and is this the right person to do so?
“Some leaders aren’t comfortable working outside a defined scope of duties,” she says. “Tasking someone like that with outreach, for example, will fail.”
4. Taking a One-Size-Fits-All Approach
If an HR team member is copying and pasting a D&I program found online, or modifying one received from another HR friend or a prior employer, it’s likely to fail, says Angioni. “Each work environment is unique,” she says. “Employees’ demographics, their work relationships, collaboration levels, and operational functions will vary. Companies should develop the program to the unique requirements of their workforce.”
5. Focusing on Diversity but Not Inclusion
A common mistake is when companies focus only on diversity and leave out inclusion, says Vina Leite, chief people officer at tech company The Trade Desk. Diversity won’t mean anything if team members don’t feel like a valued part of a team.
“Look at the individual and how they will add to your culture instead of just how they will fit,” she says. “It’s imperative that a candidate’s values are aligned with your company’s values. Values have no color, race, gender, or other differences. Values speak to character. Building a culture of inclusion that celebrates individual differences is essential, and it is an ongoing effort.”
An inclusive culture requires an environment for open and sometimes difficult conversations to help people understand about the biases they might bring to the table.
“How have their views been shaped by issues of race, sexuality, gender identity, age, or physical ability?” asks Leite. “We are currently engaged in an ongoing conversation about race and how unconscious bias can affect relationships inside and outside of work. This is not an easy conversation, but timely and necessary for a company that wants to grow.”
6. Focusing On One Demographic
A common mistake is to focus only on one demographic group in the workplace, such as women or racial and ethnic minorities, says Sharon E. Jones, CEO of the consulting firm Jones Diversity, Inc.
“Doing so makes other demographic groups feel that the D&I initiative is not for them—it’s just for the women or the people of color,” she says. “That is a fatal mistake in approach because the dominant group in the workplace—usually white men—must see that there is something in it for them in order to obtain not just facial buy-in but real buy-in. You need everyone ‘leaning in’ to make a diversity and inclusion initiative successful.”
An example of this has been demonstrated with respect to family leave policies, says Jones. “Research has shown that women have an easier time moving to leadership roles in a workplace where men routinely take paternity leave and where the leave policies are identical,” she says. “It is not surprising when you think about it. When women take maternity leave, it often has a stigma of lack of commitment to the job, and there can be resistance to the return process. When everyone takes family leave, the stigma disappears, and it just becomes the normal way the business operates.”
7. Making Individuals Champion the Cause
Marginalized people have long been expected to adapt to the “norm” of the dominant workplace or societal culture, and they’ve also held the burden of speaking up for their group and advocating for greater fairness, representation, and power, says Hernandez.
“Individuals holding marginalized identities are often put in the spotlight or expected to help management implement D&I programs for the organization, often without regard to their existing workload or position,” she says. “Requiring individuals to make those changes means marginalized employees alone must navigate working with employees from a privileged position without knowing if they are a willing ally, a compliant colleague, or a resistant coworker.”
By leaning too heavily on individuals without developing organizational processes and practices, decisions are inconsistent, progress is slow, and the realization of a more diverse workplace falls short of expectations.
8. Thinking a Dedicated D&I Function Is a Solution
Some companies assign a dedicated head of D&I or chief diversity officer. However, responsibility needs to spread throughout the company instead of residing with an individual, says Romansky. “For HR leaders who have or are considering installing a head of D&I, the entire leadership team still needs to consider their objectives and their team’s objectives to really achieve the systemic change required to sustain a diverse workforce and inclusion,” she says.
D&I can’t be done off the side of someone’s desk or by anyone who happens to have some capacity, says Bach. “D&I is a specialized skill and requires resources,” he says. “If you expect volunteers or people with a fraction of their time dedicated to D&I, you will get as much as you invest.”
Strengthening D&I within our company cultures is not enough, adds Fields. “We need societal change too,” she says. “HR and business leaders need to step up and leverage our power and influence to help change the policies, structures, and cultural norms that perpetuate so much inequity.”