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Why your DEI initiatives aren’t working

Your responsibility is to act openly, with conviction and willingness to address your own biases and privilege.

Why your DEI initiatives aren’t working
[Seventyfour/Adobe Stock]
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Have you wondered why your organization’s efforts to address shortcomings in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) haven’t had the desired impact? You’re not alone.

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Five years ago, Harvard Business Review (HBR) noted that a series of high-profile DEI-related lawsuits had finally gotten the attention of large corporations. Just a few years later, organizations that had paid millions to settle discrimination claims found themselves back at the table facing new class-action lawsuits.

As organizations started to embed DEI plans into their strategic initiatives, many saw little or no progress with their actual DEI metrics. HBR reported that from 1985 to 2014, among all U.S. companies with more than 100 employees, the proportion of black men in management increased just slightly—from 3% to 3.3%. White women saw bigger gains—from 22% to 29%—but their numbers haven’t budged since then.

Unfortunately, executive leaders have found that the typical tools—diversity training, hiring tests, performance ratings, grievance systems—may only make things worse. According to HBR, these tools sometimes decreased the proportion of women and minorities in management because they were primarily designed to preempt lawsuits by policing managers’ decisions and actions. In my experience, this kind of forced feeding can backfire, activating more bias and fostering silent rebellion.

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In our years of helping business leaders build organizations that work, we have found that every company has its own set of stumbling blocks that interfere with optimal organizational structure—and there are, likewise, a set of internal building blocks that can be utilized to achieve the desired organizational results. Let’s apply this bit of insight to the issue of creating and implementing DEI initiatives that will actually work.

Here are some typical stumbling blocks that tend to interfere with the success of DEI initiatives:

1. Diversity saturation: Employees get tired of constant diversity oversight, which can sometimes cause non-minority groups to feel excluded. If you are giving the impression of preferential treatment to minority groups, no one will believe that your organization has an environment where diversity, equality, and inclusion exist naturally and in harmony.

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2. Common myopic solutions: We see this when an organization decides to promote (or hire) the next available minority individual—a “solution” that often engenders resentment among other team members. Promotions should be based on a blend of performance and potential, while ensuring fairness and eliminating bias from the process.

3. Lack of standardized data and metrics: When standardized measurement tools and information are not embedded into talent acquisition and management activities, that lack of uniform measurement and reporting ensures that DEI initiatives are not universally followed.

4. “I can’t find anyone”: If your talent acquisition methods are weak, your DEI recruiting results will likely be lackluster as well. It may be time for a deep dive into why your organization struggles to attract or develop diverse candidates and whether behaviors and practices have really changed. Keep Peter Drucker’s advice in mind: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

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5. DEI reputation and reality: Do diverse candidates get a positive impression when they interact with your company? Do not pretend your company is something it is not. Your company DEI culture cannot be disguised by crafty seating charts and bribed or forced employee reviews.

6. Compulsory DEI training: Compulsory training has been proven to generate animosity, and it does not move the needle. In fact, in many cases, it creates a larger gap in the organization’s DEI.

Each stumbling block can be countered with a building block—a solid principle or method that can align your organization to achieve its desired results. Utilized correctly, these building blocks can shape your organization so that diversity flourishes and equity and inclusion become cornerstones of the culture.

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1. Communication: Walk the walk and talk the talk. Openly and authentically discuss the value diversity has brought to your organization. Communicate the advantages of a diverse workplace in a meaningful way and point out how a more diverse team has enhanced the overall capabilities of the organization.

2. Measure progress: Data is key—you can’t improve what you don’t measure. What are the DEI metrics in your organization, and how do they compare to the workforce population in your geography? Use your data to drive action.

3. Data: Help hiring leaders make the best decision for the organization by ensuring that the most qualified candidate is hired without bias. For example, many organizations sterilize applicant data on the initial screening process from all terms that denote race, gender, age, etc. Another good practice is to use the relevant metrics to ensure your organization is looking at an adequate representation of available DEI candidates for that skill set and geographical area.

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4. Creativity: Be inventive in your approach to attracting diverse candidates. Have you considered nontraditional recruiting channels, such as veterans organizations, groups for career switchers, community colleges, or events that cater to minority interests? You can also become more flexible with scheduling options to attract more stay-at-home or returning-to-work parents.

5. People and rewards: Reward those with hiring responsibilities for successful efforts to improve DEI. As leaders define (by example) what behaviors are needed to amplify a good DEI culture and what behaviors need to be diminished, your organization can create synergies around a diverse workforce.

6. Re-imagined training: Voluntary training works best, particularly if the organization can provide a forum for interesting and compelling discussions. Encourage voluntary participation and find opportunities to utilize trainers pulled from the ranks of your diverse workforce.

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I cannot overstate the importance of sincerity and transparency in aligning an organization toward greater success in its diversity. Your responsibility is to act openly, with conviction and willingness to address your own biases and privilege. Overlooking DEI shortcomings is not something that can be pushed off until the next board meeting, the next quarter, or the next year. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”


Ken Thompson is a Principal Partner/CEO of AlignOrg Solutions and a Founding Board Member of the Stephen R. Covey Leadership Center.