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5 reasons your DEI initiatives implode

The CEO and founder of Maximum Communications offers a frank perspective on what makes well-intentioned programs blow up or fizzle out.

5 reasons your DEI initiatives implode
[Source image: VectorPocket/Getty Images]

In a mass exodus now known as the Great Resignation, nearly 40 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021. Low-wage jobs in hospitality, food service, and retail sectors make up the bulk of those workers calling it quits. But virtually every industry has been impacted.

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Corporate America is battling burnout. As white-collar workers returned to the office after having been remote most of 2021,  they started writing resignation letters, too, many blaming toxic workplaces. 

Black and brown employees, and others from marginalized communities, were especially candid about their workplace experiences. Despite the rollout of diversity and inclusion programs across industries in recent years, microaggression remains a major challenge. And because most companies don’t disclose demographic data, it’s difficult to assess how effective DEI programs really are.

The truth is, without prioritizing ongoing education and addressing implicit bias, strategy quickly becomes a muddled mix of good intentions and poorly communicated goals. Eventually, the entire program implodes.

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Here are five reasons DEI programs get derailed, and what to do about it.  

Initiatives aren’t supported by the C-suite

If increased representation, equity, and belonging are important to the executive team, they would be heavily invested in, ensuring the success of DEI programs. But too often this critical work is launched by middle management and then handed down to frontline employees. When top-tier executives sidestep opportunities to immerse themselves in DEI education, they may mistakenly signal to their teams that DEI efforts are inconsequential. 

The most effective way to ensure program success is through a top-down approach in which leaders demonstrate and communicate the value in diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces.

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Implicit bias goes unnoticed

The only way to stamp out instances of discrimination and inequity in the workplace is to acknowledge implicit bias exists. Unfortunately, in an attempt to make programs more palatable, many DEI educators find themselves omitting discussions about how harmful inherent and unfair attitudes can be—especially those aimed at marginalized communities.

Fact: We’re all biased. But once individuals explore and come to understand their own bias, and how it happens, it’s possible to anticipate gaps in internal processes that allow inequities to exist in the workplace. 

Anyone entrusted with leading entire teams through DEI training has to find a way to personalize programs. It’s important for employees to see themselves as stewards of the initiatives organizations introduce. Creating diverse and inclusive workplaces isn’t a task for one person or one department. Every employee shares in the responsibility.

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DEI programs aren’t backed by a budget

If you want to understand the overall importance of an organization’s DEI program, take a look at its line item in the annual budget. 

Lots of DEI programs fail because they don’t have the financial resources necessary to support opportunities for ongoing education. Unlike other annual professional development programs that serve as a refresher course, effective diversity and inclusion initiatives are continuous and evolve over time.

Regular DEI education may include a monthly speaker series, quarterly webinars or in-person workshops, community partnerships, and other creative means for cultivating a culture of belonging. 

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All of these examples mean organizations that are serious about inclusion are financially invested in the success of their DEI programs. 

Transparency and trust are missing

Another reason DEI programs implode is that employees simply don’t know what to expect from them. It’s hard for employees to get excited about programs when the details are shrouded in secrecy. Here’s where corporate communicators can make a big difference in how well diversity and inclusion initiatives are received. 

Start by sharing the organization’s why. Explain how DEI programs will positively impact employees and the communities they serve; and don’t forget to include team members every step of the way. Ask for feedback and be open to criticism. 

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Trust-building plays an important part in creating an inclusive workplace. Being transparent about goal-setting, strategies, and even setbacks can help win over skeptical employees.

DEI programs appear performative

Among the most detrimental things an organization can do in response to bad behavior is launch a DEI program. Almost immediately, employees affected by inappropriate conduct may publicly call out corporate executives and others for ignoring warning signs—or worse, for participating in instances of alleged discrimination. 

The best way to respond to these events? Quickly. 

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Here’s why understanding and recognizing risk is really important. If your organization employs and enables racists, ageists, ableists, and others who impede progress toward a more diverse and inclusive workplace, no matter how well-intentioned an organization’s DEI programs may be, they will always appear performative.  

DEI programs that are reactive, rather than proactive, are much more likely to fizzle over time and can actually harm employees from marginalized communities.

This year will likely be another of self-reflection for organizations. Expect to see empathetic leadership and transparency prioritized as more “diversity experts” join the C-suite. Anticipate more accountability, too, as workers demand leaders make good on their promises for more representation, inclusion, and equity within organizations.

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Ayana King is the founder and CEO of Maximum Communications.


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