What We Are Saying Now

2.1 The Challenge Of Converting DEI Principles Into Practice

Walk the DEI Talk

Plenty of organizations talk the DEI talk. After all, little is required to make a verbal commitment to the principles of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. However, the challenges of converting those DEI principles into practice – walking the talk – are daunting. 

For starters, most human beings don’t like change. We are uncomfortable moving outside of our known environment, our “comfort zone.” The unknown is frightening. We all must learn to “become comfortable with being uncomfortable” in today’s and tomorrow’s world.  Anyone whose job includes responsibility for introducing a new policy or practice to an organization faces an uphill battle. 

The very mission of the DEI Discipline, its raison d’être, is to evolve an organization’s culture toward one of Belonging. “Evolving” includes aligning the DEI principles to an organization’s vision, mission, core values, etc.  In other words, weaving DEI into the fabric of the organization by educating and communicating workplace expectations and accountability.  In short, the core of a DEI Leader’s job is to lead systemic change by educating an organization on how to connect its value systems, behaviors, and practices to reflect the principles of DEI.

DEI is About More Than Laws

The difficulties occasioned by general resistance to evolve pale in comparison to those stemming from the fact that many Americans see no need for DEI at all. Members of an organization’s workforce are, therefore, hardly uniformly receptive to the message advanced by those employees responsible for DEI. 

Small wonder that so many organizations fail to treat DEI as a priority, as they are often unfamiliar and uncomfortable with DEI.

In a 2021 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, nearly half of the respondents, 49 percent, said that little or nothing more needs to be done to ensure equal rights for all Americans, regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds. These results were echoed in a 2023 Pew poll that found that 47% say that efforts to ensure equal rights for all people have either been about right (27%) or have gone too far (20%).  A significant number do not feel that the United States has a “race problem.” 

A perspective that efforts to ensure equal rights have either been about right or have gone too far is usually based upon the misnomer that DEI is a legal issue about race only.  To many, it is merely an extension of the civil rights movement’s legal requirements, i.e., Equal  Employment Opportunity (EEO) anti-discrimination laws, sometimes known as “Title Seven Laws (from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). But DEI is much, much more than that.

The laws, rules, and regulations describing prohibited actions related to humans based upon a range of individual or group characteristics lay out what not (anti) to do. They are defensive by nature, specifically describing what an organization must avoid lest it suffer financial or other penalties. The laws by themselves are anything but a guide for achieving DEI objectives; they most definitely do not in and of themselves lead to greater diversity or an inclusive or more equitable society.  Organizations comply with these laws to avoid lawsuits, while attempting to fulfill their required compliance reports, not because they have embraced DEI.

Laws making certain forms of discrimination illegal are key to creating a legal framework to mitigate the perpetuation of past discriminatory practices; legal compliance by an organization is not enough to create a culture of belonging. That requires an organization to identify and adopt behaviors and practices that go well beyond legal mandates. [LINK TO ARTICLE ON SUSTAINABLE SYSTEMIC CHANGE] 

Non-discrimination laws tell us what not to do; they are not a guide for achieving DEI objectives.

The environment for advancing DEI has always been challenging, but it has become even worse in recent years. There is an alarming trend of organizations deliberately weakening or abandoning their DEI principles and initiatives. 

A December 30, 2023, article in the Washington Post’s Economy & Business section predicts that “2024 might be do-or-die for corporate diversity efforts” as “companies are pulling back from some diversity initiatives.” Early in 2024 the resignation of Harvard University’s President, a woman of color, was seen by some as a pivotal moment in the backlash against DEI. One conservative activist cited it as “the beginning of the end for DEI in America’s Institutions.”

DEI Leaders today face resistance from both internal and external forces. Instead of seeking first to understand why an organization is considering modifying its policies and practices, many employees and public activists have decided that DEI is discriminatory, “anti-white,” or even anti-American. DEI is a zero-sum game for them – for one group to benefit, another must suffer. They believe that this means that Whites will lose jobs and positions of authority. Members of an organization’s power structure, the very individuals with the authority to modify its policies and practices, may personally hold these beliefs.

Fit DEI Into Organizational Norms

DEI opponents have characterized it as being part of a “cancel culture,” “wokeness,” or a movement to use Critical Race Theory (CRT) to indoctrinate American society to adopt an anti-white perspective. They see the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision striking down certain affirmative action programs as validation of their views. 

Increasing resistance to DEI initiatives  has only made a difficult job even harder.

Even DEI Leaders who work at organizations that genuinely want to embrace DEI face unique challenges. For one thing, it doesn’t fit easily within longstanding organizational norms. Accounting, operations, legal, marketing, and human resources . . . divisions and departments . . . revenue and expenses – all are part of how nearly every organization functions. Management has experience working with most, if not all, of these aspects of an organization. 

The same cannot be said of the DEI Discipline, which is relatively new to most organizations. Management has little, if any, experience with how DEI should exist within an organizational structure and often is not sure what to make of it. Even entities with designated positions or departments to address DEI (Diversity Director, Office of Diversity, Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) etc.),  haven’t given meaningful thought about the value-added role DEI can play in its success. They’ve simply added DEI to their organizational chart because that’s what other organizations are doing.

Moreover, an organization’s power structure rarely includes DEI Leaders among its members. As a result, the former often doesn’t know how to effectively manage, work with, or authentically leverage the latter’s value within the operational framework of an enterprise.  DEI must be at the decision-making table.

Also contributing to the difficulty of embedding DEI principles into an organization’s culture and operation is the fact that no generally recognized model (best practice) for doing so exists. There is no road map for management or its DEI Leaders. Disciplines such as finance, accounting, human resources, and legal have well-established rules, regulations, and evolving policies and best practices. Management can rely upon these standards to be assured that the organization is operating within industry norms. The DEI Discipline has no such long-standing conventions.   

There is still no uniformly accepted road map or best practice for converting DEI principles into practice.

An online search of “diversity best practices” yields thousands of varying results. There is a plethora of books and articles covering an array of DEI topics. Even with lists of the “best” DEI books, one is quickly overwhelmed with differing approaches and left with no authoritative treatment of the subject or, more importantly, the practical “how to” guidance so many in the DEI Discipline continue to seek, and organizations so desperately need.  

Unfamiliar and often uncomfortable with DEI, and unable to rely upon recognized benchmarks, small wonder that so many organizations fail to treat DEI as a valued priority. Management is disinclined to embrace an area it doesn’t fully understand, worried that DEI initiatives may carry more potential risks than rewards.

Understand Why Challenges to DEI Exist

The challenges faced by DEI Leaders are substantial. Left unexamined, they can become overwhelming, turning challenges into obstacles. We believe that a critical part of becoming a DEI Leader is understanding the environment in which you operate. Understanding why these challenges exist is essential to learning how to overcome and navigate them. It is the first step to meeting the organization where it is in its understanding of DEI, a key to systemic change, revealing the frame of reference it uses to perceive DEI messages. A DEI Leader leverages that knowledge to inform their approach and incorporate it into the education of others who are not well versed about DEI and are resistant to the changes they are seeking to bring about, establishing an inclusive environment enabling a sustainable culture of belonging.

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