Executing Successful DEI Initiatives in the Workplace

November 21, 2021
Executing Successful DEI Initiatives in the Workplace

Marie Roker-Jones is based in New York City and has an extensive background in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI). She is the Co-CEO of Esteem which delivers hackathons for female engineers. She is also a DEI consultant and has worked with Blue Star Families to deliver resources and skills development training to veterans. This article outlines our conversation on ensuring DEI initiatives aren't forgotten.

The first question I have is why and when do organizations implement DEI initiatives?

One example is because organizations believe it is good for their business (eg. for their brand reputation) based on feedback they get from their customers or clients. Unfortunately, some organizations (only) implement these initiatives when there is an event that occurs which affects us on a national or global level, for example, the incident of George Floyd.

This incident brought people together, which resulted in more companies becoming aware of how bad racial bias is in society. So, there are various reasons organizations implement D&I initiatives. I always say that if you can be authentic with the reason you are implementing a DEI initiative, it will be more likely to be sustainable.

Is there any commonality in scenarios where DEI initiatives do fizzle out?

Yes, I have seen this happen when a company does not take the time to consider how they are going to support diverse talent. Sometimes they will have somebody come in to do a workshop, without getting input from employees first. Sometimes the initiatives organizations invest in do not help their employees, so there is no measurable positive impact. As a result, they say ‘Oh we tried this and it didn't work’. These kinds of mistakes can happen when realistic metrics and goals are not set.

For example, when I worked with veterans, organizations expressed an interest in hiring more veterans. But, if you are going to hire more veterans, you also need to follow-up and make sure that you have an inclusive environment that veterans can feel a sense of belonging in. Organizations need to make sure that they have done the work of cultural competencies to understand what it is like for marginalized groups and then bring them into the workplace.

Other initiatives which tend fizzle are ERG groups. If you have ERG groups but you are not giving them a budget, how are they supposed to be successful? You also need to make sure they set attainable goals. It is all about setting people up for success by having a support network and making sure that these programs are implemented with goals in mind.

Another example is the anti-bias training. Once you set people up to become defensive (especially if they have not taken the time to personally address their own bias) you are introducing something they may not be ready for and making it a requirement. You are not giving them the necessary tools to help them address this bias in their personal lives. Even though they will sit through the training, they probably will not absorb much of the information. Some of these training programs are presenting important issues in a (for lack of a better word) palatable manner. It is so important to get the buy-in of employees before committing to a DEI program to get their opinions and feedback. Otherwise, I think people do get defensive and feel like it is just another mandatory thing they have to do.

What can also happen is that everyone is excited for, what a week or month or whatever, and then we go back to old habits because the initiative was not sustainable. You cannot just do a one-off training and then think that somehow you have eradicated racism because that is not how it works. Everything requires work and effort. It has to be a continuous conversation in everyday situations like team meetings where you can touch on topics like inclusion and belonging. This conversation cannot make people feel left out or feel as if you are pointing fingers. Be very intentional with what kind of initiatives you implement into the workplace by focusing on what people want and what they will be receptive to.

Do you have any other best practices to help make sure DEI initiatives don't fizzle out?

Make diversity and inclusion part of your values until they are ingrained in the work that you do. These values trickle down to how your customer success people speak to customers or how your salespeople sell. Every department needs to understand why diversity is important and why being inclusive is good. Not just for the company, but the overall success of their team.

For example, we host hackathons and we have changed our model from one hackathon to four a year. In between these events, we also do emotional intelligence and cultural competency training because that is what keeps people engaged. This type of engagement is what keeps people learning and asking questions.

It is important that employees feel that they are psychologically safe. For example, implementing DEI initiatives simply because some of your employees are black and you want to make sure they feel included, does not speak to the importance of continuous conversation.

After making DEI part of the core mission and values of your company, you can start to see a change in your company culture. Then it is not just an initiative, it is who you are as a company. It becomes what you believe, it is your mantra and you stand for what you believe in. As an organization, you need to make sure you honour this by following up with action items to accomplish those goals.

What is the impact on vulnerable demographics in underrepresented minorities in the workplace when DEI initiatives fizzle out?

I am going to bring up the psychological safety point again because it is so important. People think that term is only related to mental health, but it is not, it is about feeling you can be yourself and that no one is going to judge you. When people feel like an ‘other’ they are not comfortable to be themselves and they don’t bring their whole self to work. They bring what they think people want to see.

Be mindful of the notion of 'culture fit' because not everyone is going to benefit from your culture. This issue is irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation etc. It can apply to anyone. For example, pre-COVID19 everyone used to go out for beers and maybe you have a person on your team who does not drink. That could be for religious reasons, or perhaps they are a recovering alcoholic. In this case, having a culture that weaves in ‘partying’ (for example) is not inclusive to everyone.  It is so important to look beyond people that are like you or like you or think like you. That is why I keep bringing up cultural competency because when you understand where somebody is coming from, then you are better able to relate to them.

Diversity can be seen as a ‘check box’, but inclusion and belonging are really what makes diversity sustainable. Inclusion simply means that a person is attempting to include another person. It does not mean that they appreciate what is different about another person. For an employee to have a sense of belonging, it means that the attempt to include them was successful.  Again, I would recommend staying away from the term ‘culture fit’, because that means you are looking only at people who are like you (based on age, gender, etc.). We all want to feel included, especially in our place of work because that is where we spend most of our adult life! So if you do not feel like you belong, you are not going to stay.

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