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In 2022, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) isn’t a nice-to-have. According to a recent study, 95% of CEOs believe that diversity, equity and inclusion should be top priorities, for both business and moral reasons. And yet, all too often, companies fail to live up to their lofty DEI goals, with the same study finding that only 44% of surveyed companies had actually developed a formal, actionable strategy. Why isn’t increasingly prevalent DEI rhetoric driving real, lasting change in the workplace?
The answer isn’t financial. Research has shown that diverse, inclusive teams are more likely to bring multiple perspectives to the table, making them more innovative, more creative and better at solving problems in ways that ultimately benefit the bottom line. Despite the clear benefits of investing in DEI (not to mention the ethical case for building a diverse, inclusive workplace), many leaders continue to cling to the old normal. To start to make good on their DEI promises, leaders must first understand where these challenges lie.
1. A cynical workforce
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to implementing DEI initiatives is getting and maintaining buy-in from employees throughout the organization. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into a vicious cycle of cynicism: When a company announces an ambitious plan but fails to deliver, employees will naturally become dubious about the organization’s willingness and ability to make real changes. Workers can become especially cynical when their employers make self-aggrandizing public pronouncements in the context of movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter but fail to match these external statements with on-the-ground policies that actually hold managers accountable. If a company appears only to be interested in DEI as a marketing strategy, its efforts are likely to be met with substantial skepticism internally, hampering effective implementation of even the most well-intentioned programs.
2. Insufficient measurement systems
“You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” The mantra, often attributed to influential management thinker Peter Drucker, has its limitations — but effective measurement is certainly necessary when it comes to DEI. Without a defined system to set clear targets, track progress and allocate rewards, such as bonuses and other incentives for management and leadership, companies will struggle to make real progress on their DEI goals.
Importantly, this system can’t exist in a vacuum. Many diverse hiring initiatives, for example, stumble because of the perennial meritocracy-versus-diversity narrative, in which leaders (falsely) assume that hiring candidates from diverse backgrounds means sacrificing merit-based standards. Research has demonstrated that this is simply not true, but making the case internally requires compelling, well-documented metrics that illustrate the value a diverse and inclusive workforce adds to your organization.
Many leaders get bogged down by the sheer scale of the data that’s available. To make real data-driven progress, organizations need to track qualitative metrics, such as the number of people hired from different underrepresented groups. They then need to ensure that infrastructure and incentives are in place that use the collected data to enable alignment and accountability at all levels of the company.
3. Policy misalignment
How often do senior leaders really know what’s happening on the ground? Misalignment between top-level directives and grassroots realities is common in many areas, but it’s particularly harmful with respect to DEI. In many cases, the well-meaning executives who create DEI policies fail to consider the needs of the people those policies are designed to help, leading to policies that just don’t work in the real world.
These disconnects can also hinder lower-level employees’ ability to leverage programs meant to support them, since they may not understand the processes or unwritten rules they need to follow. Many employees who might want to contribute to DEI efforts often find themselves unable to participate due to poorly aligned policies.
Another common failure mode is misalignment due to silos. When leaders spread responsibility across departments, it increases the risk of poor coordination, duplicated effort and other inefficiencies. This lack of integration can also cause employees to be confused about who to approach with problems or concerns, further obstructing progress on these already challenging issues.
4. Closed culture
Research shows that at least half of harassment and discrimination complainants experience some form of retaliation — and you can’t fix problems if people are afraid to speak up about them. In an open culture, leaders foster a safe environment, in which employees at every level are encouraged to share their input on DEI issues and can be confident that their voices will be heard. In contrast, in a closed culture, dissenting voices are silenced, whether through explicit policies or the implicit threat of retaliation.
To be sure, closed cultures aren’t necessarily anti-DEI. Especially in the aftermath of horrific news events related to discrimination, it can be tempting to take an aggressive, top-down approach to implementing DEI policies. But this can seriously backfire, creating an insidious closed culture in which employees don’t feel comfortable sharing their concerns or contributing strategies for improvement.
5. Unconscious bias
It’s (relatively) easy to address problems we can see. But what about the ones we can’t see? Many DEI initiatives focus on addressing explicit biases and systemic inequities, but it’s much harder to root out the underlying, unconscious biases that drive many of these ongoing issues. Some organizations provide mandatory bias training upon hiring, but without sustained coaching on concepts such as unconscious bias, affinity bias and soft filtering criteria, substantive progress is unlikely.
Importantly, many of these unconscious biases pertain not only to individuals, but to the value of DEI itself. Many leaders undermine their own DEI efforts, because on some level, they view these programs as a waste of time, energy and money. These preconceptions are inherently difficult to notice, let alone eliminate — but to build a truly diverse and inclusive workplace, managers and leaders at every level must work to identify and address the biases that hold them back.
Now, more than ever, leaders cannot afford to pursue a DEI strategy that comes across as little more than a thinly veiled marketing gimmick. According to a recent survey, nearly 80% of U.S. employees want to work for a company that values DEI, and more than half of consumers report greater loyalty to brands that commit to addressing social inequities.
To match rhetoric with execution, leaders must first understand the barriers that face even the most well-intentioned of DEI efforts. It is only once these challenges are acknowledged and addressed that real change becomes possible.