Placing DEI initiatives on broken cultures: Slow your roll!

I am a big LinkedIn user.  I usually check in every couple of days or so to do a little research, look at the boards I’m subscribed to, and to dig through the job boards for DEI positions.  I run my own DEI research and consulting firm, so I am admittedly fascinated by the DEI (or whatever acronym being used) positions being posted and how companies are describing the work.  The titles are myriad – Senior VP of DEI; Chief Access, Diversity and Inclusion Officer; Associate VP of Institutional Equity and Diversity; VP of Belonging—and are becoming more and more creative.  My question is are the people getting these jobs having as much success in impacting the cultures of these companies as Human Resources is in creating the titles?

I have been doing work in this arena for decades, deciding to do it exclusively almost three years ago.  After 20+ years as a nonprofit exec, I’d observed so much inequity in the field and in corporate America that I committed to using my experience to support diverse leaders and organizations striving to do better.  I went back to grad school and focused in on intersectional leadership and utilizing qualitative methods to get better diversity and equity outcomes.  I’ve no regrets and love my work evaluating organizational cultures and increasing the likelihood that their ambitions to be better and do better have some chance of working. I’ve met some pretty amazing folks along the way, and I’ve also met a few that are engaging in this work for the wrong reasons using tactics proving to be ineffective years ago.

That aside, let me get back to my observations.  LinkedIn is now a hotbed for DEI positions, especially in universities.  Those of us who have worked in or are in close proximity to colleges and universities, know that unless they are a HBCU, many majority serving institutions are pretty terrible in terms of diverse hiring and student recruitment – they do however, talk about what needs to happen with intellectual flare! Many continue to hire 85-90% white faculty their minority student recruitment isn’t much better.Yet on LinkedIn they lead the pack in posting DEI positions, adding the responsibilities for Title IX duties to the mix for good measure.  I’ve talked to people who have gotten these jobs.  Some feel like they are making some small progress or at least their universities are seriously wanting to do better.  Many more feel they were hired as shield against lawsuits. They talk about their offices becoming the dumping grounds for uncomfortable conversations and actions that senior leaders don’t want to handle.  Stats are showing that even with the addition of these positions, and the hard working individuals they are hiring, the bar isn’t moving–black and brown folks are not getting tenure any faster, are not being hired in new amazing numbers, and students of color are still leaving these institutions at more than double the number of majority students because campus cultures are unwelcoming at best.

Now before this becomes overly focused on universities, let’s be clear, the nonprofit and corporate sectors are not fairing much better.  The VP of DEI positions are becoming what the VP of Community Engagement positions used to be.  Highly visible positions for diverse hires to show an organizations interest in leveling the playing field while not actually leveling the playing field.  I talk to these hires all the time and here is what I am hearing:

  • The positions are often not well thought out and are pushed more by HR then a real focus of executive leadership to do better in terms of hiring, culture, and equity.
  • The DEI strategies that they inherit when they arrive aren’t well thought out and are still heavily dependent on training and forced practices that people strive to avoid.
  • Resources are limited while outcome measures are limitless!
  • These positions are often under HR, not in direct line to the CEO of the organization thus limiting the influence to actually create change.
  • DEI positions are often being developed under threat of lawsuits or as marketing ploys to create what appears to be steps toward equitable treatment.
  • Many of those hired to actually develop a good plan with measurable outcomes are often advised to, “Slow down.”
  • Organizational cultures are not taken into consideration and new hires are bought in the front door and running screaming out of new door they create as they scamper to get out!

This isn’t news.  We have been at this long enough that these patterns are evident. So, can something really be done to impact the issues that institutional racism, sexism and other “isms” have created that seem so impenetrable?  Yes, but it takes a fearless approach, resources, commitment, and time. While not full proof, here are a few things you may want to consider before committing your organization to any DEI plan or hiring process.

  1. Do you know who you are? No seriously.  Do you have any idea what the culture of your organization is and how it might react to the changes you are proposing?  Having a couple of people up top thinking this is a good idea and then launching is guaranteeing a false start and probable failure. Inclusion means just that.  If your culture isn’t prepared to fully include diverse team members ensuring they have decision making authority, are included in strategic initiatives, are trusted members of your team, and aren’t having to jump through unnecessary hoops or feel they are under a microscope (“See we told you this diversity thing wouldn’t work!”) then you aren’t ready.  You can get ready, but you need help.
  2. What are the long-term consequences for launching your DEI initiative? Is this just about recruiting?  Legal protection?  Increasing creativity?  Ensuring your org is representative of the clients or communities you serve?  Do you know what success looks like?  If you cannot answer those questions, have a consultant work with you so you don’t lie to yourself and launch a failing initiative.
  3. What language are you using to define your process and does your team speak it? There are so many terms and processes that need defining and integrating into your culture.  Learn the language and gain some proficiency.
  4. If you have done the homework, senior leadership gets the challenge and you still want to move forward–how are you resourcing the effort? Will your employee resource groups have funding and or time to really be effective?  Are you funding a position or a movement to permanently change your culture?  Put your resources where your vision lives.
  5. Stop thinking that workshops will cure your ills! The research says that while exposing your team to concepts is fine, out of context this can be more harmful than good.
  6. Be as strategic with these efforts as you are your strategic business plan which includes providing resources, staff, measures, social support, creativity, and commitment to a positive outcome.
  7. Do not stick a black or brown person with the responsibility of fixing decades of problems. While they may come to you highly skilled and ready to walk you through this process, they didn’t create it and they don’t pack magic wands in their backpacks!  This is a process, not an event.
  8. DEI departments, VPs, committees or whatever form your initiative takes, isn’t a dumping ground for diversity issues. While they may bubble up through a more focused lens, changes are system wide and led by committed executive leadership teams and engaged staff. Stop running your DEI person in front of news cameras when you have a systems failure!

I apologize if there are not easy paths to success revealed here.  There simply aren’t any.  We have been not getting this right for 400 years and while a lot of organizations now  want to do better, they cannot be better without huge cultural changes that are permanent.  For some that is a very scary proposition because it may mean admitting you aren’t as amazing as you thought you were.  That simply fitting in those that have been “othered out” into your current wonderful culture will work because heck, doesn’t everyone want to work with you?  No—your team has to be ready to put forth plans that have to be unapologetically anti-racists (our nation’s leading issues), anti-misogynists, and willing to face your “isms” head on.  They can’t simply be mandated but must be tattooed onto the fabric of your culture. If you aren’t ready, please, I beg you, don’t post a position for a DEI lead or magical consultant.  Do your work, and then walk the talk.

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell is President and Chief Cultural Consultant for BW3, a national DEI consulting firm.  An avid writer, speaker, and qualitative researcher, her firm helps organizations identify their cultures and the changes necessary to truly create an equitable environment. “This is hard work and honesty and humbleness are key to gaining an understanding of who you are and who you need to be.”

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