The Other Columbus: The limitations of diversity, equity and inclusion

To address flaws in workplace culture, companies should do more than check the usual boxes

Scott Woods
Phil Herman, superintendent of the Hudson City School District, presents an update of the district's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) program at a Board of Education meeting at Hudson High School Monday, Aug. 9.

You’ve done the diversity training. You sat in the focus groups. You took the surveys, completed the required readings and marked all of the boxes on your job’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) checklist. 

So why does everything still feel the same?

As America closes in on the second anniversary of the Great Racial Reckoning of 2020 (aka Anti-Racist Spring), I have to admit: I got pretty good seats for this game. Hundreds of companies and organizations are about to round the bases one more time over their meager attempts to stem bias (First Base: Never admit to racism), train their staff (Second Base: Never pay for an expert when a survey will do), establish committees (Third Base: You can kill any initiative in committee) and listen (Home Plate: Always offer a seat at the table to someone who can’t change anything).

Most companies don’t care if any of these campaigns work or not because they’re just trying to cover themselves in case anyone ever asks what they did in the name of DEI. The problem, of course, is that all of those Band-Aids come off quickly in the wash of another reckoning. And there will always be another reckoning until there is actual change in the areas DEI claims to address.

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Part of the problem is that people who don’t really want to change much about their business use “address” in place of actual work. They investigate. They listen. They address. These terms are all flags to people actually seeking change.

But let’s get specific. Let us remove some of the fog of war that exists in the space between the problems of things like racism, sexism and ableism; and real, needle-moving change. Why don’t such efforts take in a given organization’s culture? Why is there no buy-in from staff? 

1. Not all action is progress

It is in the DNA of organizations and businesses to change a little but claim a lot. It’s how you generate profit, either in dollars or programming. You know this is happening when the memo says, “We’ve addressed this.” Or when they give you a laundry list of actions they’ve taken, but processed individually, turn out to be fairly ineffectual and minor. Don’t measure progress by how much action you’ve taken; measure it by how much change has occurred.

2. The wrong people get to define change

Typically, an organization’s leadership determines to what degree change has occurred after efforts have been made to right the ship of workplace culture. More (and in most cases, worse), they establish how much change is allowed to occur. This kind of thinking is why 150 years after the end of slavery Black people still have to keep bringing it up: because you don’t let the people who profit from your enslavement determine your freedom. It’s why people are literally fighting for the right to vote today. Someone in power keeps moving the goalposts on liberty. I’m not saying CEOs and directors need to step back and let the mailroom intern handle the organization’s diversity plan. What I am saying is that if the mailroom intern is an affected party of your racist, sexist, ableist workplace culture, and they should be in the room establishing what a win looks like before the work starts.  

What this looks like in practice: Companies love to make employees come up with action plans, so the leadership should come up with one specific to these issues. Then, rather than just say "Here's what we're doing," they should run that by staff (at large or in part) to see where the holes are before they decide that these are the steps you’re going to take. If you already put it in motion and then ask staff's opinion for tweaks, you're less inclined to make changes because it's possible that some staff might expose big holes and blind spots, forcing you to start from scratch or worse. 

3. You’re not listening

Self-explanatory, and you know when you’re doing it, so I won’t belabor the matter. I will suggest that if at any point you don’t care what the person your culture is victimizing is saying, consider that you are actively part of the problem at that moment. Listening contains some measure of care. Find a way to engage that makes you care about what they’re pointing out, not just hear what they’re saying.

4. You’re listening at the wrong stage

If you draw up a plan of action and then present it to the people you’re trying to help for their input, you’ve likely already created a problem. When you have the plan in hand, you’ve already established the agenda, the parameters of discussion and the resources you’ll be contributing to the issue. 

5. Don’t put staff on the hook for creating a path to change

Staff want to be listened to. They want to be considered. But many of them aren’t trained professionals or theorists in DEI or social justice. They’re mostly just paid victims of whatever culture your workplace produces. So, it’s best to employ staff at what they’re ideally suited for: telling you when your change isn’t good enough. If that sounds like too much power to hand off to subordinates, I’d also recommend not seeing your staff as subordinates. Hire consultants. Do more research than you can possibly contain. Don’t look for research that makes you feel good. Talk to experts in the social justice field. Don’t promote some staffer to lead the effort who hasn’t had experience creating such initiatives. Look for every opportunity possible to create a substantial and concrete change for the better. Act like you will never be done with this work because, frankly, you won’t.  

6. You can’t just throw money at the problem

 You must throw some, but you can’t buy a new culture.

7. Any work that does not deliver agency is doomed

Author and professor Dr. J.W. Smith once told me during a panel discussion, “You can have diversity in a room full of white men.” Diversity is easy, and inclusion isn’t much harder. It’s part of the reason why “diversity training” became DEI; because people knew what was (or wasn’t) coming the second they saw the meeting flyer. If you don’t incorporate equity into the actual work of your company, you’re probably not the greatest place to work for to begin with. I know what all the manager manuals say. Trust me: a little say-so in the process goes a long way but including agency as a goal could be the game changer your workplace culture needs.