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Updated February, 2022
Setting the Context
Everyone has felt excluded at one time or another. The difference for people who are the targets of institutionalized and structural bias is that the exclusion and discrimination they experience cause deep, life-long disadvantage. As employers, there is clearly a role for organizations to play in ameliorating this disenfranchisement. In fact, there is no longer a defensible argument in any organization for not actively supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).
Yes, there is a business case for diversity, and many publications have laid out the bottom line benefits, but that is probably not the primary reason any organization should support EDI. Make no mistake, this is not only a business decision, it is a moral imperative. Diversity and inclusion should be a sacred, strategic initiative because it is one of the most righteous things an organization can do to support humanity as it exists, both internally and externally. As the world-famous advocate for victims’ justice and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel so eloquently and powerfully said, “Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
Before we get into the how, the what bears some discussion. We tend to throw the word “diversity” around pretty casually or we think about it from a compliance perspective, i.e., federally protected classes of employees (race, sex, age, religion, etc.). For the purposes of increasing diversity to the benefit of an organization and the people in it, however, I would argue that we have to think much more broadly. Examples include culture, language, mental and physical abilities, neuroprocessing and cognition, gender identification, mental health status, and even political views and ideology. Acronyms that are often used in discussions of diversity include BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) and LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and other). These are helpful acronyms, and I’ll use them here, but as noted, true diversity goes beyond racial, sexual, and gender categories. One other note is that I will use “race” as a social construct rather than a biological or genetic concept, since there is no compelling evidence that race exists as a biological phenomenon.
And to be clear, no “diversity initiative” can work without a deep, concomitant commitment to equity and inclusion, which is about ensuring that people feel welcome, valued and respected for who they are. In fact, many diversity initiatives appear to have initial success, then wither on the vine, because folks effectively recruited into the organization do not feel welcome, included, or respected once they’re there.
So, what fundamental things have to be true for diversity and inclusion initiatives to have a chance of success?
First of all, as the author Joseph Conrad said, you cannot fix what you cannot face. No matter what else we do, it starts with acceptance of the reality that the reason we need active initiatives for equity, diversity, and inclusion is because many opportunities in society are not, in fact, open to all and many people in society and in organizations do not regularly experience equity and inclusion. Once we face the reality, there are a number of process requirements that also must be true. Examples include:
- Executive leadership has to believe it’s the right thing to do and that it is equal to or more important than other strategic initiatives.
- EDI has to be a long-term commitment (not the initiative of the quarter), with the goal of permanently altering the organization.
- The effort has to be supported from the top down and as a grass roots project as well.
- The organization has to support transparency and be prepared for difficult, even painful conversations and realizations.
- The organization has to encourage and validate minority viewpoints.
- People do not have to be diversity and inclusion experts across the organization, but they have to approach the effort with empathy, an open mind, and a willingness to learn.
- Probably most importantly, in the spirit of Conrad’s observation, there has to be nearly unequivocal acceptance that concepts such as systemic racism, unconscious bias, patriarchy, and privilege exist and are insidious. The reason this is critical is because in the absence of such acknowledgement, it is not possible to address the systemic and structural realities within organizations that mitigate against diversity and inclusion.
Relatedly, concepts such as intersectionality and micro-aggressions are also real and ignoring them has been a significant barrier to supporting success for BIPOC, LBGTQ+ and other diverse populations. This is a critical point. For example, people can believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist in the same way they can believe climate change doesn’t exist, but by definition they cannot be part of the solution and it isn’t productive to attempt to change their views. As this relates to discrimination, however, “non-believers” still must be held accountable for behaviors that perpetuate the oppression of others. Ignorance is not a free pass. This is one reason that EDI efforts are often so fraught within society and organizations. It’s not just about equalizing opportunity. There are inevitably people with privilege within the human hierarchy (and the organization) who will see increasing opportunity for diverse colleagues as a threat to their own place (and their privilege).
In her new book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson frames the four-hundred-year American history of sometimes brutal repression and subjugation in the context of a caste system, whose very existence is for the sole purpose of preserving privilege within the hierarchy. Her book is a helpful way to think about the structures and behaviors that preserve privilege and fossilize the place of most people in the caste into which they were born. Of course, there is socio-economic mobility up and down for individuals within any group, but broadly speaking there is very limited upward mobility for traditionally disenfranchised groups because the social institutions that support mobility such as education, housing, employment, access to capital, healthcare, etc. are less available or of lower quality than for those from more privileged groups. And the criminal justice system, rather than protecting diverse populations, particularly those of color, often compromises opportunity through disproportionate arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. To be clear, the point of EDI efforts in organizations is not to redress 400 years of discrimination and subjugation. However, such efforts need to acknowledge the history in order to have credible context.
Organizations as a Reflection of Society
If we think of organizations as societal microcosms, then we have to accept that in order to grow diversity, and in particular to achieve inclusion, we have to dismantle the structures that promote privilege and disenfranchise those who are outside the “mainstream.” Just as in larger society, the objective is not to weed out the “bad apples” who act inappropriately. The objective is to address the systemic realities that perpetuate discrimination and mitigate against genuine equity, diversity and inclusion.
Similarly, EDI must be supported by organizational culture or it will fail miserably for the same reasons that anything not supported by culture will fail. It is culture that ultimately determines how people behave in organizations—not rules or proclamations, or management directives.
Moreover, diversity and inclusion efforts have to be long haul initiatives dedicated to making diversity the norm. They have to transcend time and leadership, which is why culture is so critical. The values have to be deep and invulnerable to changing budgets, leaders, competitive environments, external political realities, etc.
The Basis of a Plan
The first requirement of a plan is to elevate diversity and inclusion to the same level as other strategic initiatives with the same tangible treatment (financial resourcing, performance metrics, accountability, etc.). And ensure that it is not just an “HR initiative.” It must exist in the organizational mainstream with accountability for functional areas and business units. It is also helpful to embed EDI efforts within organizational wellness and wellbeing initiatives, because ultimately, that is what equity, diversity and inclusion efforts are supposed to achieve!
The Role of Leadership
Acknowledging and addressing racism and other institutional systems of oppression are core
leadership responsibilities. Leaders cannot equivocate when prejudice rears its head. As the remarkable Elie Wiesel said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Leaders must also consistently model desired behaviors, including zero tolerance for bias. Zero tolerance means that no case of discrimination or bias can go unacknowledged and or unremediated. Every example is a “teaching moment” that doesn’t necessarily end in disciplinary action. In fact, enlightenment is a better objective than punishment.
Policy must support diversity and inclusion. This includes recruiting, compensation, job descriptions, performance evaluations, benefits, bonuses, scheduling, training, promotion, discipline, etc. Talking directly with BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other diverse employees about how policies directly affect them in problematic ways is a good place to start.
The Whole Organization
Executive sponsorship can support compliance and even culture, but ultimately commitment has to exist at all levels for equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives to grow and prosper. One key strategy for achieving this is to ensure that all levels and parts of the organization reflect similar diversity. Since that is a longer-term proposition, in the interim, policy that supports and incentivizes EDI is essential. Relatedly, social structures within the organization, whether work or non-work related, must facilitate integration and inclusion so that traditionally excluded populations can benefit from the informal systems that support success.
Education and Training
Any EDI plan should include educational components on how bias impacts BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other diverse populations and how privilege impacts everyone. Organizations should make this commitment in the same way they would commit to learning anything else folks need to know to do their job well. Individuals do not need to be experts in every esoteric issue connected to race or gender or ableism, etc., but they must approach these issues with a sense of humility and empathy commensurate with their privilege.
The Role of Diverse Employees
While it is critical to give voice to diverse employees, EDI efforts should never require that marginalized employees do the heavy lifting. BIPOC and LBGTQ+ employees can certainly play a role in supporting diversity and inclusion, but they cannot be tasked with enlightening everyone else or carrying the message of why diversity and inclusion are necessary. It is not their job to dispel ignorance or motivate others.
Support for Diverse Employees
In addition to changing and creating policy that supports the needs of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other diverse employees, purposeful support systems such as mentoring (by both similar and mainstream mentors), training to mitigate skills gaps (technical and soft), and possibly most importantly, letting BIPOC, LGBTQ and other diverse community members be different and search out “their own kind.” Success cannot come through forced assimilation. It can only come from genuine acceptance and respect, which includes ensuring that typically disenfranchised employees are not only free, but encouraged to speak up and speak out.
Moreover, once people of diverse backgrounds are successfully brought into the organization, it is crucial that it is a place they actually want to be. Businesses and institutions do not have to be perfect, but they do have to feel safe and marginalized folks have to believe that the organization’s efforts to make them feel welcome and included are genuine. It is also essential that BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse individuals believe that they have the same opportunities as their mainstream colleagues—this does not mean special treatment—it simply means a fair shot.
Undoing Systemic Bias
EDI efforts also require undoing structural barriers and replacing them with support systems that help to mitigate centuries of systemic bias and related disenfranchisement. Many of the most diverse (read “different from the mainstream”) people in society, and thus in our organizations, have been structurally disadvantaged relative to education, healthcare, housing, criminal justice and other institutions, in many cases generationally, and as such, often come into organizations (if they’re recruited at all) with life experiences and frames of reference that are quite different from their mainstream colleagues. One terrible reality of living through structural bias is the affect it has on certain mindsets such as fear, confidence, and self-efficacy. Being marginalized does not affect intelligence or innate ability. It can, however, compromise traits that in privileged employees are often associated with success such as risk taking, having strong opinions, communicating in “standard” language, dressing “appropriately,” etc. That is why it is critical that EDI initiatives, at their core, include a commitment to deconstruct systems (hiring, promotion, compensation, scheduling, etc.), that rely on criteria that fundamentally disadvantage non-mainstream employees (and perpetuate privilege for mainstream employees). A good example is the fact that organizations have long blamed their failure to increase diversity on the claim that they simply cannot find qualified minority (both racial and other diverse characteristics) candidates. While it is true that there are not enough traditionally credentialed applicants to meet the needs of every organization in a given industry, there are plenty of candidates for the organizations that truly want them and even enough for all vacancies if HR departments and hiring managers are willing to think more creatively about what “qualified” means—and what support they’re willing to provide to new hires. Not so ironically, it is often true that the very requirements written into job descriptions that make diverse candidates “hard to find,” reflect the systemic bias that makes the same organizations both impenetrable and unwelcoming to BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse candidates. This is a complex and difficult process because so much of the systemic bias in society and in organizations is “unconscious” (or even denied) on the part of those folks most in a position to make positive change. It requires discipline, humility, empathy, and an open mind.
Assessing the Effort
As noted early in this article, in order for EDI efforts to get traction and be sustainable, they have to be treated and supported in the same way as any other critical, strategic commitment, with concomitant objectives, metrics, and accountability. One key factor, however, is that determining the success or failure of EDI initiatives must include the opinions of BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse individuals in the organization. In the same way that systemic bias is often “invisible” to those of privilege, so are the outcomes from commitments to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion. For example, people in the mainstream (at all levels of an organization) are much more likely to see numerically increasing diversity as “success,” with little or no insight about improvements in equity or inclusion, which must be judged by diverse employees themselves.
EDI Initiatives Headed by Privileged, Mainstream Leaders
Can a privileged, White male lead a diversity initiative? Of course. In fact, in most organizations, the most senior executives are almost all going to be White males, so if the C-Suite is going to be involved, it will require leadership and commitment from White men. Of course, this presents an interesting dynamic in which a campaign to permanently increase diversity and inclusion is driven by someone who, by virtue of his privilege, likely has little or no direct experience with overt discrimination, micro-aggressions, racism, sexism, etc. On the other hand, with the right education, coaching, empathy, and commitment, folks with privilege, even significant, intersectional privilege, can be highly effective advocates for the kinds of change necessary to support diversity and inclusion—mostly because they have power. Over time, if the change is systemic and includes the necessary support systems, senior and executive management ranks will reflect the same diversity seen across the organization and leadership will reflect the important perspectives of those previously disenfranchised.
A Way to Think about Supporting EDI
Long before I was a senior leader, let alone a CEO, I was a schoolteacher. I taught mostly at-risk youth from bilingual kindergarten through high school. Whether I was working with migrant children, kids from socio-economically deprived families, BIPOC students, or privileged, mainstream youth, as educators, we had to accept students where they were, not where we wanted them to be (from our mostly privileged perspective), and figure out what interventions were necessary to facilitate their success. Even the most prejudicial people would be unlikely to say that non-mainstream children don’t deserve to go to school and achieve to their potential. Certainly, we can say the same about the workplace (and other organizations). In the same way that culture, language, sex, gender-identity, “race,” financial means, cognitive processing, and other factors impact the way children engage with and are served by schools, a similar dynamic applies to organizations comprised of adults. If we believe that everyone deserves an opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and I hope we all do, then we should also believe that the opportunity to achieve those goals should also be available to everyone. In order for that to be true, organizations can no longer justify any reality related to equity, diversity, and inclusion that disenfranchises anyone due to their uniqueness. Period.
Although I have been a personal advocate for diversity and equity for as long as I can remember, I also represent the pinnacle of intersectional privilege. As a result, despite my extensive experience in places in which I have been a “minority,” in terms of language, culture, race, and religion, I have never been disenfranchised by structural bias. Ever. Even though I am probably more “woke” than most White, male, English speaking contemporaries, my privilege still creates massive blind spots and there are some things I can only infer or imagine. One of the most important, recent factors in my own enlightenment was the book, So You Want to Talk About Race, by the author Ijeoma Oluo. Oluo is a queer, female, black immigrant (not necessarily in that order), who also recognizes her own privilege where it exists, and who is a profound thinker and great writer on the subject of racism and other examples of bias. If you are a privileged, mainstream person who would like to quickly be enlightened about the differences between disenfranchisement and privilege, told from both a scholarly and very personal perspective, I strongly recommend Ijeoma’s book.
This article refers to many interventions for ameliorating bias and disenfranchisement of BIPOC, LBGTQ+, and other diverse individuals, but does not provide many specific details. For example, it is essential that policy supports EDI, but the article does not provide examples of hiring policies that disadvantage diverse applicants (or policies to support the hiring of diverse applicants), which is beyond the scope of the article. However, for any reader who would like to see specific examples, or simply discuss the content of the article in further detail, please reach out to me directly at email@example.com.
So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeamo Oluo
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson
Eight Best Practices for Changing Culture
Diversity and Inclusion Practices for 2020