I’ve been doing work related to equity, diversity, and inclusion for nearly 30 years. I’ve seen the ebb and flow of interest and commitment by people in leadership roles, across organizations, and industries. The rationale has typically fallen into one of two categories: 1. “Our priorities have shifted. We have to focus on the immediate crisis at hand.” or 2. “We tried. We hired a person but didn’t get the results we expected.” As in the past, it may be tempting to table EDI “for now”, at least until after we get past Covid-19 and all its implications. I’m advocating here for exactly the opposite stance. Perhaps it's self-serving because I’ve spent my career educating and trying to advance EDI. I am a Black woman raising a Black son. So, I am not surprised but horrified by the disproportionate rates of Covid illness and death in Black and brown communities and where atrocities like the killing of Ahmaud Arbery continue to persist.
Instead of waiting for things to get back to normal--because “normal” wasn’t working for a lot of us--I’m asking that you instead double-down on your commitment to EDI.
Like so many things that have been part of our previous “normal” we are now forced to really look at our practices, challenge what can be changed, and make choices that even just a couple of months ago seemed unrealistic. This is the exact time to really think about what our goals are relative to EDI. What are we trying to accomplish? If you are at a stage in your planning, or on the verge of sidelining your EDI efforts because you don’t have a clear vision for it, consider the following ideas.
1. Put the right person in the right position.
This person’s job is NOT to “do” everything related to EDI. Instead, this person is a senior strategist who sits at the executive table and provides guidance and accountability for demonstrable action across the organization. This position must be viewed as a peer with formal connection to, and support of, Human Resources and operational leaders. Why? “Diversity” efforts are often related to issues such as hiring. Mitigating bias in the hiring process requires HR involvement and accountability, as well as hiring managers, search committees, and others who are involved in these processes. “Equity” is often related to issues like salary or job classification, which, again, require active HR partnership and operational leaders who likely have most of the decision-making authority for creating or approving job descriptions, negotiating compensation, and packages.
2. Connect your EDI strategy to the lifeblood of the organization.
One of the major pitfalls of past EDI efforts is that they’ve been treated as a program, initiative, or separate band of activity from other business functions. Many of the failures experienced related to EDI in organizations are less tied to people’s willingness but lack of understanding about the “how”. A robust EDI strategy has to be able to answer this question: What are we trying to accomplish? Then, build a roadmap between where we are now and that aspirational future state, anchored by core tenets of your organization--like values or business functions.
3. Focus on impacts.
Strategic EDI investment and advancement should not be about platitudes. This is your business, it’s viability, it’s people, its reputation. EDI should be systematically pursued in ways that make it clear, at the organization-wide level and every region, department, unit level:
4. Work inside out and outside in.
A lot of organizations focus heavily on either one or the other end of the continuum. Inside out is devoted to training or inclusive workplace practices. Desired outcomes are to enhance recruitment or retention. Outside in emphasizes how the organization is perceived externally, it’s reputation and brand, to drive goals related to client development or new product or service development. Either approach takes a significant commitment to resource allocation, which is why most organizations prioritize one over the other. “We can’t do it all” is the sentiment; or “we’ll do one then the other.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. There has to be intentional investment on both sides of the coin to make and affect progress on either.
5. Create an organizational development engine that fuels your progress to EDI goals.
EDI is about structures, strategy, people, processes, and practices. Just training people on unconscious bias isn’t enough to help them integrate what they’ve learned into daily practices. This integration of what we know and what we consistently do well is called proficiency. When what we do is a collective practice, it’s cultural. That’s what you’re aiming for; people in every role in your organization to feel individual and collective understanding of how they can breathe life, on a day to day basis and as part of their core job, into your EDI aspirations. This will require a framework to guide development, contextualize and reinforce learning, and ensure continuity.
6. Be humble, but openly share what you’re doing.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve worked with leaders who are doing really cool stuff but who just don’t feel they are the right person to speak on behalf of EDI issues. Don't get me wrong, there are amazing Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Queer People, people all along the learning and abilities spectrum, and from various cultural and religious experiences who have and continue to contribute to the world in brilliant and equity-centered ways. Even with all of these amazing folks, a lot of the senior leadership roles in major North American organizations continue to be occupied by White folks, men, and a growing number of women. So for this idea, I'm specifically thinking about some of the White folks in formal leadership roles, who are all-in but quietly worried about the optics of their role. They’ve invested in doing their own work; learning about their privilege and committing to changing power dynamics and deconstructing inequitable systems where they have influence. They insert themselves in hiring and other processes where bias often negatively impacts outcomes, asking the tough questions and pushing others to challenge past practices and expect a higher level of accountability. Some of these same people are often the most hesitant to speak about their journey, their work. They know that their reality has been centered in many contexts and choose to stay on the sidelines to enable, encourage and support new voices--particularly those that have traditionally been marginalized.
I get it, and I applaud it. But don’t “not share” to the extent that it could help others learn, particularly with those who are also in formal leadership roles and need examples of what more desirable models and approaches could look like. Perhaps, consistent with the leadership philosophy you’ve already committed to, you can work closely with a team of people in your organization to create mechanisms for sharing that ensure that privileged voices and perspectives are not centered. Let your messaging be shared “in the service of” all of us, learning and having access to emerging best practices. Think beyond what advances the interests of your own organization, but connects with a broader intention of ending oppression wherever it exists. This is not the time to be boastful, nor the time to be quiet. Find your authentic voice, express your values, and nurture the kinds of practices that are going to be essential for our path forward.
Don’t let the enormity of the suggested approaches weigh you down. We have plenty of tough work that feels, and is, complicated. Your personal and organizational values must help you keep perspective on the bigger picture, not just the immediate moment of crisis. Just remember, now’s not the time to give up or take a “check the box” approach. Equity issues are not going away, and are often exacerbated by crisis. Find your path. Commit to it. In forthcoming posts, I’ll provide suggestions on how to do some of the work outlined above. For now, please check out our signature program Inclusive Manager’s Toolkit and other learning resources that can help you and other leaders, managers, and people who have responsibilities for ensuring EDI is understood and practiced in your organization.
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