The Don’ts of DEI Strategies

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

December 13, 2021

Recent editions of the Pulse have discussed several facets of thought around ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ (DEI), following Pasadena City College’s 3rd annual Future of Work conference (FOW), presented by the Economic and Workforce Development department (EWD) on November 12th (watch the replay). The conference’s title was ‘Advancing Equity Beyond the Benchmark,’ which asserts its theme: it requires action and intention to address and reverse the unfairness of racial, gender, or other types of discrimination. The keynote speaker and panelists shared their experiences with DEI situations and their strategies for addressing the inequities they find in their current professional roles. Fundamentally, the event added depth and nuance to the DEI conversation, helping listeners to understand better the differences between ‘equity’ and ‘equality,’ the high value of ‘equity anchors,’ and the barriers to equity that are embedded in today’s social and industrial structures. 


The DEI Strategy: What Not to Do

The FOW conference offered attendees ideas on how to address the DEI concerns arising within their enterprise and urged them to develop a remediation strategy that encompasses their entire organization. What wasn’t discussed (due to time constraints) was what not to do. Without careful analysis and design, seemingly minor errors or missteps in one aspect of the strategy can create the potential to offset or sideline the DEI implementation project altogether. Understanding the missteps experienced by other entities can help leaders avoid making those mistakes as they advance their own organization’s DEI strategy.  


Don’t Start at the Bottom

A truly diverse organization maintains a culture of inclusion as its usual way of doing business and has instituted policies to ensure that inclusion is imbued in every corporate element. Leadership at all levels is responsible for building that culture and enforcing policies to ensure its continuation. To achieve leadership awareness and engagement in the DEI strategy, organizations should focus on embedding three fundamental expectations into their leadership development processes:

Leaders must espouse dedication to DEI principles as their obligation within the company’s formal leadership strategy. A DEI-informed approach will ensure that both newly onboarded and long-time experienced managers receive the training they need to maintain DEI activities as innate to doing business. 

Leaders must also adhere to DEI practices at all levels of the enterprise. Companies may have to revise their existing practices to incorporate DEI-sensitive changes and then retrain current leadership  – from the warehouse to the board room – and staff to ensure they understand and will adhere to the new way of working. Ongoing training may also be needed until the entire organization automatically works within the DEI framework as a standard matter of course.  

Leaders must also be held accountable for their activities. The corporation should develop systems to ensure all management understands the need for DEI behaviors and can comply and follow through with those policies. Failure to do so should trigger retraining at the least and more dire consequences in worst-case scenarios. 


Don’t change people: Change the organization

It’s not enough to assign an equity anchor and then leave the work of generating an equitable corporate culture up to that individual alone. In any enterprise with more than just a few employees, there will be a myriad of opinions, biases, and prejudices that will each require individual attention to come into compliance with newly released DEI policies. Full acceptance of the changes is also threatened when that anchor is a part of a dominant group or someone who holds power over staff. ‘Changed behaviors’ may be for show only and not demonstrative of the worker’s actual beliefs. 

Instead, develop a system that tracks equity standards throughout the employee experience, from hiring, through promotions, and all the way to retirement or off-boarding. Changing existing systems to incorporate DEI and equity practices through all employment levels ensures that all corporate activities will reflect that cultural component.    


Don’t just talk: Action is required

While awareness of DEI concerns is critical, action that addresses those concerns is mandatory if the long-term objective is to build an inclusive, diverse, and productive company. Attaining awareness requires inquiry into how the organization is currently functioning, and data gathering to reveal where inequities exist and the negative impacts they generate. Leaders can use the data to design responsive actions within the DEI strategy. Activities should also include data gathering to track the sufficiency/efficacy of the strategy itself. Developing a genuinely diverse enterprise is an active process, not a single event.  


Don’t Miscommunicate 

Building a fully embraced DEI framework requires the buy-in of all workers, including leaders, which escalates the importance of sharing information across the enterprise. Recent research reveals, however, that a thorough communication of corporate intentions and actions is rarely achieved. Lever, a staffing and recruiting company, interviewed more than 1,000 workers and 500+ leaders to see how successful their organizations had been with their DEI initiatives. The results of the survey were not promising:

While almost all leaders (97%) announced they had launched new inclusion measures into their organization, only a quarter of the workers (24%) reported knowing of them. 

While 52% of the corporate leadership spoke of their ‘equal pay’ initiatives, only 24% of the employees noted that they’d experienced that occurrence at their office.

And while 27% of leaders reported expanded benefits and perks based on DEI principles, only 9% of workers reported having those made available to them at their place of employment. 

The disconnect between what leadership is doing and what workers are experiencing is significant: workers who aren’t informed about their employer’s DEI efforts can’t actively engage in those new systems nor experience the benefits they are designed to confer. And without that worker buy-in, the corporation itself can’t claim itself to be genuinely DEI informed and aware. The lesson here is that comprehensive and repeated internal communications with all employees about DEI efforts, successes, and challenges are crucial to building a fully integrated, fair, and equitable enterprise.    


Knowing what not to do is often as important as knowing what should be done in any given situation. As the PCC’s FoW conference participants noted, equity and equality are becoming ever more important to a company’s success. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly critical to avoid missteps that will that impede progress when developing a DEI strategy.  


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