Breaking the DEI Deadlock: Uncovering the Real Barriers to Employee Inclusion

Uncover the truth behind failed DEI initiatives. Discover the top five reasons why your efforts are falling short and what you can do to create a truly inclusive workplace.

For the 43rd time, your company made a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Your board agreed to approve an allocation of the budget for this fiscal year, the operations team has added it to the company calendar, and you begin the RFP process. You hire a consultant. You implement the plan.

Two weeks later, an employee accuses another employee of being racist and wants you to do something. This is not how this was supposed to go. We spent so much energy on this already. Why didn’t the program work? Why won’t they just get along?

Trust me, we’ve been there before. We’ve listened to frustrated executives talk about the challenges they face as ‘instances reported’ are increased. We’ve sat across the table from Human Resources Professionals stuck between advocating for their employees and company policies. We’ve advocated for employees forced between wanting change and needing a job. We’ve watched top talent resentfully walk out the door and let years of progress go up in smoke.

What happened?

Here are the top five reasons why your DEI strategy is failing your employees.

You didn’t have the real conversation.
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It’s exhausting — and scary, frankly — to admit the gaps in your policies, practices, and culture. It’s even harder when you consider companies or organizations that were created generations ago. This can’t be an excuse for avoiding the real conversations that affect your coworkers. Doing so leads to wasted time, money, and human resources. Admittedly, not every company is ready to design a cultural overhaul and examine its equity practices. However, a good consultant can determine whether an organization is ready to transform before the work actually begins. Here, then, is the challenge: you can’t expect revolutionary results with conventional efforts.

Here’s what you should be asking:

  • What are the obstacles to having this conversation within our company?
  • Are we prepared to support the conversations that will arise from this work?
You left out your own leadership team.
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The C-Suite executives are hesitant to attend in the first place. Why should I volunteer for a game of metaphorical Whac-A-Mole? Why should I spend my time here instead of with other pressing priorities? Here’s what most leaders don’t realize: when leadership is absent, you leave out the most important component to culture change in an organizational structure: the decision-makers. Without the most powerful stakeholders in an organization, you’re communicating to your employees that nothing will change.

Here’s what you should be asking:

  • Does our C-Suite, Executive Director, etc., have the temperament to take criticism and still remain supportive of our staff?
  • What value do other decision-makers in the conversation?
  • Are members of the leadership team ready to dedicate their resources to this conversation?
You can’t say it doesn’t work if you aren’t consistent.
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Training doesn’t fix culture. Training can address it and provide a foundation for shifts, but one training will not provide an entire cultural shift in an organization. Any consultant that tells you so is selling you a false bill of goods. Cultural changes happen with consistent and intentional interventions structured throughout the company. Do these continual changes need to happen through a consultant? Not always.

If you have the internal talent that can provide this training (hint: don’t just ask the marginalized coworkers because they are that identity), then you can remove the consultant. However, it might be worth your time to train someone to bring this resource completely in-house. However, there is unexpected value in a strategic partner outside the company dynamic to guide and structure your journey.

Here’s what you should be asking:

  • Can we develop internal talent that provides strategic direction for a cultural change?
  • How would it for us to have a strategic partner to guide our culture shift and implement the plan?
  • Can we afford to do both?
You didn’t actually change any policies and/or procedures.
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Equity work is not heart-work. Before I get disowned by every DEI consultant in the world, hear me out. If your entire strategy around implementing your plan is about the staff’s hearts and minds, you are doing it wrong. Proper culture changes mean also changing the guardrails that protect the company itself, the policies, and procedures. If there are no changes reflected in your employee handbook, hiring practices, retention rate, etc., you wasted your time.

Therefore when future issues arise, you have no starting point on how to address them. You have to be able to think strategically. If your training simply creates emotional plans, you will only handle concerns emotionally. However, when you can implement tangible working practices into your overarching strategic plan, you can address an emotional reaction with uniquely curated action steps for your organization.

Here’s what you should be asking:

  • What best practices around policies and procedures exist in my field/industry?
  • Is this a resource that our current or previous consultant can provide?
  • What makes my context different from others?
  • What would be the ideal scenario in handling an equity concern? Do we have staff trained in this practice?
  • How do our current policies and procedures set us up to fail in addressing equity in our company?
Not all consultants are created equal.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

It’s not hard to find a consultant that will claim to understand how to incorporate DEI strategies into your existing company model. A quick Google search will offer to give you more than thousands of results. If by chance, you can narrow your search down to one or two contenders, you still have to find some additional challenges, such as finding a consultant that understands you: not just your company and profit margin and the secret to success, but your internal culture.

Here’s what you should be asking:

  • What experience does your firm have working in (nonprofit, for-profit, tech, etc.)?
  • How do your facilitators navigate their personal biases and oppressive systems when doing their work?
  • Will you be able to recommend changes in policy interventions that we can practically implement — immediately, or over time — after we’re finished?

Here’s the good news: it’s not too late. I commend any company that realizes they must change the status quo no matter the age of your organization. Believe it or not: you’re already ahead of countless major corporations that can’t face reality.

The industry is evolving and growing, and there are partners that stand ready to help guide your transformation. You might have plans that simply require some dusting off; You can’t get complacent now; you deserve to provide a work environment that nurtures growth and fosters creativity.

If you make time, your employees won’t ever forget it.