Shifting the Burden: Moving Beyond Black Employees as DEI Sole Representatives

It’s been a common theme this past year. In response to the nationwide protests against racism in this country in 2020, it seemed like every company suddenly scrambled to announce renewed commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and promised to root out the causes of systemic racism in their workplaces. But instead of hiring trained, reliable, outside experts, countless corporations decided to ask their Black employees to be their DEI go-tos instead.

Not only is relying on your Black employees to be your DEI teachers, trainers, and facilitators incredibly tokenizing and emblematic of the systemic racism your company claims to want to fight, but it’s just plain poor strategy. (But don’t worry — our Engagement Studio team can always help you find the right one.)

Let’s say you’re playing a team sport and injure your leg. Your primary care doctor tells you that you need surgery to fix the injury or it’s going to keep getting worse, and your quality of life will decrease. You decide to get the procedure, but you get to pick who does it. You can choose between a trained surgeon with 10 years of experience in your specific type of injury, or you can choose another member of your team who’s experienced the same injury and gotten a similar surgery before. You are obviously going to choose the surgeon in this situation, because they’re the expert. And you would still choose the expert in pretty much any other scenario, because as humans, we rely on each other to specialize in different types of work because we can’t be experts in everything by ourselves!

I use this example because it also highlights a key point: just like the teammate who has been through the injury and surgery process before, your Black employees certainly do have important lived experience with racism that can, perhaps, help your DEI efforts. The teammate can’t do the surgery for you, but they can give you advice on which doctor to choose, medications that worked for them, physical therapy exercises that helped them heal faster, and so on. Similarly, your Black employees will likely have a lot to say about how your current workplace environment is impacting them, and they are well-positioned to offer thoughts and insights specific to your company about how to improve the situation. But at the end of the day, they aren’t trained, experienced facilitators who can overhaul your company’s entire culture, and they shouldn’t be expected to.

Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Experts are important in every field, and DEI is no different. If you really want to challenge and upend your company’s harmful environment, you need to bring in someone who knows exactly how to do that with compassion, care, and extensive training and experience to make sure it’s done right.

One critical thing that separates an expert from your Black employees is bias training. When I was training to be a DEI consultant, one of the first things they teach you is that every single human holds some kind of bias. Bias evolved as a survival instinct; if your family member died because they ate some kind of flower, your bias instinct will tell you to remember not to eat that flower, and be wary of other flowers that look like it.

But bias can and does often go too far, because human beings aren’t flowers. When a human has a traumatic experience with another human, it can be hard for our brains to tamp down that survival instinct and avoid being wary of other humans who resemble the one who caused our trauma. Experiences of trauma also trickle out to friends, family, friends of friends, acquaintances, and so on, and the bias we pick up from that can be contagious. So it’s understandable, if tragic, that all of us hold certain amounts of bias in us, and a trained DEI facilitator will be able to understand that about both themselves and your company. A good DEI expert knows how to recognize their own biases and set them aside when they’re facilitating change, in ways that your Black employees might understandably be unable to do.

Christina @ via Unsplash

Another critical factor that separates the experts from your employees is training in self-care. DEI experts are humans just like your employees, and we deal with incredibly emotionally heavy material. Every DEI expert I know is in therapy to understand and be able to control their responses to the inevitable emotions that trainings and facilitations bring up — we know what we look like when we’re stressed out, triggered, vulnerable, and we know the signs of that in others. We are especially adept at understanding what group stress looks like, and managing the tensions that arise when folks are sharing their embarrassing moments or difficult traumas. Being able to facilitate and push through those tough experiences requires being able to separate yourself from the high emotions of the moment and remember that you have a job to do, which your Black employees should absolutely never be expected to do. I can say from many, many past experiences in this field — it’s a lot of truly difficult work, and putting someone in that situation without giving them the tools they need to both cope and succeed is wildly unethical.

Of course, a lot of companies end up relying on their Black employees to be their DEI champions because they simply aren’t interested in lasting, substantive change; they only want the good PR that comes with the appearance of changing. Not only does this fail to do anything to fix your company’s problems, but it actually sets you up for bigger issues down the line. That’s when you get the flimsy one-off “trainings” on unconscious bias or a day-long workshop that gives all the employees a shiny little “anti-racist” certificate at the end of the day. If that sounds like your company, then you’ve got a whole lot of other problems to confront before you even bring in a real DEI expert, but you should still hire one anyways — and commit to ongoing work, led by experts, if you don’t want your Black employees to leave in droves and bring an inevitable PR nightmare on your heads somewhere in the future.

Want to avoid the nightmare and get a DEI plan that actually serves your people? Connect with us today to see how we can help transform your organization for good.