Diversity, Equity & Inclusion For Dummies
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When deciding to make large-scale change, people from Western cultures often think in terms of what they must build to create the change they want to see. In the case of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, this approach may mean setting up an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; hiring a chief diversity officer; conducting diversity and inclusion training; setting up a diversity council; and so on.

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People from Eastern cultures have a different view of change. They believe that change is inevitable and not for humankind to make. The best we can do is influence the change. If you think about it, the world is changing — becoming more diverse, more global, more interconnected. And companies and teams certainly feel these changes each and every day. So why don’t diversity, equity, and inclusion just happen naturally? Why is the change so slow, and why does the work feel so hard?

Perhaps, in addition to the changes you build, you can also approach change another way: by removing the barriers to the changes you want to see. This isn't entirely about the things you can start doing; it's also about the things you can stop doing, or at least do a little differently.

That doesn’t mean it's easy; breaking an old habit is sometimes even harder than starting a new one. But some of your old habits may be getting in the way of allowing your organization to move in the direction of greater diversity, an experience of equity, and the feeling of true inclusion for your employees.

Looking for the 'culture fit'

When evaluating job seekers or candidates for promotion or career-enhancing opportunities, people are often more comfortable with some than with others. This comfort encourages them to afford greater opportunity to those "comfortable people" — usually, those who have a lot in common with them.

When they don’t feel an immediate ease with an individual, they experience that feeling as though something doesn’t quite fit together. And it’s that very notion of “fit” that stands in some people’s way. Obviously, when those who seem to fit are also those who primarily belong to dominant identity categories (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and so on), this reliance can send your organization’s DEI efforts sliding backward.

Whenever I hear the words culture fit, I immediately have questions. So often, the term has nothing to do with organizational culture at all but is instead all about comfort. Remember, a little bit of friction creates sparks — and those sparks may yield the creativity and innovation that your company needs to outperform the competition.

Doing things in a new way isn’t supposed to be comfortable! And always doing things the old way won’t get you very far in today’s competitive marketplace.

This isn’t to suggest that “culture fit” isn’t a valid concept. But when determining culture fit, be aspirational. In other words, look for the people who fit the culture you aspire to, not necessarily the culture that you have today. In fact, some companies speak in terms of “culture add” to establish this philosophy in daily practice.

For instance, if your team’s future success relies on teamwork and collaboration, then perhaps the hard-charging, independent thinker (who may be fantastically successful elsewhere) isn’t the best person for your team. Or, if you work in an environment where safety is vital, you may be correct to promote those who can work in a routine of checking and double-checking rather than those whose spontaneity borders on recklessness.

Finally, if you want your team to be open-minded, creative, willing to take calculated risks, then perhaps the best “culture fit” you can hope for are those who have viewpoints, areas of expertise, and opinions that aren’t already represented on your team.

Rather than using “culture fit” to screen out candidates for jobs and promotions, consider being proactive about finding individuals who indeed fit the aspirational culture of your workplace. You can do so by:

  • Clearly defining your culture, both in terms of your organization’s values and the day-to-day behaviors that you believe will lead to business success
  • Communicating these norms and values as a part of your company’s brand
  • Making your company’s aspirational culture a key part of the onboarding process
  • Talking about your organizational culture with your team and letting employees know exactly what’s expected of them
  • Rewarding employees who exhibit the organization’s norms and values and providing constructive feedback when employees fall short

Resisting the value and need for DEI

Often, the biggest barrier to diversity, equity, and inclusion is simply an unwillingness to change. This desire to cling closely to the status quo sometimes shows up as overt hostility to DEI work, but more often, appears in the form of skepticism (“Do we need to do this?”) or pessimism (“Might this make us worse rather than better?”).

According to the classic Beckhard-Harris model of change, for any change initiative to succeed, the level of dissatisfaction (D), along with a clear vision for the future (V) and defined first steps (F), must be greater than the resistance to change (R). To put it in math terms: D x V x F > R.

Handling resistance

People generally experience skepticism about DEI work as a feeling of contentment about the way things currently are: “If nothing is broken, why fix it?” Of course, the idea that “nothing is broken” is usually demonstrably untrue to the marginalized people within your organization. But if they don’t exist in sufficient numbers or aren’t present in enough positions of power, their dissatisfaction with the status quo may not be enough to spur change forward.

Pessimism is a resistance to change that must be reduced for any change initiative to succeed. The basis for pessimism about DEI work is most often a misplaced belief that increasing diversity in an organization automatically means lowering standards of quality.

Quite frankly, this belief is offensive to many (including me) because the only way to justify it is through believing that people who belong to dominant groups (white people, men, heterosexual and cisgender people, able-bodied people, people who practice the dominant religion, and so on) are smarter and more talented than those who don’t.

However, even those who don’t overtly believe in the supremacy of dominant groups can find themselves feeling pessimistic about DEI work based on a belief that the work is simply too difficult. “We can focus on that next year,” some say, after another important goal has been accomplished.

Because skeptical and pessimistic arguments are often phrased as pseudo-intellectual debates, perhaps the first best tactic to counter both is data.

You can find a wealth of research that proves that the combination of a diverse workforce and an inclusive work environment yields substantial benefits, including greater profits, lower turnover, more innovation, and higher quality. Having this data at your ready disposal is invaluable to you when you encounter skepticism or pessimism from others in the organization.

Overcoming fear

No matter how the arguments against DEI are framed, they’re never entirely scientific. What underscores most skepticism and pessimism regarding DEI work (see the preceding section) is fear.

An intellectual argument may win a few battles, but it will never end the fight unless you also take steps to address the fears that many powerful people harbor about creating a more diverse and inclusive organization. Here are few examples:

  • Fear of change: There’s an old saying that only wet babies like change. And in truth, even wet babies who love their dry diapers typically don’t enjoy the process of change much. Change can be difficult, and a few mistakes along the way are certain; those who are highly invested in a self-image of competence and success can be very threatened by even the idea of large-scale changes and the gaffes and blunders that inevitably follow.
  • Fear of moral judgment: In her famous work, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo points to a very curious phenomenon among (mostly, but not exclusively, American) white people: that for many, being called a racist is far worse than participating in a racist system. The same dynamic is likely true among many other dominant groups. Not embarking on DEI change initiatives keeps conversations about power, privilege, and the “isms” (such as racism, sexism, and ableism) at bay and allows those in dominant groups to continue seeing themselves as pillars of morality, without privilege or bias.
  • Fear of hardship: Although people who advocate for DEI often say that “everyone wins” when opportunities for all are increased, the detractors of the work envision a future where people are hired, promoted, and appointed to leadership roles simply because of their identities, resulting in discrimination against privileged groups.

    These cynics are mistaken about the nature of future opportunities, but they’re correct when they suppose that they, with their privileged identity, may have less of a chance of being CEO one day. The hard truth is that not all straight white men benefit from the status quo, just the mediocre ones who may not rise as quickly or as high when more talent enters the pipeline and is taken seriously.

  • Fear of failure: For some, DEI work feels scary simply because it isn’t always successful. For every organization that has invested in its workforce and its culture with tangible results, you can find another that tried but didn’t succeed. Some business leaders are naturally risk-averse, and the DEI journey is never without risk. The only thing certain about these programs is the eventual demise of organizations who don’t get it right — either because they fail or because they never even try.
Assuaging deep-seated fears is never easy, but if too many people in your organization are allowing their fear to show itself as skepticism or pessimism about the work, then it can sink a change effort before it has even begun.

If an organization isn’t ready for change, actions must be taken to both increase dissatisfaction with the status quo and lower the resistance to change. This shift can often take place simply through a force conversation.

Diversity workshops that are highly interactive can give voice to those who are already dissatisfied, moving some skeptics to become allies.

Town halls where senior leaders share their commitment to DEI, along with compelling arguments on why doing nothing isn’t an option, can convince some in an organization that they have more to fear from doing nothing than they do from acting.

Many people, especially those in corporate, for-profit organizations, aren’t used to enacting strategies designed to create emotional shifts in their formal, buttoned-up workplaces. But contrary to popular belief, human beings don’t leave their emotions at home when they show up to work, and these strategies prove to be as important as any other in your DEI journey.

Perpetuating microaggressions, stereotypes, and prejudices

A particular barrier to DEI success takes the form of harmful attitudes and behaviors. People from marginalized groups experience microaggressions, stereotypes, and prejudices on a constant basis, and for them, hearing senior leaders tout their commitment to DEI can be very difficult to believe.

For them, it’s often a case of their employer talking the talk, but not walking the walk — or living the company’s values.

For example, when the CEO gives a speech about the importance of diversity but direct supervisors are still overlooking marginalized people for promotions, minimizing their contributions, or showing favoritism to those who are most like themselves, it undermines trust that the company is really committed to DEI. Ditto for running ad campaigns celebrating Black History Month, Disability Awareness Month, Women’s History Month, Pride Month, and so on when colleagues are still allowed to crack jokes about a person or make insensitive comments with no real consequences. It contributes to a toxic workplace culture.

Taking a closer look at microaggressions

The term microaggression was first coined by Dr. Chester M. Pierce back in the 1970s. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “the everyday slights, indignities, put downs, and insults that people of color, women, LGBTQ populations, or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

The term may suggest that microaggressions are no big deal, but although each behavior may be viewed as a small thing, the cumulative impact of microaggressions over time can be very damaging.

This effect makes combatting microaggressions especially difficult for the targets to do without being viewed as “overly sensitive” or “angry about everything.” In fact, microaggressions are often intended as compliments (telling someone they’re “articulate” as though it’s a surprise they speak English fluently or that they “don’t act gay”).

Therefore, the organization is responsible for teaching its staff about microaggressions and making its expectations regarding treating others with respect clear. Expecting those who are already marginalized to police others’ well-intentioned behavior, possibly setting them up for further backlash, is unfair.

The table below outlines common microaggressions I’ve seen and heard used on a daily basis (and many of which I’ve personally experienced over and over). As you look at this list, try to identify the ones you’ve heard used in the workplace. Have they been directed toward you? How did it feel to hear them? How did you respond?

Common Microaggressions and the Messages They Send

Microaggression (comments and behaviors) Message it sends
“Where are you from?” or “You speak English well.” Assuming one doesn’t belong or is not from your home country
“I don’t see your color.” Denying a unique attribute of a person
“You are so articulate!” Assigning intelligence based on ethnicity
“I’m not racist. Some of my best friends are Black.” Denial of racism and an attempt to justify it
“Why do we have to lower our standards to hire more women and people of color?” The playing field is already level, and there is equal opportunity for all who work hard for it
Continuously calling someone the wrong name (especially when they have corrected you) Devaluing the person’s origin/ethnicity
Rolling your windows up or hitting the door locks when you see a Black male crossing in front of your car Assuming that they are dangerous
Following a person of color around in the store, or assuming that they cannot afford an expensive item Assuming that they are a criminal; assuming they are poor
Assuming an Asian person is good at math and science or being surprised when a black person is an engineer, scientist, or mathematician Assigning intelligence based on ethnicity
Not promoting a woman because you assume that she will start a family A woman couldn’t handle the job or is not cut out to be a mom and a professional
Dismissing or overlooking a comment made by a young professional, a woman, or a minority Minimizing experience based on age

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Shirley Davis, PhD, is a seasoned human resources and diversity and inclusion thought leader, a certified leadership coach, and veteran executive. She has been featured on NBC’s Today, USA Today, National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal, Essence magazine, Fast Company, the Washington Post, and more.

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