We all know DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is a must-have in today’s world, but as businesses and school districts of all shapes and sizes attempt to respond to recent world events and global trends, there are many considerations to factor in when planning and deciding on taking action. In their DEI intent, many leaders and organizations are too reactionary and unprepared to institute sustained change within their organizations versus just doing a DEI workshop, bringing in a speaker that checks certain boxes or appeases certain people.
In their effort at becoming relevant and being accountable, many organizations are creating DEI committees, task forces, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), and Diversity Councils but are unaware of the challenges facing these initiatives. Here are 8 pitfalls & challenges to look out for in your organization’s DEI efforts.
1Sustainability. The value of and commitment to DEI work must be communicated by top leadership and built into an organization’s long-term plan for it to truly make a difference. For example, the strategic plan, mission statement, organizational values, and policies and procedures should all include various aspects relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sustaining a long-term, successful DEI focus also requires setting aside time and resources for DEI personnel (recruitment, promotion, pay, etc.) in the organization’s short- and long-term budgets. Finally, how are DEI goals shared and monitored, and what accountability measures are in place to ensure they are enacted?
2Pushback. It may come as a surprise, but pushback on organizational DEI efforts may come from all sides! Those who are comfortable as things are may push back about the need for change, wanting things to stay as they are. Those who would benefit most from DEI initiatives may bring up complaints about the speed of change being too slow. Being in the middle of these conflicts as a DEI leader or committee can make the work seem overly challenging or frustrating. Involve stakeholders in the DEI planning process for the sake of informing them, including them, and getting them to buy into the initiatives before they take place. Solicit 360 degree feedback during the implementation process in a manner that the feedback can be discussed and addressed as a whole, so that your team isn’t reacting to each instance of pushback on its own. Understanding that pushback will come from all sides will help keep the team and the work steady and moving forward when it does happen.
3DEI as a sidebar rather than central to workplace culture. What we’ve seen in the last couple of decades and especially in the last year is a dramatic increase in the focus on DEI efforts. This is important — however, this almost always means that DEI concerns were not built into the foundation and structure of the organization, and that the institutional memory of the organization is not trained to incorporate DEI into its most central identity and operations. What would it look like — and what would it take — to move DEI from a sidebar conversation to a central priority within your organization?
4Privilege, power, and blind spots. No matter how many people make up a DEI committee or task force, the truth is that there is always someone who won’t be represented in this group. DEI leaders must take frequent stock of their privilege, power, and blind spots and seek out ways to gather information about experiences outside of their own. For example, a queer white woman may do a great job considering the needs of female and LGBTQ+ colleagues, but may fail to fully address DEI efforts towards equity for colleagues of color. Constant evaluation and recalibration can prevent these blind spots from hampering your DEI efforts. Consider — does leadership engage staff, especially those historically marginalized, in giving input for funding equity priorities?
5Checking boxes. DEI efforts focused solely on increasing diversity are doomed from the start. If the hope is only to check boxes — e.g. making sure to hire someone from each marginalized group — your organization may achieve diversity on paper but will likely fail to retain diverse employees and will almost certainly fail to create a culture of equity and inclusion. Your organization needs to identify the need for DEI and communicate its value to the organization and its stakeholders. Leadership needs to communicate its commitment to doing the work — not only in the words spoken about what they believe in, but more importantly, in the substantive actions to which they’re committing.
6Lacking time & resources. DEI efforts are often under-resourced. If the work is not part of job descriptions and employees are not allocated time to do this work it can lead to burnout and frustration among employees who, more often than not, contribute to DEI committees and task forces in addition to their regular work. Before jumping into a taxing DEI plan that will strain time and resources, carefully consider who and what is needed for that plan to become a success. For example, should an outside consultant be hired instead of counting on internal employees to lead the initiative? Do employees need to be alleviated of other tasks so that they can contribute to these efforts? What funding should be set aside for all-staff training or coaching?
7Relying on POC to lead efforts. Often, people with privilege and power — such as cisgendered, heterosexual White male executives or others who hold privileged identities, who likely have had no reason to consider DEI for most of their lives — may feel that their voices are heard too often or that they are too uninformed about DEI work, and thus — even with good intentions — will turn to and rely on people of color to lead such efforts. This can lead to burnout, resentment, and an even greater sense of lack of equity among the workforce. Of course, people of color and other historically marginalized groups should have central voices in DEI conversations — but the responsibility must lie with the organization’s leadership and not assumed to be with those who have already struggled with inequity and exclusion.
8Confusion. Several other areas of confusion, stress, and disillusionment can get in the way of the best DEI efforts, and though they can’t all be avoided, they should be anticipated and dealt with accordingly. Sometimes competing internal interests can slow the best-intentioned DEI efforts. Variations on feelings that organizations are too “woke,” feelings of DEI fatigue, or, on the other hand, people being re-traumatized by past experiences with oppression when DEI work is introduced can illuminate the underlying disunity in an organization. You might expect feelings of distrust in the organization’s commitment, and doubts that the organizations or individuals are qualified to do the work they’re attempting. At the same time, some may push off important internal work to an external consultant. Finally, leadership may want to do something but may find themselves at a loss for what to do and how to do it, leading to more frustration.
There are always unforeseen challenges that must be addressed and navigated as they come up, but we hope these ideas will help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls of DEI work and lead to successful and sustainable changes in your organization.