Studies by the World Economic Council confirm that equitable and inclusive practices in the workplace result in higher profitability, increased innovation, and greater employee engagement than those that disregard the issues. Decidedly, creating a diverse workforce where all employees feel they belong and can perform at their best is no small feat. It takes a commitment to change. The first step should be to discern myth from reality when it comes to the efforts needed to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within an organization.
The first step should be to discern myth from reality when it comes to the efforts needed to address diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within an organization.
When embarking on the DEI journey, attention must focus on unwrapping and revealing previously unacknowledged expectations and assumptions. Addressing DEI meaningfully and effectively may implicate individuals and longstanding structures within which people have operated for years.
8 Myths of Workplace DEI Initiatives
To begin tackling the longstanding structures and underlying assumptions, first debunk the myths that prevent DEI initiatives from becoming successful.
Myth #1: Bringing diverse people into an organization over those from the dominant culture amounts to a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers.
Reality: Equating an intention to hire more diverse staff with reverse discrimination promotes the status quo. Organizations need to consider the end game: what they want to achieve in the community or society at large. If the intention is, for example, to place people of color in leadership positions, white managers may feel unfairly excluded. But in reality, such action empowers those who have been sidelined for so long while elevating their reputation.
Myth #2: Our mission is to improve opportunities for marginalized groups, so we are reaching some diverse people and communities.
Reality: This assumption reflects the “if we build it, they will come” mentality and often precludes taking intentional and systematic steps within the organization to gather and analyze data about who is being served relative to demographic data about who lives in the targeted communities. This myth might acknowledge service to one marginalized group without taking into account other types of diversity.
Myth #3: Our organization works within an area that is not diverse. We’re predominantly white, so why is this relevant?
Reality: This line of thinking ignores data about the changing demographics of almost all geographies, which indicates increasing racial/ethnic diversity. It also overlooks other types of diversity, such as age, gender identity, sexual orientation, faith/religious beliefs, ability/disability status, and socioeconomic status, among others. This assumption fails to acknowledge the inherent value of diverse perspectives.
Myth #4: The leaders (including board and executive staff members) of our organization are well meaning and not biased.
Reality: Although many well-meaning people think they are not biased, all people have implicit bias we aren’t aware of on a conscious level; by definition, it’s unconscious. While it’s a good start to mean well, if that’s where the commitment begins and ends, it’s highly likely that the organization isn’t diverse, equitable, or inclusive in its work. Addressing DEI requires intentionality. Without it, business as usual will reflect structural and systemic inequities.
Myth #5: Our organization has been fulfilling its mission and has never been accused of discrimination, bias, or not being welcoming or accessible. It hasn’t been a problem for us.
Reality: Often, people of diverse backgrounds and experiences don’t attempt to avail themselves of services by organizations that aren’t actively taking steps to welcome and include them. Diverse groups don’t see themselves reflected, so they’re less likely to consider connecting with the organization. An organization may believe it’s not experiencing a problem because entire groups of potential audiences aren’t interested in getting to know what it has to offer.
Myth #6: Our organization would like to have more diverse leadership (board and staff), but we live in a white area, and it’s impossible to recruit people of color to fill these positions.
Reality: This assumes that diversity is only about race and ethnicity. Your area has diversity of all types, including racial/ethnic, gender and sexual orientation, age, disability status, geographic location, and income level, among others. Also, this assumes you can recruit only from the area in which you live. It’s likely that organizations in your area have a pipeline of leaders with diverse backgrounds and are eager to refer them to organizations seeking to attract people to leadership positions.
Myth #7: Hiring a black/indigenous person of color (BIPOC) leader will solve DEI issues within our organization.
Reality: One person cannot and should not be expected to address DEI in an organization unless that person is the DEI director. Even with a DEI director, the entire leadership team must drive and share ownership for DEI in the organization. Leadership, direction, and support are required at all levels of an organization that seeks to address DEI as part of its mission-driven work.
Myth #8: DEI is expensive. We do not have the resources to address it.
Reality: The organizational cost not to address DEI includes lost quality, lost customers, lost creativity and ingenuity, and lost opportunities to engage with a wider range of communities. There also are several steps organizations can take that require little or no cost. For example, examining and then changing policies and procedures within the organization to be more centered on equity would be a worthwhile investment.
Going Beyond the Assumptions
Importantly, developing a DEI program across an organization will result in improved organizational performance that will drive innovation and keep the company relevant over time. What’s more, when an organization shows by its actions that it values DEI, it will attract new, loyal customers. Don’t let myths and assumptions hijack the critical work that will create needed change.
James T. McKim, PMP, ITIL, is founder and managing partner at Organizational Ignition, where he and his team help organizations spark efficiency through aligning people, processes, and technology. He’s a sought-after speaker, coach, change manager, and conference presenter and is frequently interviewed by the media on organizational performance through diversity. His new book is The Diversity Factor: Igniting Superior Organizational Performance (EPIC Author Publishing, March 1, 2022). Learn more at organizationalignition.com.