Diversity & Inclusion

DEI Isn’t About Taking Away from Anyone—It’s About More for Everyone

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs are not new but the vitriol around them seems to be gaining steam in certain circles, with some even calling for DEI to be completely eradicated. Research has shown that DEI, when done well, leads to many positive outcomes for organizations while the lack of it has many undesirable effects. Given this is the case, it would be very unfortunate for organizations to buckle under the pressure of the current backlash and forgo DEI efforts entirely (as some have been doing). It’s also worth asking if the backlash against DEI is really against DEI or just a faulty perception or execution of it. My feeling is that it’s a fair amount of the latter. Therefore by clarifying what DEI is really about and approaching it correctly, organizations can reap its many research-backed benefits while avoiding common mistakes and problems.

As suggested, perhaps the issue is a simple misunderstanding because people aren’t on the same page in terms of what DEI really means. Let’s break down each word of the acronym: diversity, equity, and inclusion. To clarify, diversity is not simply about gender, race, or other categories of personal identity. It is about ensuring that the workplace includes individuals with various backgrounds, experiences, and abilities. Equity is creating policies, practices, and procedures that lead to everyone being treated fairly; which does not mean that everyone is treated the same because individuals have different situations, needs, and barriers that may be hindering them from fulfilling their potential. Inclusion is embracing all employees and ensuring that they are able to make meaningful contributions.

With this as the baseline definition the negative response seems surprising. There are many arguments being made against DEI: claims that it is reverse racism, that there are unappealing political motivations behind it, or that it is “identity politics.” As a business ethics professor, I find these arguments morally distasteful but also bad for business. Morally, there were and are structural systems in place that have systematically marginalized particular groups of people. DEI is not a magical fix for any of this but it is a step in the right direction. From a business perspective, if continuing to make money is important for your company then personal feelings about DEI are irrelevant. Research shows that when organizations do better at DEI they do better overall: retention rates are higher, their profits increase, they are more nimble, consumers are happy, employees are happy. Additionally, DEI programs help organizations retool their hiring practices, policies, and culture. They bring in new perspectives, ideas, and approaches to problem solving. DEI programs also help organizations reflect the diversity of the world around them making them better equipped to meet the needs of all of their stakeholders. This is all good for business!

A Tough Conversation

Maybe some of the hesitation and pushback is due to discomfort because talking about DEI can be challenging. Some people don’t feel like they are able to contribute to the discussion because they do not have a lived experience that reflects a need for DEI programs. Others may become defensive because they feel like the DEI efforts are somehow going to disadvantage them. Either way, personalizing an organizational issue isn’t a good enough reason to ignore the benefits of DEI. Maybe more programs don’t exist because it’s a daunting task without a clear starting point. If that is the case, there are some things you can do.

The best place to start is by doing an audit of your organization. For this, you need to look at the organization’s DEI data. If this information doesn’t exist then your very first step should be to begin collecting it immediately. It’s not possible to do DEI well without knowing the baseline. Data is crucial to understanding your DEI and plenty of information and resources exist for organizations that may not know how to go about collecting such data.

Once you have your data, inspect how you operate in terms of each category of DEI by asking the following questions. Throughout this process, try to put aside any personal feelings or opinions about DEI and remember that it is in the objectively best interests of your organization and business to answer the following questions as honestly as possible:

Diversity: Which backgrounds, identities, perspectives are represented? Which are not? Why not?

Inclusion: Do employees see their own experiences, as well as others’ represented? Are marginalized groups’ strengths and assets shown? Are there accurate and affirming representations?

Equity: Who can engage fully with the organization and its resources? Partially? Not at all?  What are the benefits the organization offers? Who must take on additional burdens to access the benefits?

The questions above were developed by Lauren Porosoff and shared by the Center for Educational Excellence at the University of San Diego. Though intended for a higher education setting, they are just as relevant in business contexts. Doing an audit using questions like these is an opportunity to really observe what is happening in the organization and to understand where changes can be made. It is not a call to change everything at once but  to recognize areas for improvement and serve as a starting point.

Next, a critically important point to remember is that DEI can’t be solely driven from the top-down because, unfortunately, the top is where there is often the least diversity, even in organizations that otherwise appear to be diverse. Instead, employees from across the organization should be involved. This does not mean employees from historically marginalized groups should be leading these efforts (though they should certainly be part of the decision making). Putting the burden of fixing a problem on the shoulders of people who did not create it is not ideal. Instead, ask for volunteers. Every organization has people who truly care about making their workplaces better for everyone so harness their goodness to make positive change.

The Bottom Line

In a perfect world, organizations would implement DEI simply because it’s the right thing to do, but we are not living in a perfect world. We are operating among some loud voices railing against DEI, but their volume is an attempt to distract. The good news is that there are enough individuals who want their organizations to do better for everyone and there are companies doing amazing DEI work.

Better DEI means better workplaces for everyone. Improving DEI efforts doesn’t have to take away from somewhere else in the organization because organizations aren’t like pies where giving someone a fair share means someone else won’t get theirs. There’s more than enough for everyone.

Tara Ceranic Salinas, department chair of management, law, and ethics and professor of business ethics at the Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *