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The key question leaders are asking is: Does diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training work?
The answer is not a simple “yes” or “no.” It depends on how the work is being positioned inside the organization.
- Is it intentional?
- Is it consistent?
- Is it fully supported by senior leadership?
DEI is ineffective when it is forced, the progress isn’t measured and it is not supported by senior leadership. However, when the commitment is intentional and consistent by leadership and measured over time, organizations experience results. They see higher rates of innovation, improved decision making and higher profitability than their industry peers.
When DEI work fluctuates with the news cycle or DEI training is done as a check-the-box one-time approach, it can do more harm than good. DEI is not a short-term endeavor. Organizations that are proactive with DEI, weaving it into their strategy, addressing systemic issues and measuring outcomes see better results over time.
Let’s compare the different approaches of two organizations that launched DEI initiatives.
Organization A: Reactive
Reacting to events in the news cycle, they immediately sprang into action. Although timely, they overshadowed their efforts by making bold statements and donations to charitable causes aligned with newsworthy topics. The quick response and unclear messaging confused employees about why, suddenly, they were being forced to participate in DEI training and for what purpose.
Organization A’s initiative backfired because the employees sensed that the organization was performing an empty, “check-the-box” initiative to tout that they were promoting DEI; without the intention to actually create an equitable workplace culture. They didn’t have the organizational baseline data necessary to build a strategic plan and measure the impact over time. Naturally, events in the news cycle faded — and so did the organization’s efforts. This led to a decrease in employee engagement and, unfortunately, resistance from employees to participate in future DEI endeavors.
Organization B: Proactive
In this case, members of the leadership team were intentional with their efforts. They surveyed the entire organization to uncover current perceptions of DEI (established a baseline), utilized a dashboard to measure impact over time, conducted listening sessions to garner support, and used all collected data to inform their initiatives. Organization B then built a strategic DEI communication program that featured consistent, “bite-sized” communications and monthly touchpoints for managers. Their outcome was successful and led to an increase, year over year, in DEI metrics, higher retention and promotion rates of employees in marginalized groups.
From both case studies, reactive and proactive, we can surmise that reactive responses to news cycles or haphazardly assembled, performative initiatives designed to create an outward appearance of an organization being DEI compliant, fail to land and create further division, confusion and frustration with employees. Proactive planning and organizational leadership that presents a consistent and united front with their messaging are necessary for a successful DEI initiative.
How to be proactive
1. Be intentional
DEI training needs to be tied to the overall strategy and embedded in the organizational culture. A strong DEI strategy answers what it means at our organization and why it matters here, now and ongoing. Get a baseline assessment of where you are at on the DEI journey and utilize the feedback to draft a mission statement that will drive the common purpose within the entire organization.
2. Be consistent
Once a clear mission statement has been crafted it should be prominent in every communication about DEI. By including it in all DEI-related communications over time, employees that may be skeptical or may not see the value in DEI will start to see how it shapes the employee experience. Often, the smaller bite-sized communications can meet people where they are at and build momentum for addressing systemic issues like pay equity and bias in hiring and performance processes.
3. Gain full leadership support
When leading DEI work, encourage everyone to fully participate on a consistent basis, especially senior leadership. Make participation highly encouraged or expected so that people feel psychologically safe joining and not forced. Involve folks in the process to gain buy-in early and often.
Leadership should be clear, consistent, and united in their communications regarding DEI. Employees should have a crystal-clear understanding of the importance of the DEI initiative to the organization, what is expected of them, and why their participation is essential. The clarity in this message will also be a deterrent to anyone adamantly opposed to participating in DEI, as there is no room for dissension when the purpose is clear.
DEI training does work when it is intentional, consistent and fully supported by senior leadership. Yet, when it is reactive, and only done opportunistically as a part of the news cycle, it can be detrimental. Leadership that is proactive with DEI work wins over time.