I have been in the field of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) before there was such a thing. My career began in the 90’s, just as diversity training was really taking off, and then center stage came the backlash against Affirmative Action. As a new field but with a piecemeal approach to its evolution, EDI it’s still coming into its own. A good number of people in the field today fall into one of two categories: 1) started their career in Human Resources and followed a generalist or diversity-specializing (often compliance or recruitment) path, or 2) a large consulting firm “expanded” their offerings to include EDI services. In both cases, EDI has often been “added on” as a totally separate area of specialization and led by practitioners with specific skills that have been, to date, largely shaping how EDI is currently pursued in organizations.
I don’t come from either of the aforementioned career paths. My fields of study are culture and systems, particularly how they are formed and change and how power and oppression interact with them. These are the lenses through which I see the world and approach my work–and our work at DeEtta Jones and Associates.
My lenses coupled with decades of hands-on work have led me to one solid belief: If what we are doing, the way we are doing it, was going to work, it would have worked by now.I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to build, but we also need to consider why so many of our efforts have left us unsatisfied, in many cases chasing only meager gains.
“I skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” - Wayne Gretzy
There is no shortage of writing, research, opinion pieces, and best practices on how to “do” diversity. In my opinion, the vast majority of these ideas are built on the same shaky foundation we’ve been on for years. Imagine being in love with a person who has always seen you as just a friend. They come to you with their secret wishes, consolation during hardship, and to celebrate big and small achievements alike. You adore each other, but they have never reciprocated your feelings. Love may be present on both sides, but the ability to pursue a mutually satisfying relationship is limited, to say the least. An intervention is needed, particularly with your mental model about the nature of the relationship and expectations for it. Such is the case for the relationship between most organizations and EDI. Our mental models about what it is, how to approach it, and what a satisfying relationship will entail must shift toward more contemporary best practices.
I believe there are at least 5 contemporary best practices that should be pursued in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) work–and am eager to explore others’ interpretations and additions to these. This list does not include “typical” or “currently most common” practices. In fact, nothing on this list reflects common practice today, unfortunately. The hope is to surface conversation with like-minded people and forge a path toward meaningful interventions and alternative pathways for pursuing and measuring EDI.1. EDI is Driven by the C-Suite, Not HR
The precarious relationship between HR and EDI is an awkward coupling, based on faulty assumptions, that has exhausted HR functions and limited the potential of EDI to truly flourish. Try as I might to explain my perspective, I often offend HR practitioners who care deeply – and have invested mightily in bringing EDI programming to their organizations. Or C-Suite executives assume the only other course of action is to hire a Chief Diversity Officer, office of one, who is expected to perform miracles with often inadequate power, resources, or organizational positioning. Or Diversity Committees are appointed with an HR person as a liaison and spiral down under the burden of ambiguous and unachievable expectations. These groups often don’t have enough information to diagnose where the problem lies nor have enough authority to fix it even with a correct diagnosis.
Over the years, EDI and HR have so completely intertwined in people’s minds that willingness to consider them as incredibly distinct from each other is even unpalatable by most. In my opinion, EDI housed within the function of HR is one of the most limiting of all factors associated with contemporary efforts.
Alternatively, EDI can and should be “owned” by the C-Suite. This is the seat of comprehensive perspective, resource allocation, and accountability–to employees, shareholders, and customers. From this position, HR has a meaningful contribution to EDI efforts but is not saddled with misguided expectations for holding accountable business unit leaders or shirk personal responsibility because it is “HR’s job”. Perhaps even more importantly, EDI owned by the C-Suite moves it beyond its typical lop-sided internal focus; pushing thinking and strategic action that embeds EDI in the core work of the organization–product and service innovation, impact on customer experience, and organizational brand and reputation. And especially beyond the office of one.
2. EDI Drives Business Objectives, Not Organizational Culture
There are mounds of research that make the case for EDI as business objectives:
- Greater gender, racial and ethnic diversity leads are directly correlated with profitability, creativity and innovation.
- Inclusive businesses are 1.7 times more likely to be innovative.
- Gender diversity is directly correlated with profitability and value creation.
- Managing your organization’s brand and reputation is best done through the lenses of diversity and intercultural competence.
- Companies with above-average total diversity…had both 19% points higher innovation revenues and 9% points higher EBIT margins.
Even with all this data that focuses on product innovation, reputation, and profitability, much of the focus of EDI effort is on measuring organizational culture. Yes, a healthy, inclusive, and equitable organization will positively impact the presence of innovation, positive reputation, and profitability, but the focus and resourcing of EDI must be coordinated in such a way that the business objectives stay centered. Without this, what has always happened will surely happen again–EDI efforts will be relegated to “employee programs”, funded through HR, and the first (or top 3, at best) areas to get “trimmed down” as political sentiments shift or during an economic downturn.
3. EDI is Horizontal, not Vertical
Are you noticing EDI and mycelium everywhere? They are both so “in style” right now. I love it, and I can’t help but be profoundly impacted by the connection between them. In my mind, they are the same–connecting all things together, ever present even if not always visible, able to surface trauma and bring about healing, and often misunderstood. They are a life force, not relegated to the narrow boxes within which they have been placed by some.
Have you ever seen mushrooms growing straight up and down of their own accord? Nope. You know why? Because it's not in their nature to be arbitrarily confined. EDI is the same. It should permeate organizational strategy, structure, and culture. Accomplishing this means that EDI stops being treated as a vertical and instead, is embedded horizontally – across all facets of the organization. EDI in how client data is gathered. EDI in how HR IT systems are built. How physical and virtual spaces are configured. How leaders are promoted. How managers are rewarded. How impact is measured. How products are designed.
4. EDI Measures are Co-Created, not Counting Butts in Seats
“According to the research…” When people begin sentences like this, I assume they are trying to establish credibility for what they are about to say. What is often missing is the context for people who have been on the wrong side of “objective research” or who have been “researched” without having input on the questions, even the formation of the problem statement being studied. African Americans, for example, are significantly less likely to trust or feel comforted by popular approaches to research, and as an extension, the initiatives born from it. According to a 2015 study published by the National Institutes of Health: Several factors that affect the participation of African Americans in studies have been identified, including elements of study design…Mistrust of academic and research institutions and investigators is the most significant attitudinal barrier to research participation…Its etiology stems from historic events, but is also exacerbated by more current actions, including socioeconomic and healthcare system inequities.
Remember my earlier point: If what we are doing, the way we are doing it, was going to work, it would have worked by now. Many attempts at EDI measures use the same approach and stem from the same flawed foundation. What to measure is decided by people who are coming with compliance or recruitment-only lenses or by large consulting houses, asking questions about the number of people who check this box or can–oh, lucky day!–fit into multiple boxes on a checklist.
A lot of measurement effort is also going toward counting small numbers of small gains in recruitment, retention, and program attendance. These measures can and should continue, but ask anyone in HR, these numbers just don’t change quickly or dramatically. Take the U.S. Black population as an example. According to Investopedia, although Black people make up about 13.4% of the U.S. population, only six were CEOs of S&P 500 and Fortune 500 companies in 2021, up from five in 2020. In fact, the annual number of Black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies has remained so stagnant, that it has oscillated between four and seven CEOs total in the past 18 years.
A contemporary best practice approach to measuring EDI will focus on a) impact not performance which requires b) the input of those being impacted from the beginning. Impact measures are those that are mutually beneficial to the target populations (customers, employees, board, etc. and then more specific demographics) and to the organization (brand, reputation, market penetration, etc.).
5. EDI is led by formal and named leaders and managers, not volunteer employee groups
I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with well-intentioned leaders who have “empowered” individuals or groups to lead the organization’s EDI efforts. When I ask, “What do you want them to accomplish?” The list includes everything from defining EDI to designing and implementing recruitment and retention programs–that actually result in more BIPOC, for example, hires. Really? Since when do employees, some of them with very little professional experience or organizational power, have the ability to influence hiring or promotion decisions?
Voluntary employee groups (aka employee or business resource groups [ERGs/BRGs]) are their own MAJOR opportunity for transformation within organizations, which I will leave for another post.
If EDI is to be accepted as a business objective, then it must be handled like all other business objectives. It must be prioritized, resourced, and empowered, with accountability for success resting with those that have the ability to leverage their power and influence, shape strategy, and make important decisions.
For C-level leaders who want to align your organization with the EDI Contemporary Best Practices outlined here, stay tuned for my upcoming post where I describe the 3 Big Rocks of Your EDI Effort.
Learn ways to make EDI a business objective in our signature course, the Inclusive Manager’s Toolkit. This course is specifically designed to help managers avoid the prevailing trap of treating EDI as “in addition” to one’s core duties, and instead integrates them in practical ways into the critical path of a manager’s day-to-day expectations.