“In some ways, we’ve made progress with DEI initiatives, but in other ways, we’ve actually slid backward,” says Blanchard DEI practice leader, April Hennessey.
“There's a great deal more visibility. More conversations are happening around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Organisations are investing in courses—and that’s important. But we've started to see another trend with organisations that have had to downsize: some of the first jobs to go are DEI or HR-related.
“It’s coming from a business perspective,” says Hennessey. “Initiatives that are not immediately revenue producing, or tied to client work, are seen as expendable.
“When it comes time to make cuts, those cuts are often made somewhat indiscriminately using a ‘last hired, first fired’ way of thinking. On the surface it seems fair, but if all recent hiring has been done with diversity initiatives in mind, guess who is the first to be fired?”
That’s short-sighted, says Hennessey. She recommends that organisations look at integrating DEI initiatives more fully into the fabric of the company.
“DEI doesn’t belong solely to one position, team, or course. It has to be an all-inclusive strategy that is integrated into everything you do and all decisions you make. Leadership needs to internalise and embrace diversity and inclusion so that, when they're making decisions, this is one of the things that is constantly on their radar.”
As a way to measure shifts and changes in the work environment, Hennessey points to a model used in The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Courageous Inclusion™ program. The model features a continuum where organisations and individuals can evaluate as they move across four stages—from Unaware, to Aware, to Active, to Advocate.
“I think a lot of organisations have moved from Unaware to Aware. They understand there's a problem and they understand there's work to be done. But when those same initiatives are cut—or those departments are reduced—it’s very clear that moving into the Active or Advocate stage hasn't quite happened yet.”
For organisations wondering how they can make progress with their current DEI initiatives, Hennessey offers a few places to begin.
“First, take a look at your representation at all levels in the organsation. Often, you’ll find that diversity is heavy across the bottom levels—but as you move to the upper tiers, things begin to look very homogenous.
“Or maybe you see that across top levels of leadership, one person represents this group, and one person represents that group. Many times, those people are in specific roles—a person of color in a DEI role, a person from a marginalised population as head of ERG (Employee Resource Group) formation, and so on. Those staffing decisions are examples of tokenism rather than true representation. So, start with a quick scan. What does your organisation look like when people click on the website or when they look at the org chart?
“Next, you might do a scan of clients. Do they all look the same? Are you targeting your marketing to a specific section of the broader market? Who isn’t knocking on your door and why? This can lead to questions like What are we doing to attract only this kind of client? What aren't we doing to attract all the others?
“Internal employee surveys are another great tool. Make them anonymous. How do people really feel about inclusivity and belonging? Do they feel like they’re being tokenised? Do you find yourself asking ‘Can you be our Asian representative?’ ‘Can you be our Black representative?’ ‘Can you be our LGBTQ+ representative?’ Organisations ask these questions when levels of representation are low. When your organisation is integrated and inclusive, you should have a large enough population of diverse individuals who feel safe being featured that you can do a general callout for support.”
When it comes to taking action, Hennessey recognises it can take time, but says we have to get started and keep moving.
“Start from a personal standpoint. Ask yourself Who am I comfortable talking with and who am I not as comfortable with? We talk to people we feel we know and understand. We have to get uncomfortable. If we always feel comfortable, we’re likely not doing the work.
“As an organisation, that discomfort might look like a lack of alignment. Maybe we don't quite know where we're headed. Maybe it is going to require redefining what we want as an organisation—what we want to look like—and having a clear plan or purpose-driven statement. What images, language, and tone do we want to use to represent our business?”
It also requires a hard look at business practices, says Hennessey.
“Are our practices reflective of who we want to be as an organisation? When we think about budget cuts or reduction in force decisions, how are we making those decisions? Is a last-hired, first-fired mandate going to affect how we look and function as a diverse organisation? Homogenous teams lead to homogenous thinking. We know—because the data tells us—that’s a detriment to the culture of an organisation and to the bottom line.”
So what do we do? Hennessey recommends that organisational leaders think about redefining what success looks like. “Maybe we restructure what our teams look like and what our departments look like so that we don't undermine the progress we’ve made. We might have to hire in new ways, through new avenues that we haven't considered before. Who do we appeal to and how do we begin appealing to a larger audience? How do we shift that image and really mark out some kind of plan?”
Reaching out in new ways might feel uncomfortable, says Hennessey, but awareness just isn't enough.
“Changing systems and changing organisations is big work. It doesn't happen overnight. It probably doesn't even happen in a year. But the time to sit on the fence is over. You've got to get off the fence, put both feet on one side, and start moving.”
About the author:
David Witt is a Program Director for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.