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Is Fear a Barrier to Inclusion & Belonging? Why Companies Balk at Action

DEIB programs are surging across the American workplace. Why are some employers still not taking action?

Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, and Belonging (DEIB) initiatives (think: diverse hiring practices, employee resource groups, and inclusivity training programs) aren’t just good practice — the data shows companies that practice DEIB outperform financially, innovate more, and have higher customer trust and employee retention rates. Perhaps that’s why focus on DEIB programs is surging across the American workplace.

That’s not to say that every DEIB initiative rollout is good — there’s plenty of bad and ugly, too. Take Starbucks’ decision in summer 2020 to ban its employees from wearing Black Lives Matters paraphernalia, despite a commitment on Twitter to support the BLM movement and be “a part of change” — a 180 that one Barista told Buzzfeed news was “disappointing in ways I cannot express in words.” It’s not just multi-billion dollar corporations, either. In spring 2021, students at Kansas University reacted with anger after a department shakeup supposedly intended to improve DEIB initiatives ended with the termination of two employees, both of whom are black. In short: a poorly executed DEIB initiative can backfire, perpetuating racism and undermining employees’ faith in a company.

Why is successfully implementing DEIB programs so hard for so many organizations? In short, it takes real commitment to the DEIB values, and a refusal to bend to fear that the full implementation of those values will “offend” customers or employees, or hurt the business. Real DEIB is not about lip service, but real, quantifiable action. That action can highly benefit your business — and now more than ever, it’s a vital starting point. “Employees care about DEIB,” says Leesa Hill, senior director and head of DEIB at Enspira HR. “If you aren’t prioritizing it as an organization, you’re losing out on top talent that’s newer to the workforce, who won't come work for you.”

Why Some Companies Fear DEIB

Some companies are forced into DEIB initiatives (say, after a public controversy), and some simply want to do the right thing. Either way, it’s important for leadership to be committed for the right reasons. That’s because, says Rebecca Harris, Enspira HR’s director of human capital, DEIB initiatives do carry some risk of blowback. Companies without leaders committed to DEIB are less willing to be bold and take the risks required in successful initiatives. “The companies that don’t implement DEIB programs well are worried — they don’t want to ruffle feathers, or upset people,” Harris says.

If leadership knows why they’re committed to DEIB, they’re ready for any blowback. DEIB initiatives are not about making everyone happy, says Hill. “Some folks will say, ‘Why even do it if some people in our organization don’t agree with it?’ Or, ‘I’m afraid we’re going to lose some employees who don't think we should be talking about DEIB in the workplace.’” Perhaps they’re afraid of losing customers after taking a “controversial” stance. 

But this is not the correct approach to DEIB. “Well, why not flip that coin over?” Hill says. “What about the people you could be losing because you’re not talking about this in the workplace?”

Conquering that fear is often step one in a successful DEIB implementation. “People are so afraid of saying and doing the wrong thing that they do nothing,” says Hill. “The silence is complacency, and it is complicit.”

The Secret Sauce, and Quick and Long Wins

The secret sauce for any successful DEIB program has two main ingredients: DEIB must be authentic, and it must be embedded. Authenticity spurns fear; an embedded initiative means both leadership and employees have skin in the game.

But where to go from there? Successful managers break goals into two categories: quick wins and long wins.

Quick wins are vital. “Building the foundation of DEIB programs, especially in large companies, takes a lot of time — it’s like steering a huge ship,” says Harris. Often, Enspira HR’s first move is to parse the data an organization already has on its diversity. Examining a company’s diversity — what percentage of your employees are based globally? What percentage of your employees are people of color? — helps set reasonable goals.

It’s equally important to understand what sort of inclusion programs are already in place. If, for instance, a company already has great parental leave benefits, that’s a terrific starting point. Are men taking parental leave as often as women? Building out such programs can be a solid first step. You’re already ahead of the game.

Most DEIB programs take much longer to bear fruit, though. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says Harris. That’s why we build strategic roadmaps to give companies a one- to two-year guide on how to embed DEIB into all facets of their work. “At the end of the day, companies have to listen to their employees and be willing to center the employee experience. You’re working with managers, HR, learning and development teams, everyone. You’re deciding how to evaluate performance, deciding on a philosophy. And you’ve got a lot of different stakeholders involved,” Harris says. “As a result, it’s going to take longer. But it is worth the investment, because it’s going to have a ripple effect through the organization.”

Common Mistakes and Their Fixes

A fearful approach to DEIB manifests itself in different ways. Here are several real-world examples of common mistakes and their fixes.

  • “Diversity is going to solve for itself.” A number of executives have spouted this line, spinning Gen Z’s “open-mindedness” and greater racial/ethnic diversity as an easy fix for their companies. But hiring a diverse group of young employees and interns is not a diversity fix. “I call BS,” says Harris. “When someone says this, they’re saying it's a problem they don't want to deal with. It’s an excuse — the executive is simply not interested in doing the work.” Besides, the impetus for proper DEIB programs comes from the top (executives), not the bottom (young interns); hiring interns will not solve for limited diversity at the manager and leadership levels of the organization. 
  • Not putting your money where your mouth is. “I’ve seen plenty of organizations say DEIB initiatives are important — and then not put financial and human resources behind this claim, or be willing to listen to their employees' concerns,” says Harris. Then, when a program fails and its DEIB point people leave the company, executives use this as an excuse: Well, we tried. Budget prioritization is crucial. Need some ideas on how to spend that money? How about investing in your underrepresented talent via leadership programs, or finding an external partner that can help with future hires, or a corporate social responsibility initiative? Remember, a good DEIB initiative invests in employees and partnerships across the board.
  • Burying DEIB in HR. All too often, DEIB efforts are shoveled off to HR, where they disappear into the background noise. “DEIB is everyone’s responsibility. Make sure your DEIB point person is in a position to influence the leadership team,” Harris says. DEIB initiatives should report directly to the executive team, ensuring they have the clout necessary to embed authentic programs in your company. Only then can diversity, equity, inclusivity and belonging become a true — and effective — part of your company.

Leesa (she/her) has 25 years of experience in the Human Resources industry with deep expertise in the areas of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB), and Learning and Development. Prior to Enspira, she worked in human resource roles at Biogen, Pfizer and Kforce Inc. She has a proven track record of creating and implementing successful DEIB strategies in a variety of organizational settings which includes a pace setting women on boards program, fit-for-purpose strategic roadmaps, launching and leveraging Employee Resource Groups/Networks and Diversity Councils, creating and leading a years long DEIB-focused community of practice and being an active member of the HR D+I Council. Leesa has a Certificate in Diversity & Inclusion for HR from Cornell’s ILR School, is certified in the ED&I 360 & Inclusive Behavior Inventory Assessment and earned her BFA in Dance from Shenandoah Conservatory. She was also recognized on Mogul’s list of the “Top 100 DEIB Leaders in 2022.” Leesa actively mentors women from underrepresented groups who are passionate in the space of DEIB.

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