When was the last time your organization engaged in honest reflection about its commitment to DEI work? Chances are the answer is either ‘recently’ or ‘never.’ For many organizations, honest reflection on their commitment to DEI is an afterthought or avoided at all cost. However, being honest and upfront about what it truly takes to be successful and the limitations of an organization can often transform the entire organization, including its human capital, messaging, and outreach initiatives.
A common method of engaging your organization in honest reflection is through a DEI audit, which serves as a deep dive into the company’s engagement survey data, policies, marketing, processes, and partnerships. Oftentimes, auditing an entire organization can feel like an overwhelming task, but this can largely be due to the fact that the organization conducting the audit has yet to identify the root of their advocacy or DEI issue – including a total lack of DEI – and whether that issue is related to an organization’s cultural, financial, or philosophical structure.
That’s why we’ve asked Cornell Woodson the steps he believes organizations should take to conduct a wholly-inclusive and accurate DEI audit. Woodson is the founder of Brave Trainings LLC and Director of DEI at Headspace.
“I’ve led and consulted on DEI initiatives in various industries, such as higher ed, tech, music/entertainment, non-profit, and now health & wellness,” says Woodson, “when it comes to DEI work, I think there are three barriers to success: a lack of accountability, a lack of intersectionality, and confusion over DEI ‘initiatives’ versus DEI ‘strategy’.”
We’ve broken down each of these barriers to help explain how your organization can start conducting a truly inclusive DEI audit with actionable returns.
Step 1: Engage in Honest Conversation and Set Your Intentions
Many senior leaders have released statements about their commitment to DEI, started diversity councils, hired consultants, hired heads of DEI, and have invested lots of money into organizations doing the work on the ground. However, many have not stopped to reflect on why DEI matters. The following questions must be answered before launching any DEI strategy:
- Is my commitment steeped in my desire to avoid a PR nightmare or public backlash?
- Is this solely about protecting the brand?
- Am I ready to de-center myself and privileged identities from our DEI strategy?
- Are we ready to face the uncomfortable truth about what is happening in the organization and how we specifically have been a part of it?
- Are we ready to go out of our comfort zone to do what is necessary to advance DEI?
- Are we ready to listen to the experts and realize that we don’t know what we are doing and need help?
- Are we prepared to deal with the backlash from customers, investors, and employees who do not like that we are focusing on DEI?
“Far too often, the commitment to DEI from leadership lacks an understanding of what it really takes to advance DEI. This is not easy and leaders need to be ready to weather what comes their way and remain steadfast in their commitment,” says Woodson.
Step 2: Hold Leaders Accountable
Many organizations boast a strong team of executive leadership. If your organization is a ship, you need to think of your executive team as its crew, with your CEO at the helm as the ship’s captain. This team’s sole purpose is to keep the organization not only in working order, but to keep it working well enough that it performs in a way that simultaneously outshines direct competitors and supports others, such as partners, top clients, and star employees.
As with any ship, yours will either overcome the raging waters, or sink to the seafloor. While the former outcome is unanimously preferred, the crew of your ship – the managers and leadership of your organization – need to be held accountable in relation to the organization’s performance. In regards to DEI, this means that organizational leaders who exhibit behavior that is detrimental to advancing DEI must be dealt with.
“Organizations talk about holding leaders accountable for bad behavior or non-action in regards to advancing DEI initiatives,” says Woodson, “however, when it actually comes down to it leaders are too-often given free rein to do as they please without repercussions.”
Step 3: Form a Top-Down DEI Strategy – Not Just “Initiatives”
Too often we hear stories or read press of companies who have stepped up and publicly announced internal initiatives to improve their DEI work, only to never hear about these initiatives a second time. Before we realize it, the conglomerate or brands we love for pushing DEI initiatives never make mention of them again, instead leaving them fallen to the wayside as other new initiatives are prioritized.
This is the difference between a DEI initiative – a one-off account of an attempt at or response to DEI training or program that ultimately ends – and a DEI strategy, which as Woodson explains, embeds DEI within “all core aspects” of an organization and is evergreen.
“DEI should touch every aspect of the business,” says Woodson, not limiting the strategy to one wing of an organization. For DEI to truly become rooted in an organization’s values, that organization must implement DEI into their sales, business development, human resources, finances, operations, marketing, etc.
Step 4: Boost DEI by Improving Intersectionality Within Your Collected Data
Many organizations are not using data much less the right data to inform their DEI strategy. Both quantitative and qualitative data are necessary components to understanding what is happening within the organization. This is an opportunity to see how each part of the business is contributing to or hindering the organization’s success in moving the needle toward a more equitable workplace.
Data can be extremely helpful in telling the story about the current state of the organization, as well as assessing how the organization’s strategy is improving the culture. However, you also need to splice your data across different axes to get the full picture. For example, most organizations report on the experience of women vs men within the organization. This high level view usually tells you what White cisgender women are experiencing. If you stop there, then you end up building a strategy that centers only White cisgender women. An organization should be invested in understanding how women at large experience the workplace, but also how Black, Latinx, Asian, Trans, and Queer women experience the workplace. This deeper dive will most likely surface more data that should inform your organization’s strategy and address those unique experiences. A one size fits all approach to DEI will not work.
This becomes especially important as you implement your strategy and continue to collect data. Imagine you are working for an organization that has already performed an extensive DEI audit. The results of the audit were favorable, highlighted the important work your organization has done to remain diverse and inclusive among all of its laterals, and was even shared on your website for all to see. In this case, it sounds like your DEI audit was a great success, but did the DEI audit account for the unique needs of every marginalized group your organization represents?
“No identity group is monolithic,” says Woodson. “For example, while focusing on the needs of Black employees is necessary, it doesn’t account for the unique needs of Black trans people, Black women, and other subgroups within the Black community.”
From the point of privilege, the needs of marginalized communities appear as marginal as the communities themselves. This is why it is incredibly important for an organization to not only remain diverse, but inclusive at all layers within itself. In taking actionable steps to undo monolithic inclusion, an organization drastically improves its intersectionality in DEI across marginalized groups, granting its advocacy voice more volume and a wider platform.
Though Woodson and many others like him have helped to spearhead fresh conversations surrounding DEI in the workplace, there still remains a lot of work to be done. Until businesses and organizations are able to focus their advocacy efforts – and the voice of those efforts – on the marginalized rather than the privileged, issues surrounding DEI will continue to plague the workplace and their networks for generations to come.
“We all must take a hard and honest look in the mirror and acknowledge the ways we have all perpetuated systems of oppressions, even as members of marginalized groups,” says Woodson. “My approach to working with people with privileged identities is to find a door in which they can enter the conversation, but not to avoid their discomfort. Discomfort is a part of confronting the bias we have been fed our entire lives. I provide support as you face your discomfort.”
Cornell Woodson is the founder and president of Brave Trainings, LLC. His work and expertise revolve around increasing diversity, building cultures of belonging, and helping organizations change processes and systems to make them more equitable. To learn more about Cornell or Brave Trainings, please visit www.bravetrainings.com
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