In response to 2020’s “Racial Reckoning”, many companies felt a profound sense of urgency from employees and consumers alike to “do something”. For many organizations, this resulted in corporate promises, which turned into platitudes, as well as the implementation of “quick fixes”; actions commonly referred to as “check-the-box” initiatives.
You’re probably familiar with a few of the DEI classics including 1) The “Unconscious Bias Training” (likely rolled out via an archaic LMS that allows folks to check their email, drink their coffee, and scroll Instagram while participating). 2) The ever-so-popular “recruit more POCs” mantra (which often doesn’t take into consideration what happens to the ‘lonely only’s’ once they get to your organization). And 3) The well-intentioned, but sometimes culturally appropriative [insert identity] monthly celebrations (for additional insights, checkout our colleague Nani Vishwanath’s HBR article “Don’t Let your Calendar Dictate Your DEI Initiatives).
Sound familiar? Thought it might…
Another more recent infusion into the classic DEI cocktail has been the beloved “DEI Committee”. This has become a one-stop-shop for all employees who care enough about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to take on the additional work, (usually) without any additional pay, but with plenty of additional organizational pain points.
Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear: DEI Committees can play an important role in an organizational ecosystem – especially when they’re in an empowering environment and given the resources to enact meaningful change.
Author’s Note: Shoutout to all the DEI Committee members. Y’all certainly deserve ample affirmation and appreciation. Hopefully, someone is giving you your flowers… and even better, hopefully, you’re getting additional compensation for your extra effort, too. 🙂
However, in many organizations, DEI Committees have been reduced to static symbols, lacking the necessary empowerment to drive meaningful change.
If your organization is wondering why the DEI Committee isn’t resulting in systemic and sustainable change, we have the inside scoop. Here are 3 Reasons Why Your DEI Committee Is Not the (only) Answer.
Meaningful organizational change requires leadership engagement and buy-in. Unfortunately, when it comes to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work, many leaders abdicate responsibility to the HR team or DEI Committee without embracing their responsibility as a key driver in the process of transformation.
Think about it this way: when the Executive Team deems an initiative “mission critical”, it’s unlikely that the commensurate work streams would be given to a volunteer Committee. Instead, the initiatives would be driven by people with positional power and influence in the organization.
For example: would the CEO put a Committee in charge of the go-to-market strategy? How about the security or data infrastructure? Would a Committee be responsible for pitching to investors or devising a plan to increase market share? Of course not. Why? Because these activities are identified as critical to business success, as evidenced by the attention, intention, and prioritization they receive.
Unfortunately, DEI doesn’t usually receive the same level of focus from executives.
Another insidious saboteur of meaningful DEI progress at the leadership level is the often espoused “Business Case for DEI”. If you’re unfamiliar with the “Business Case for DEI”, the core thesis essentially states that having a more diverse team leads to better business results, more innovation, greater market share, etc.
Pretty compelling value proposition, isn’t it?
While the benefits (and challenges) of diverse teams and inclusive cultures are undeniable, one of the core problems with the Business Case for DEI is that it has a not-so-subtle way of demanding a near immediate ROI (return on investment).
Let’s be real: change takes time, especially when we’re talking about perspective change, behavior change, and systemic change!
The “better business results” many organizations hope will come from DEI efforts are actually on the other side of true transformation and integration. Unfortunately, many companies are unwilling to disrupt efficient processes in order to create more equitable practices.
Ultimately, this dissonance relegates the DEI Committee to being a symbol of lackluster leadership commitment instead of a force for lasting organizational change.
To be clear, the presence of a DEI Committee does not absolve leaders from their role in the work of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It does, however, provide leaders with the opportunity to actively and empathically listen, while also taking the necessary steps to foster a culture of true belonging.
The author of the book Inclusion on Purpose, Ruchika Tulshyan, comments, “We should not be requiring marginalized people, alone, to bear the weight of DEI work.” Yet, many DEI Committees are predominantly composed of passionate members who represent the very demographics that are being negatively impacted by an organization’s conscious or unconscious toxicity. Sure, designating an intentional space for active listening and vulnerable sharing is a key strategy for unearthing discriminatory practices, but this strategy should not become a company’s primary avenue for initiating change at the expense of those who are being directly injured by the current cultural climate.
To better feel the implications of this approach, let’s assess the aforementioned strategy through the lens of trauma-informed intervention. Imagine that you have been asked to put together a Committee that will give study to and recommend action steps for addressing the various ways trauma is being experienced within your community.
You set out to gather stories and testimonials from community members, seeking to clarify how many people have experienced avoidable forms of trauma over the past three years. You want to gauge how many people in your culture are suffering, and you want to see how the systems and practices within the culture are perpetuating this suffering.
After your data collection period has ended, you send out invitations to those who bravely disclosed their highest levels of suffering, inviting them to become a part of a focus group that will offer empathetic support for traumatized community members. Twelve interviewees respond, affirming their interest in attending.
At the launch meeting, there is a beautiful, magnetic synergy that develops between each attendee due to their shared experiences. Everyone feels so supported in a room where people intuitively understand without the need for much explanation.
Towards the end of the meeting, you present an abbreviated report, attesting to the presence of toxic practices that are increasing the suffering for so many. You even feel led to confess how unaware you’ve been, and how “out-in-the-open” these traumatizing practices are. At the peak of your impassioned presentation, you then say:
“And this is why we need your help. This is why it is so important for those who are being most impacted to become our primary advocates. We need your voices. We need your ideas. We need you to help us turn this around. We need this group to be our Anti-Trauma Committee (ATC Committee), a Committee that will lead the charge in changing our community for the better.”
Some might argue that the above scenario is an example of inclusive leadership and an outline of strategic steps we can take to turn the tide of discriminatory faux pas; however, before we jump to recruit the traumatized, there are some humanizing questions we must ask first.
“The attendees were invited to come to a focus group where they could authentically connect and get support, so why are they now being asked to shoulder the burden of communal change?”
“If the interviewees are currently suffering, shouldn’t the focus be placed on their healing in the present before asking them to ideate about the future?”
“Before we jump into strategizing, do the attendees have any current hurts that need care; if so, how can we provide that care?”
“Has the hard work of rooting out toxic gatekeepers taken place to make sure the Committee’s work is not stymied by passive aggressive or directly aggressive resistance?”
Rarely, if at all, are DEI Committee members humanized to this level. Consequently, their wounds go untreated while they are asked to shoulder the heaviest burden in the push for change—oftentimes in an environment that is hostile towards the needed transition. Hopefully, you’re beginning to feel how dehumanizing it can be to serve on a DEI Committee. Asking the traumatized to fix the issues is like asking victims to redeem their perpetrators. It’s unfair and can cause deeper injury.
Due to the lack of allocated resources, DEI Committees often become an amalgamation of organizational pain points and cultural celebrations.
Many DEI Committees are comprised of passionate employees who want to make change. And, as we mentioned, they’re likely from marginalized communities themselves. Unfortunately, these Committees – though ripe with potential – are often set up for failure from the beginning. One reason: they’re tasked with way too much.
In many organizations, particularly those that are newer to the DEI conversation, there’s a lack of understanding from the leadership level about what avenues of change need to be tackled. So, as a result, the DEI Committees are tasked with a vision so broad as “to bring DEI to life at [x] company”, to “promote open and honest workplace conversation”, or “to institutionalize workplace DEI efforts”.
If we take a minute to digest these incredibly vague statements, we can begin to understand the challenge therein. To “bring DEI to life” at a company could mean a million things. It could mean the upheaval of antiquated and biased hiring systems. It could mean implementing listening tools to understand the experiences of employees from underrepresented groups. It could mean creating employee resource groups for community and conversation. It could mean implementing education pathways for company leaders or creating cultural celebrations for the calendar year… And the list goes on.
All of these bodies of work are important and will likely take months to get off the ground, even if your organization has an employee whose entire role is focused on DEI. (Talk about a recipe for burnout!)
The initial surge of energy is often abundant – passionate employees with personal and professional drive gather to tackle these very critical business objectives, on top of their day jobs and without leadership support. They may dig in, work overtime, and begin to take on an incredible amount of emotional labor as they consider the lived experiences of their colleagues. They may get a few projects off the ground or even implement a plan or two that was concocted in this passionate environment. But, as time goes on, many DEI Committees feel their energy, as well as their company’s energy, wane.
It’s no surprise that DEI Committees are often exhausted and teetering on the edge of burnout. They’re consistently tasked with fighting uphill battles like: trying to get their work in front of leaders and colleagues, working to develop and implement complex communication and education strategies, and attempting to secure the necessary resources to implement these initiatives. Eventually, their task list for this DEI Committee “side hustle” matches the number of to-do items for their full-time gig. And when the full-time gig (the one that keeps the paychecks coming) continues to demand time and energy, the side hustle will slowly be deprioritized.
Instead of throwing the “kitchen sink” of DEI problems at the DEI Committee, start by identifying a clear purpose and priorities, achievable goals, and corresponding tasks so they’re positioned to feel effective.
For starters, each organization must accept the fact that the work of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is EVERYONE’S JOB. In the same way that each person at the company plays a meaningful role in helping the organization achieve the vision, each employee plays a critical role in architecting a culture of belonging.
Many DEI Executives and DEI Committees experience high levels of burnout because they’re expected to carry this responsibility for the entire organization. DEI work is most effective when everyone at the organization – from executives to entry-level employees – is responsible, accountable, and committed to creating an equitable and inclusive culture.
Ultimately, the DEI Committee should not be assembled in reaction to what your organization doesn’t want, but rather, should be empowered with a clear focus, intention, and attention on what you do want. If you want to increase the effectiveness of your DEI Committee (and DEI more broadly within your organization), here are three actionable tips:
About the Courage Collective
The Courage Collective is a consultancy that takes a strategic, holistic, and human-centered approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. Our approach prioritizes courage, empathy and intentional action to create meaningful and lasting impact across the entire employee journey. More information on The Courage Collective’s approach and services is available at thecouragecollective.co.