There’s an old phrase that goes “where there’s muck, there’s money.” Basically, we will hand over cash to make disappear the things we don’t want to confront or directly deal with. Amidst climate change, carbon offsets have been a token way to pay and play at creating pollution without changing behavior. And now fast on the heels of societal pressure and reputational risk to leaders, businesses and organizations, we have the 'DEI-industrial complex'- a swarm of budding practitioners and services of varying standards, consistency and accountability in the amorphous DEI field.
In 2020, global DEI spending was $7.5 billion and is projected to reach $15.4 Billion by 2026. It’s the nature of business that wherever there’s a growing demand and big market potential, there’s a flood of players looking to grab their share. Now, some players with genuine intentions are competently and powerfully equipped to make a lasting difference on creating more inclusive and equitable cultures. But several other quick-fix solutions and empty promise hustles are available to meet the needs of those organizations who just want something convenient to throw at the problem and move on. Rarely, if ever, does that help.
What’s Wrong with the DEI Practice
It’s highly likely that your organization has real DEI issues to address. But unless you know the specifics of the problems you face, you’re not going to be effective in formulating solutions. Lip service, “one and done” sessions and valuing action for action’s sake is not going to create real difference - yet it makes for a booming business amidst societal and regulatory pressure. But these approaches will only inhibit change while hurting the groups you are purporting to better serve.
What if your integrity in approaching a solution can only match your sincerity in seeing the problem and your authentic commitment to do something different to create novel outcomes? This is arguably true for people, for all relationships and for organizations. But if your organization is hustling for appearances sake or to avoid culpability or if you see DEI challenges as an inconvenient burden or as simply irresolvable, then you’re looking for DEI superficial solutions that can only give you, at best, house of cards results. And so, those options readily exist.
Many organizations turn to outsourced training as a tick-box DEI solution. But unconscious bias training alone consistently fails to reduce bias or change behaviors like hiring more diverse managers and prejudice-reducing interventions rarely clearly achieve their goals. These can even backfire by increasing stereotypical thoughts while reducing responsibility and by firing up resistance around majority members. Many organizations turn to short-term, low impact and superficial feel good approaches under the guise of DEI, rather than commit to the hard work of mid-term and long-term strategies that will shake up process and practices and previous social norms, and create real change.
The DEI-industrial complex is ultimately the exploitative cycle in which organizations give themselves credit just for taking action while DEI practitioners and services capitalize on this demand with services for financial gain and nobody is accountable for effective outcomes. The dynamic sustains and proliferates inequity for groups such as women, LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), disabled, and otherwise overlooked communities.
To get off this cycle, organizations have to align behind a clear vision and become highly informed to change your culture for the better. They have to identify issues and the focus on solution space. Only when you are willing to hold yourself accountable to change can you hold your partners and services accountable, too - steadily, consistently and successfully over time.
The Importance of a Thorough DEI Diagnostic
Because they are based on meeting the extrinsic pressure with lowest common denominator action, most arbitrary DEI interventions will miss the mark, create false expectations and be perceived as performative. Before you know what interventions to make, your organization needs an internal commitment to identity and address the specific challenges you face. And research shows your leadership tends to overestimate employee experiences of your workplace.
Conducting DEI diagnostics is necessary to assess what’s going on in your organization. It’s also a long-term investment that will efficiently attune how you employ financial resource and strategy. Because once you know the specific challenges you face, and have your benchmarks for where you stand today, you can hone in on investing behind focused solutions to address those challenges and you can measure progress going forward.
Not only this, but rather than talk generally and controversially about the business case for diversity, the right DEI diagnostics will go further and correlate DEI data to performance indicators within your own organization. Consistent metrics will also help you hold DEI providers accountable for results and know where to keep ties and where to cut them.
The Right Solutions for the Right Challenges
Identifying the challenges your organization face will help you to chart longer-term strategies to address them. Then you can not only focus your efforts on the right solutions, but you can also be more discerning in what DEI partners you choose to bring in and keep around.
For example, perhaps you are failing to recruit women of color. Research has shown that tech organizations which focus on unbiasing systems (such as training on unbiasing the hiring process) rather than raising bias awareness in general have a much stronger representation of black and Latina women.
If a strong proportion of your middle managers fall short on the inclusion competencies of cultural intelligence and a willingness to learn from others, mutual mentoring and perspective-taking exercises may be alternative approaches to bias training. If you find leaders lack the courage to engage in daring conversations, you can focus on elevating examples and training around this. If your organization is overlooking neurodiverse talent, you may want to bring in specialist recruitment. If you are failing to advance individuals from different groups, you may want to hone in on increasing inclusive career support. If certain groups report a lack of psychological safety or belonging, you may need to focus on specific behavioral training for running inclusive meetings.
How will you know if you’re employing the right solutions? By continuing to track the mid-term and long-term metrics to see whether the targeted actions you are taking are moving your organization towards the objectives and outcomes you have clearly set out. Have we increased recruitment diversity of this group by this %? Are we moving more diverse talent up in the pipeline? Do our team environments reflect significantly increased psychological safety and belonging for groups that underreported on these experiences?
It can be as valuable to know and eliminate what is not working as it is to know what is working. It will free up your DEI energies to go where it’s most making the differences you want to see. It will also help you to hold your organization, your stakeholders, your people and your partners accountable.
Like any objective in business, DEI does require leadership commitment, financial resources, organization-wide engagement and external specialist consultancy to map out and support an informed and effective approach. But with a genuine DEI vision and intention towards change, you will be putting real solutions and long-term change in motion, not going through the motions in the guise of cleaning up your DEI issues.