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DEI Activities for the Workplace: Why Programmatic Approaches to DEI Fail

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is a strategic, outcomes-focused, multidisciplinary body of work integrated into every aspect of the organization’s life and work.

DEI Activities for the Workplace

Too often organizational leaders seek to solve for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) by implementing programs to engage employees in inclusive “DEI activities,” many times with the goal of having fun together. In these cases, the work of DEI is essentially reduced to team-building activities and/or professional development opportunities. With good intention, organizational leaders reach out to DEI consultants to explore DEI activities these consultants can bring to their organizations, failing to understand the harm these surface-level approaches to meaningful work does to the organization and its employees.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is a strategic, outcomes-focused, multidisciplinary body of work integrated into every aspect of the organization’s life and work.

In reality, DEI is not something to be “solved for;” rather, diversity, equity, and inclusion work is a strategic, outcomes-focused, multidisciplinary body of work integrated into every aspect of the organization’s life and work. To effectively create a workplace culture that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive, leaders must engage in long-term, strategic, outcomes-focused organizational-change efforts that orient the organization’s identity from unintentionally exclusive (and therefore inequitable) to intentionally inclusive and equitable. This means leaders must go much deeper than focusing on fun DEI activities for the workplace and team-building programs and commit to organization systems change work, which is much harder and rarely described as fun.


Questions Leaders Might Explore


Before embarking on this work, leaders committed to creating truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable organizations might spend some time reflecting on the following questions:

  • Where is my organization with regard to its DEI work?

  • Does my current work environment allow for the exploration of differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment? If so, in what ways? If not, why?

  • Are there visible changes in policies and practices — both formal and informal — that are designed to have measurable outcomes?

  • Have the changes reached deep into the operational structure of the organization?

  • What would employees say about the effectiveness of DEI within the organization?

Updated: Read this LinkedIn post for valuable contributions to this list of questions.

DEI Outcomes Are Measurable

An organizational assessment is the first “DEI activity for the workplace” that leaders should focus on.

Like any other organization change initiative, a strategic and outcomes-focused approach to DEI begins with an organizational assessment. Employees are the true barometer when it comes to operationalizing DEI principles and practices into the workplace culture. If you have not measured employees lived experiences within the organization, this is the starting point. A DEI organizational assessment (deployed by a third-party to ensure anonymity and data integrity) helps leaders understand their current reality, so they understand their starting point in this work. An organizational assessment is the first “DEI activity for the workplace” that leaders should focus on. The second important step is the implementation of a DEI audit by a third-party consultant. An audit will determine the maturity level of the organization in terms of polices, practices, and other structural indicators. Without the data that surfaces from a DEI assessment and a DEI audit, even the most well-intentioned leaders may hijack progress by focusing on surface changes. Too often, obstructions are baked into the organization’s structure, policies, and practices and released into day-to-day operations where biased language and behaviors block the real progress the organization desires. Employees and third-party consultants are far more primed to see these obstructions than are leaders.


DEI Work Is Grounded in Basic Human Needs & Dignity Needs

One thing is true about the journey of humanity, we know how to embrace change, especially in crisis. Something else is true about the human condition — we change, or we die.

To create diverse, inclusive, and equitable organizations, leaders must ground their DEI organizational change efforts in basic human needs and dignity needs. These are the essential needs that must be realized for people to thrive. Robyn Short, CEO of Workplace Peace Institute, asks leaders, “What conditions need to exist in the workplace for your employees to experience their basic human and dignity needs in their daily work lives? What will happen when your organization not only understands these elements, but also uses them as a lens for reviewing and revising company policies and practices?”



Basic Human Needs & Dignity Needs

Organizational change initiatives are challenging and require deep commitment from all organizational leaders. One thing is true about the journey of humanity, we know how to embrace change, especially in crisis. Something else is true about the human condition — we change, or we die.


Organizations that do not embrace a deep commitment to create diverse, inclusive, and equitable organizations will not be around in the 10 to 15 years. Young Millennials and Gen Z workers are demanding companies do so much better than in the past. These generations are more accepting of diversity — age, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, education, different ability, sexual orientation, and national origin. They will not sustain the status quo. While the Boomer generation was focused on survival, and Generation X was focused on standard of living, Millennials and Gen Z are prioritizing quality of life. Leaders must ground DEI in basic human needs and dignity to ensure they meet the quality of life that will attract and retain this new workforce.


DEI Work Must Be Intersectional

When leaders focus too narrowly on programmatic approaches to D&I that rely on categorization, the actual human experience of employees is often overlooked, if not ignored completely.

While organizations are creating a more diverse work culture, understanding and planning for intersectionality is also critical. There is an interconnected relationship of social categories, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. In an article for ADP, Cat DiStasio writes, “Effective business leaders understand that diverse perspectives lead to better business outcomes through innovation, efficiency and organizational culture. However, when leaders focus too narrowly on programmatic approaches to D&I that rely on categorization, the actual human experience of employees is often overlooked, if not ignored completely.” Honoring diversity means going beyond fun DEI activities for the workplace and programs designed to build welcoming teams to truly valuing everyone’s participation in the organization at every level. This means reimagining the way power flows through an organization, which typically means upending the status quo.


DEI Work Upends the Status Quo

When organizations do not approach DEI as an organizational change initiative, DEI workplace activities serve to protect the status quo.

Diversity education started as a reaction to the civil rights movement and protests and demonstrations by Civil Rights activists. Recall, with the need to stabilize society — i.e., re-establish status quo norms — organizations began to implement DEI workplace activities such as diversity trainings with the goal of increasing sensitivity toward and awareness of racial differences. While human resource departments facilitated the training, eventually it faded away or became diluted to soften the learning on White employees in the room. When organizations do not approach DEI as an organizational change initiative, DEI workplace activities serve to protect the status quo.


The preservation of the status quo, or “softening practice,” manifests in board meetings as well as department meetings across organizations in both explicit and implicit ways. It is for this reason diverse voices must not just be invited and welcomed into the discussion, their lived experiences must be believed, and their recommendations must be acted on. In other words, their basic human needs and dignity needs must be actualized. Individuals with diverse perspectives and lived experiences must be included in leading organizational efforts and practices in which different groups or individuals with different backgrounds are culturally and socially accepted, welcomed, and equally treated.

Those most qualified to address issues of equity are those who have the most experience with inequity.

While the “E” or equity occupy the second position in the DEI acronym, it seems the most difficult for leaders and employees to embrace. Equality has not historically been fully embraced in government, education, health care, social programs, communities, or corporate spaces. In her book, Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives, Minal Bopaiah explains that “In its simplest terms, equity means fairness. In an equitable society, all people have full and unbiased access to livelihood, education, participation in the political and cultural community, and other social benefits.” However, let us be careful not to place the necessity for equity on the individuals or groups of people who have been historically oppressed. The systems and structures operating in organizations create and sustain the problem of inequity and inequality. For example, equity in the health care system would serve the person without insurance as though they are fully covered by insurance. Major repairs and new school buildings and class size reduction in public education would allow children to fully benefit from learning and to have the best experience in their young lives. Pushing decision-making down (i.e., putting those closest to a problem closest to the solution) through the organization means sincere listening to workers on the loading dock, delivering packages, driving school busses, and frontline workers across all organizations for policy changes and then demonstrating a commitment to employees by implementing their ideas. Those most qualified to address issues of equity are those who have the most experience with inequity.


To create truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations, leaders must be intentional about upending the status quo. Too often, DEI activities for the workplace and DEI programs and trainings preserve the status quo. These do more harm than good because they ultimately end up violating the trust of historically oppressed groups while giving historically privileged groups the perception that positive change is happening.


If your organization is serious about DEI, leaders must go beyond DEI activities for the workplace and DEI programming that is exclusively oriented toward professional development and team building and embrace a long-term, strategic, organization systems design approach which will include the development of new policies and a reimagining of organization structure and culture. While this will certainly require a massive uplift in organizational education, professional development, DEI trainings and workshops, those alone will not create equitable outcomes. When organizations actualize DEI, everyone benefits—employees, community, and organization.


 

Workplace Peace Institute is an organization systems design and research firm that is singularly focused on creating workplace cultures where people thrive. Workplace Peace Institute supports small to mid-sized businesses in optimizing employee engagement, maximizing organizational productivity, and improving profitability by infusing human security and dignity as foundational attributes of their business model. Our Leadership Academy supports leaders in honoring basic human needs and dignity needs in the workplace, so they can actualize human potential in the workplace. The online Leadership Academy optimizes competencies in human behavior, communication skills, conflict resolution, and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging to create highly engaged workplaces where basic human needs and dignity are consistently honored. All our courses are offered online and can be customized for in-person workshops and seminars.

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