Why the Workplace Needs DEI 2.0, and How to Build It

Learn the importance of a diversity, equity, and inclusion program and how to build a DEI 2.0 in this article.

After the summer of 2020, when the Black Lives Matters movement ignited the globe, the corporate appetite for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) skyrocketed. Organizations saw the value of at least appearing to be inclusive as DEI was on trend.

Over the last four years, that appetite has waned and commitments have diminished. Consultants at Creative Investment Research (CIR) estimated that since 2020, 271 US corporations had pledged to spend an estimated $67 billion on DEI efforts, but by the beginning of this year, companies had spent just $652 million.

Why back out on their promises? Some corporations have met both internal and external resistance, with the high-profile Chick-fil-a boycott being a prime example.  We see pushback beyond the workplace and in our highest public institutions. The Supreme Court decisions are a culminating backlash against efforts to build more equitable systems that value diversity and inclusion.

In other cases, organizations realize that effective DEI programs require hard work and informed implementation. Take Uber’s ill-judged “Don’t Call Me Karen” themed DEI series. This was a masterclass in how to alienate an audience and erode faith in the value of DEI efforts.

As a Universal Design for Learning and DEI facilitator, I have learned that understanding human behavior and how organizations change is critical. Here are my top do’s and don’ts for designing effective DEI programs in the workplace.

Don’t jump into the hardest conversations first

Some DEI programs lose participants before a session has even started. For example, naming sessions titles like “Check your Privilege” might gain attention, but it will also put participants (often the ones who need to learn the most) on guard. No one learns when they feel threatened. Instead, they move into fight, flight, fear, or freeze mode. To be vulnerable enough to take part in public introspection, organizations must first foster an atmosphere of trust and open-minded conversation. That won’t happen when participants feel attacked at the first topic.

Do set the expectation of being uncomfortable

While DEI practitioners should avoid alienating participants, we do need to properly frame expectations. DEI work requires growth; real growth is uncomfortable, unfamiliar. Participants might experience feelings of guilt when they realize that previous actions have caused harm. Effective DEI programs help people move through guilt by listening, empathizing, and choosing to create equitable workplaces. When I work with clients, people often say, “But I’m afraid of making a mistake.” I respond with: Guess what. You are going to make a mistake because you are human. The question is, what does your organization do when people make mistakes? Effective DEI programs create spaces that build relationships and help participants see one another as human beings with shared fears, passions, desires, and values. Ultimately, there is more that binds us than divides us – if we don’t fear diversity because it’s different from what we are comfortable with.

Don’t settle for offering a vocabulary lesson

Too many DEI workshops focus primarily on teaching vocabulary, defining terms like ‘White Privilege’, ‘Implicit Bias’ and ‘Microaggressions’ by flashing words on a Powerpoint, while participants nod and take notes. The problem is that vocabulary lessons give participants a false sense of expertise. They think they know all about microaggressions, because they learned what the word means. They haven’t, however, been guided to consider how microaggressions show up in their workplace or been supported in how to respond when someone says, “You speak so well for someone from your background.” Real DEI work goes beyond learning vocabulary terms and catalyzes reflecting on actions.

Do move from the general to the specific

Progress toward DEI goals requires moving from general concepts to specific questions like: What microaggressions have occurred when a woman requests time off? How does White privilege play a role in our hiring process? What implicit bias is in effect when a differently abled person is excluded from an off-site day? Effective DEI programs examine specific policies, practices, and decision-making processes and then center the perspectives of community members who have been or are most likely to be marginalized by the organization’s past or current structures.

Don’t frame DEI work as big splashy events

Many organizations try to show a commitment to DEI by throwing a splashy conference or requiring all staff to attend a one-time workshop. This creates the unrealistic expectation that a short, yet intense DEI event will be able to magically eviscerate individual and systemic biases within the organization. This is not how change and growth happen. Think of a plant. We can’t douse a plant in 10 gallons of water once a year and hope it grows. Instead, it needs watering in regular doses over time. 

Do focus on daily, weekly, and monthly habits and practices

James Clear explains, “Intensity makes a good story. Consistency makes progress.” DEI progress requires reflecting on daily routines and interactions, examining how we communicate expectations, and run weekly meetings. Who is included? Whose voices are prioritized? What data matter? How are problems handled? Effective DEI leaders create spaces to regularly have these conversations and make equitable changes.

Don’t spin your wheels trying to change hearts and minds

DEI leaders often set the tragic goal of trying to convert people’s hearts and minds. Programming alone cannot make people be more open, more caring, and less racist, sexist, or homophobic. 

DEI programs don’t change people; however, they do create spaces that invite change to take place. Focus on questioning the way we’ve always done things, providing protocols to help marginalized voices be heard, and take time to imagine new possibilities. Directly trying to change someone’s mind is a waste of time. As humans, we change our mind when we see a new way of being and realize that shifting behavior will bring better results and the workplace incentive structures support that change.

Do focus on culture and confront a company’s shadow values

Corporations often hold two sets of values. One set is proudly presented to the public and plastered on their websites. Sometimes these aspirational values are at odds with shadow values, the implicitly reinforced values that drive behavior within an organization. Consider this prompt: An effective employee here looks like ____. Does the completion of that sentence show that the organization values diversity or assimilation? Companies might claim that they want diversity, but then reject opinions that don’t align with their viewpoint or remark that certain accents or hairstyles are ‘unprofessional’. 

Don’t invest in an organization that doesn’t actually want to change

DEI appointees can only be as effective as the organization around them. The most insightful or transformative programming will amount to nothing if the leadership is not willing to implement the practical changes needed. A company’s leadership can have a range of motives for hiring a DEI professional. Some understand that DEI can deliver real human and financial flourishing. Others simply want to add an inclusive veneer to their company website. 

DEI programs become a facade when implemented within an organization that intends on paying nothing more than lip service to the efforts. This guise can provide leadership with a ‘get out’ clause, as they will be able to point to their DEI program as evidence that no harmful structural barriers exist within their organization. Ultimately, DEI leaders can help an organization that wants to change. They can’t, however, help an organization to want to change. That must come from within. 

Do expect pushback

Even an organization that wants to change experiences ‘inequity equilibrium’. When disparities – such as a predominantly male management team enforcing poor maternity care standards –  have been designed into the system and allowed to persist for years, the state of inequity appears to be the level of equilibrium. Effective DEI programs that challenge and amend those inequities can create a feeling of disequilibrium, especially for groups whom the systems were designed to benefit. This feeling of disequilibrium (e.g., corrective actions feeling like penalties) leads to pushback, which can be anticipated and prepared for. DEI programs should already have a response for when – not if – pushback arises.

The pressure being applied to DEI programs should not be viewed as a sign to retreat. Instead, this is a time to push forward with a version of DEI that actually works and doesn’t just serve as a ticked box on a company’s to-do list. Like diamonds in the earth, pressure can produce a stronger, more valuable result. To all who understand that diverse, inclusive, equitable workplaces produce better products, experiences, and ROI, don’t cave in – do work smart with a version of DEI equipped to make a difference. 

Nicole Tucker Smith
Nicole is a DEI expert, and founder of Lessoncast, an educational platform that helps schools implement professional learning initiatives focused on inclusive teaching and equity best practice. She also delivers keynote speeches to companies who want to learn how to best to implement their DEI strategies. She has written various articles, including one for the Hechinger Report on college boards gutting African American studies, one for International Business Times on the School curriculum. She has also appeared on a TED x talking about innovation in education.