“We know we need to do something. Where do we start?”
This is frequently what I hear from clients when they first reach out to ask about DEI consulting.
I’m sure they don’t really think there is one right answer to this question. But sometimes I think they hope there is. Maybe DEI consultants know of the special code that unlocks equity? Maybe I have a cheat sheet. A to-do list that they can delegate to their HR director, and then check in once a quarter and watch the inclusion metrics go up and up.
Obviously, there is no cheating. And they know it. It’s different for everyone.
But just saying “it’s different for everyone” is also not very helpful. Of course each organization is unique, and the journeys toward fairer and freer workplaces don’t follow a formula.
But that doesn’t mean it’s guesswork. There are some key indicators and decision points that my team and I use as we work with clients. And there is almost always the same decision first: the fork in the road with a new client that determines where we recommend they start.
In this post, I’ll share some of the things we look for to determine which direction we recommend at that first fork in the road. Read these descriptions of two organizations, and see which of them fits yours more closely.
Your senior leadership believes that DEI is important, even if it’s not always comfortable to talk about or clearly understood.
Employees are experiencing the workplace differently depending on their race or gender, or even their seniority or organizational role. Surveys suggest there is not the same enthusiasm or loyalty in every subgroup.
Turnover or dissatisfaction are higher than you hope, with observably different results for women and employees of color.
There are employees who have shown passion for DEI issues, either individually in a formal or informal group of champions.
Financial resources and time have been, or could be, set aside explicitly for DEI work.
You observe or hear about negative interpersonal dynamics across difference, and tension within teams that is affecting performance.
People seem to be missing each other when they’re talking together about organizational culture, morale, and values. Conflicts have been persistent, and the same arguments recur.
Senior leadership is a source of resistance against DEI work. One or more leaders isn’t clear on why it’s necessary to put in the cost and time it needs.
Employees have expressed demands for cultural change, informally or formally.
Discrimination complaints have been filed with Human Resources.
If Organization 1 sounds like where you work, we are likely to recommend assessment first. You should not rush into scheduling workshops or other short-term programming. Your organization has a lot to work on, but you have the benefit of time and resources to do it thoughtfully.
This might sound like it’s a slower solution. It is. It takes at least a few months. But this methodical path is actually the best way to achieve organizational change, because you take action with more knowledge. The assessment process involves comprehensive fact-finding using focus groups and surveys employees on what they are experiencing and what they need in the workplace. This culminates in a detailed report on the key areas in need of improvement, and recommendations of the most effective action steps to take to intervene over a multi-year period.
On the other hand, if you are closer to Organization 2, you are in a more urgent space. You may be feeling that you need to show really quickly that you are doing something, and ta. Taking time to get it “perfect” would do more harm than good. In your case, we’d probably explore offering something to employees that has fast impact, like a well facilitated discussion, forum, or workshop first.
I used to be less comfortable with the idea of going right to workshops before assessing an organization’s needs. I had seen too many leaders rush to present a workshop to their people, just to create the appearance of action. Participants might pick up a few insights, but they would retain them only superficially. A very large investment of staff time—and very little long-term impact. They checked a box and moved on, but they had made no real progress toward addressing the culture or equity of the organization.
But I’ve started to see the ways workshops can get clients unstuck, opening up pathways that lead back to the long-term work.
For example, an introductory training can establish a common language that can make conversations more productive right away. What do we mean by “bias”? What’s the difference between “prejudice” and “racism”? What is a “microaggression” and why does it matter at the office? Colleagues frequently hear different things when they hear words like these, which leads to some major disconnects before the work even gets underway. Shared discussions in a training environment can remove this obstacle.
Diving right in with a workshop can have other benefits too. Many workplaces are not used to talking openly about issues of diversity, status, identity, and power. A workshop can begin to normalize dialogue on these uncomfortable topics, which is absolutely essential to grow an inclusive culture.
I’ve even seen a workshop play a role in warming senior leadership to the value of this work. The staff at this client organization had been asking for change for some time, and when the leader saw them engaged and heard their insights, it helped the leader understand the benefits. Because once people get engaged in talking about the issues and increasing understanding, we’ve seen their leaders’ resistance melt away.
Even without the long-term strategy in place, workshops create space for employees to build valuable foundations together. But workshops by themselves don’t create systemic change. The workshop can’t be the last step, but in can be the first.
If you want change, expect to hold follow-up workshops—and then proceed to the assessment stage. Because of the groundwork laid with your workshops, you’ll have higher participation in your surveys, and your focus groups will be filled with employees more confident their voices will be heard. They’ll promote the work internally and bring new people into the journey.
So, are you at the fork in the road? Which way will you go?