Article first published in BRINK news on January 12, 2021.


In 2020, the U.S. experienced a dramatic uptick in corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, with more than 75% of companies reporting an increased focus. The surge in DEI activity is tied to the Black Lives Matter movement along with the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on underrepresented groups.


As employees continue to ask their leaders to take action beyond employee-wide communications, many executives have relied heavily on underrepresented voices within their organizations to help shape and implement their DEI strategies. For example, more than half of organizations (58%) have launched a DEI council or taskforce to promote inclusivity. Others have hosted listening circles or leveraged already-established business and employee resource groups (BRGs and ERGs) to gather insights regarding the experiences of employees from historically marginalized backgrounds.


But do corporate leaders depend too heavily on employees from these underrepresented groups? And is that approach even appropriate?


As a DEI consultant and a former global leader of Mercer’s Pride Business Resource Group, I’ve connected with and heard from many individuals from underrepresented groups who have been involved in supporting their organizations’ DEI efforts. Experiencing discrimination can be traumatizing, and not all employees of marginalized groups will want to explain or share their experiences. Those who do wish to participate in DEI efforts are thankful for the opportunity to engage with leaders and share their thoughts and experiences, but many question why the substantial work of driving change continues to fall on them. Others may choose to participate initially, but may find it difficult to opt out of DEI efforts once their leaders recognize them as a key resource.


This presents a dilemma for many leaders. How do you make sure decisions get proper buy-in from underrepresented groups without placing too much pressure on them, causing burnout and disengagement? How do you make sure employees from underrepresented groups feel comfortable opting out of involvement with DEI efforts?


Consider the actions below, which include questions to throw light on how your organization is performing in these areas.


1. Responsibilities and Rewards

Is DEI leadership explicitly recognized and rewarded in your performance management process?


Is time spent on DEI work piled on top of employees’ existing responsibilities?


Can DEI culture champions opt out of DEI efforts without fear of retaliation?


Simply put, you need to reward underrepresented groups and allies for the additional work they take on. Employees know this work is important, but they need to see that the organization values it too. Recognizing and rewarding DEI culture champions for their efforts indicates how seriously your organization takes DEI. At a minimum, an individual’s contributions to driving DEI should be documented in their annual goal-setting process and taken into consideration for rating and rewards purposes, similar to any other part of their job. It’s also important to ensure that your employees who are engaged in this work have enough bandwidth to do it, which could mean shifting responsibilities and managing expectations. You should also regularly check-in with employees who participate in these activities to ensure that they are okay continuing in their role, giving them freedom to opt out without any retaliation.


2. Organizational Support

Are leaders supporting DEI efforts, or are they putting pressure on their teams to steer away from such initiatives?


Are managers incorporating DEI involvement and positive contributions to company culture in conversations around performance management?


Have your managers received proper training for leading conversations on difficult topics?


Do your managers know where to go if they aren’t sure how to handle a particular issue?


Managers can make or break your organization’s DEI efforts, as they drive critical, daily interactions with employees. Make sure leaders and managers are aware that DEI activities are a top priority for your organization, and ensure they have the information and training needed to support the employees who help lead and participate in these initiatives.


Managers need to have adequate resources to support employees from underrepresented groups in their DEI efforts. Equip managers with the tools and knowledge they need to support employees who may be overburdened by the DEI work they’re taking on.


3. Resource Groups

Do your BRG leaders have the resources and support they need to execute successfully on their mission while balancing the responsibilities of the jobs they were hired to do?


If your organization has historically relied on BRGs to lead and implement DEI efforts, review existing structures and governance models. Make sure these groups can influence change without overburdening their leaders.


4. Mental Health

Do you offer an employee assistance program? If so, are you monitoring its use and quality?


Do your health benefits cover mental health support?


Are you helping employees manage their time?


With the ongoing pandemic, we are experiencing some of the most difficult events of our lifetimes. Conversations around DEI and racism are especially exhausting and are often traumatizing. To support your employees, you must ensure underrepresented groups receive adequate mental health support.


5. Goals

Do you use data, analytics and dashboards to monitor DEI progress?


Do you regularly communicate DEI efforts with your workforce and external stakeholders in a transparent manner?


Set clear, measurable goals for your DEI efforts and communicate them to all key stakeholders, including leaders, managers and HR. This will help promote accountability across all levels. Communicate clearly to enhance the transparency of your DEI efforts so your employees know where your priorities lie and what actions you’re taking to create systemic change. Consider designing DEI dashboards that measure progress and promote organizational and individual accountability.


6. Accountability

Do you have measurable goals that you can communicate to your leaders — and hold them accountable for driving change?


It’s crucial to encourage leadership accountability across DEI initiatives. With clearly defined goals, leaders will have a better understanding of the changes they need to implement. To ensure such goals are met, consider tying a portion of leaders’ compensation to DEI metrics. Many organizations are exploring this strategy, and we anticipate it will become increasingly prevalent.


7. Speaking Up

Do you have an employee relations hotline, and are employees aware of it?


Is your employee relations hotline equipped with the knowledge to support individuals from underrepresented backgrounds?


Do your employees know whom to contact if they don’t feel comfortable talking to their managers?


Finally, you must establish and communicate how your underrepresented employees can safely share feedback regarding their experience with leadership, the DEI team and their managers.


Employees from underrepresented groups have shown that they’re willing to play a significant role in supporting their companies’ DEI strategies. However, they also expect their leaders to recognize these efforts while getting involved themselves. It is ultimately the responsibility of leaders, particularly those who do not belong to historically marginalized groups, to address systemic inequities and take the lead on driving cultural transformation. This will require taking meaningful actions that promote long-term, sustainable progress that not only benefits the organization but also contributes to the long-awaited change called for in 2020.

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