Skip to Main Content

We can put our personal stories and narratives aside in order to more fully connect with those whose life experiences are different from our own. We can remove systemic barriers that dehumanize others or make them invisible, to create equity and ultimately justice. That is the essence of the work we need to do.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, has never been quick or easy to achieve in an organizational context. DEI has always required some uncomfortable conversations and hard work.

Yet, in American organizations, we prefer quick, comfortable fixes. We’re almost hard wired to crave fast progress. We say, “If we just understood the data…” or, “If we do this set of unconscious bias training sessions, or hire the right DEI person or make them an officer, maybe things will change.” We’re signaling that we care. But, deep down, we’ve known that’s never been enough.

The 2020 pandemic in the U.S. has paused our lives and lifted the veil for many white people to see how systemic racism has always been part of the fabric of American life.

With the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, more white Americans have joined protestors in the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Formed in 2013, Black Lives Matter began with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012.

Now, in 2020, Black Lives Matter demands that we understand and uncomfortably discuss power, systemic racism, anti-racism, white privilege and supremacy. And, for those of us who are learning, it demands that we act on our newfound wisdom to move from DEI to justice.

This is not a PR moment where we try to get the DEI acronym right. As we – HR practitioners – shepherd change with business leaders, we need to educate ourselves and others on terms, such as “performative, “virtue signaling, “optical allyship, and “white centering (as taught by Layla F. Saad and Rachel Cargle). DEI work or “doing the work” is not about being a good person or a good company or getting a gold star. It’s about being in a forever state of doing work that stops the dehumanization of others, always ensuring real dignity, and removing systemic barriers to equity and inclusion.

Quite simply, we need to ask questions like:

  • Is the dominant culture of my organization (often the top and middle in terms of power) willing to really listen to others who don’t have that power?
  • Are we dismissive of others’ truths, observations, stories or insights?
  • Are those with power open to learning, being in relationships with diverse individuals and doing better, or even sharing or giving up that power?

As you shape DEI priorities at your organization in 2020 and beyond, some additional questions you can explore personally or with your organization leaders include:

1. Are you curious and do you want to learn? Do you want to be in genuine relationships with others whose lives are different from your own?

Locally, in Chicago, you can start by paying attention to important voices who are coming through events hosted by institutions, such as the Harold Washington Library, Northwestern University, Family Action Network or the Chicago Humanities Festival, to name a few. Leaders appearing at events in recent years have included Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Layla F. Saad and Bryan Stevenson.

Follow Chicago’s very own Kellye Whitney, who launched Human Capital Media’s DEI first print magazine, Diversity Executive, back in the day, and is more recently a two-time LinkedIn recognized media influencer.

2. Are your and your leaders’ egos willing to be vulnerable? Or, do you – and they – always need to be right?

If you want real change as opposed to incrementally moving a needle, you need those with power to be vulnerable and to have trusting relationships with individuals whose life experiences are not like their own. They need to listen and ask questions versus speak and offer judgement.

During the early days of the pandemic, I heard a story about a leader who openly expressed the opinion that those who work from home are lazy and resisted an early move to a work-from-home mandate. Many, if not all, will find this statement problematic. But, it represents the divide and how people in power can cause harm by making blanket judgements, shutting down conversations, making decisions that adversely impact engagement, or making specific people’s lives harder or even more invisible.

Want to learn more? Listen to Brené Brown as she hosts Austin Channing Brown on her Unlocking Us podcast. Or, discover how the co-founder of Reddit decided to give up his power and ask the board to replace him with a Black member.

3. Is your organization spending a disproportionate amount of time making a business case on why representation matters to those who have power? And, is your organization prepared to be involved in a messy, vulnerable change journey?

We don’t need to model the business case or return on investment (ROI) for DEI any longer because enough valid work has been done. We and our HR peers have proven that representation matters, that actions to create diverse and inclusive work environments bear fruit. Now is the time for action, for strategy.

As an example, look back to some outtakes from the 2018 Grammys as reported by Fast Company. In a now infamous interview, former Recording Academy Chairman and CEO Neil Portnow said that women in music need to “step up” if they want the Grammys to acknowledge them. After female executives and artists in the industry made it abundantly clear how problematic Portnow’s comment was, he agreed to step down in July 2019. Following this, Tina Tchen was hired to lead a corrective task force for the Grammys and took up an immediate initiative to invite 900 new voting members, each of whom checked off the boxes of being either a woman, person of color, under the age of 39 or any/all of the above.

Despite this, as the Grammys continues to strive for change, the mess of power and protecting privilege continues. DEI is messy business, it’s ongoing and there will be some bumps in the road. That doesn’t mean stop.

4. Is your organization engaging in profound ways with the world and the wrongs outside of your organization’s physical or virtual walls?

What conversations are your leaders having about the disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous and Latinx lives impacted by COVID-19? Or, the disproportionate number of Black lives lost at the hands of police? The mental health and life burdens placed on women who fulfill many of the essential worker roles during this pandemic? The caregiving responsibilities and mental burdens faced – mostly by women – as jobs and childcare move to a 24/7, home environment?

Words matter. Actions matter. Listening matters. Curiosity matters. Compassion matters. So, move humbly to do the work. Ask others: “Please tell me, what is it really like to be you?” Don’t just focus on DEI as PR.

True change is about more than superficial diversity, equity and inclusion programs and messages. It’s about justice. As echoed by Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, “Justice responds, ‘Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the majority?’ and justice challenges, ‘Whose safety is being sacrificed and minimized to allow others to be comfortable maintaining dehumanizing views?'”

So, where can we start as individuals and as organizations? Start with serious personal reflection. This work requires deep, critical learning and unlearning. Then, listen without judgement as you build genuine relationships with people whose lives are not like your own. Be bold and serious with your commitments to action. DEI and justice depend on it.

The HR Leader Editorial Committee thanks Kim for sharing her opinion, and welcomes further opinion submissions from HRMAC members. Please email any opinion pieces to