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DE&I for Show? Or DE&I for Results?

Two business people working on a laptop in an office.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) programs are a high priority these days. What are the results? From what I've observed, not much. Why?

"Let's do something!" corporate leaders say. "We need to show our customers and employees we care about diversity!" HR is given a budget to hire DE&I specialists to give presentations and conduct workshops on unconscious bias and related topics. In many cases, however, this only amounts to "box checking" that's highly unlikely to change attitudes, much less behavior and results.

According to Michelle Wimes, senior vice president and chief equity and inclusion officer for Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., "True progress in DE&I takes conscious, deliberate action, a willingness to acknowledge and address the equity gaps head-on. That means a move away from the superficial focus on infrastructure (e.g., creating committees and employee resource groups) to a deep focus on culture and behavior and how they either impede or promote the success of an organization's diverse employees."

"Meaningful, sustained organizational change won't happen if it's not grounded in thorough assessment work," said Kay Toran, president and CEO of Volunteers of America–Oregon, and former director of the Oregon Affirmative Action Office. She noted that in the DE&I context, this doesn't mean simply looking at the obvious numbers such as percentages of women and minorities employed and compensation paid to them. It goes deeper:

  • What is the culture? Does it promote collaboration that makes it easier for diverse groups of people to come together on shared objectives? Or is it more of a silo culture whose adverse effects include a lack of inclusion?
  • How do people advance in the organization? Do they feel they have a viable future?
  • What gives employees professional pleasure and satisfaction?
  • Who mentors whom?
  • How are opportunities allocated? What are the obstacles? 

Wimes and Toran agree that commitment starts at the top. Leaders can't simply talk the talk. They've got to walk the walk. And they know that: Research shows CEOs and CHROs are recognizing that more needs to be done on the DE&I front, said Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management.

This extends "to discussions of what's meant by 'corporate citizenship' and equitable 'talent acquisition and inclusion,' " he said.

Wimes and Toran recommend that employers shouldn't just measure obvious things like demographics, hiring rates and compensation. Less obvious things, such as senior employees spending time with junior workers, can lead to meaningful results. When I was a young attorney in the 1980s, three people were instrumental in the development of my trial skills, client-facing skills and other elements necessary to build a successful law practice. Their guidance and support enabled me to make partner at a prestigious law firm and later to launch my own law firm.

These three people were highly successful, older white men. An example of what Toran and Wimes recommend would be measuring how many white male partners mentor female and minority employees, include them in new client pitches, or delegate to them significant client relationship responsibility.

Toran noted that you have to confront the elephants in the room. If something's getting in the way of progress, "you can't just ignore it or try to carve a path around the elephant. What's the plan to remove the obstacle?" The elephant might be a culture issue or a structural flaw in the organization. It also may be a powerful, high-level employee. Are you willing to have a "No-FEAR confrontation" to work through the obstacle?

Lastly, Toran and Wimes suggest publicizing progress. Are positive actions and results celebrated? Or even noted? Positive recognition of desirable results and behaviors worth repeating will produce valuable and sustained results.


Improving DE&I in an organization is a worthy cause. Having a successful DE&I program can't be achieved by lectures and admonishments alone. Organizations need to get serious about DE&I—and go about pursuing it in a serious way.


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