Who’s Challenging Workplace DE&I Efforts? Managers. (i4cp login required)


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Most (75%) of the 852 professionals surveyed in Q1 by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) on the current state of workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts reported that their companies are making progress. Few respondents (9%) said their organizations have failed to make progress toward their DE&I goals in the past 18 months.

The list of factors contributing to lack of progress closely mirrors the list of factors driving progress, which we explored in an earlier article: Leadership buy-in, having clear goals and objectives, ensuring that DE&I is an integral part of the day-in/day-out culture of the business, the CEO is a DE&I champion, and leaders are held accountable for meeting DE&I goals.

Lack of leadership accountability is the number-one obstacle to DE&I progress

In analyzing the responses of those who said their organizations are not making progress toward their stated DE&I goals, it’s no stretch to imagine that leaders who aren’t held accountable in turn don’t feel personally accountable. There are always exceptions, of course, but if DE&I isn’t an integral part of how performance is measured, it’s less likely to be top of mind for leaders.

And it’s likely that in organizations failing to make progress, there are no articulated expectations of leaders for modeling inclusive behaviors, enterprise communication is neither clear nor consistent (if it’s happening at all) in terms of connecting DE&I to business outcomes, and tough conversations are simply not happening.

As is now documented, when implicit bias goes unchecked in the workplace, people feel alienated, uncomfortable, and unsafe—the culture can become a roiling toxic soup. How can anyone reasonably expect performance to not be impacted in such an environment?

But what type of accountability is effective? While 33% of survey participants cited leadership accountability as an important factor in driving progress, only 10% also said that their organizations are tying executive compensation to specific DE&I goals. This indicates that other forms of accountability might be more appropriate or accepted, such as:

  • Promotion/succession opportunities
  • Development opportunities
  • Recognition
  • Performance ratings

Getting to the bottom of it (by listening more than talking)

What can leaders in organizations that are stalled or making little progress in their DE&I work do to jump-start action? It starts with establishing an environment in which people feel safe sharing perspectives and asking questions without fear of judgment for “saying the wrong thing.” Setting ground rules or community guidelines—whatever verbiage works for a particular organization—is helpful in providing that safety and structure.

Leaders should be open to identifying and addressing challenges. This is easier said than done of course, but establishing routine employee listening mechanisms can begin with small, uncomplicated steps. The key here is to listen with intention—which isn’t always the easiest of tasks for some leaders. 

Having multiple channels for communication is also important. Always-open feedback portals and regularly reviewing third-party sites like Glassdoor should also be part of the listening strategy. If employees aren’t accustomed to (or ready for) open discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion, simple anonymous pulse surveys can help gauge what people are experiencing and inform decision making for leaders.

A second benefit is that in considering the questions, participants receive messaging about what bias is, what inclusion is, how it can affect anyone, and how it may feel—no matter who they are.

This doesn’t mean a formal survey initiative needs to happen—any one of these exploratory questions can stand alone. Consider posing one question a week for six-to-eight weeks; narrative responses to question prompts such as these can be very illuminating: 

Question examples:

  • Do you believe that traits such as  gender, race, age, identity, or disability status impact talent decisions in the organization? If yes, how?
  • Do you believe that all employees in the organization have equal opportunities to succeed and advance their careers?
  • Do you believe specific groups or individuals you work with receive either preferential or negatively biased treatment?
  • Do you consistently feel valued and respected at work?
  • Do you feel at ease in meetings?
  • Are your ideas or perspectives solicited in meetings?
  • When you speak up in meetings, are you listened to, or do you feel talked over?
  • Do you ever feel misinterpreted (e.g., if you have a strong opinion, are you labeled “aggressive”)?
  • Do you feel judged if you ask to flex your schedule to accommodate family responsibilities?
  • Do people make assumptions about you? What are those assumptions?
  • When you think of the word inclusion, what comes to mind?

Understanding why managers and frontline workers challenge workplace DE&I efforts—and what to do about it

This survey also found that among those who reported that their companies are experiencing challenges to workplace DE&I efforts, the top two sources of those challenges are internal: managers and frontline workers.

This may be surprising, but an unfortunate flaw in many workplace DE&I Initiatives is that while the assumed goal is to increase inclusion and sense of belonging for everyone, some employees feel left out—and they’re likely not senior leaders who are consistently read-in on DE&I strategy or goals.

For managers and frontline workers, it’s easy to misinterpret things like representation goals as preferential consideration. For others, there may be resistance to extra talent management tasks being assigned without a clear view of what the benefits are for the business.  

To compound this challenge, when it comes to perception of which groups in organizations are best prepared to address resistance to DE&I efforts, frontline and mid-level managers are viewed as the least prepraed (54 % and 41% , respectively). This indicates that these employees are not only  uncomfortable with the topic, but that they most likely do not understand the business case and reasoning behind most DE&I initiatives.

Most challenges to DEI efforts come from employees

While there will always be people who will oppose DE&I efforts regardless of what their employers do or don’t do, the corrosive effect on company culture is a concern, especially if naysayers are people leaders. For this particular group, clarity in communicating leadership expectations and the reasoning behind it are essential. The same is true for communicating workplace conduct expectations more broadly.

Focusing on what can be done to achieve progress should start with getting a clear-eyed view of what employees are experiencing in the organization. The reasons some people may push back on workplace DE&I efforts are complex, nuanced, and too numerous to detail here, but the thread running through all of it is this: they don’t feel part of it.

Any number of factors can lead employees to believe that DE&I isn’t important, or that it doesn’t affect them. Organizational culture plays a foundational role in this—some questions for leaders to consider:

  • What is the tone of the organization’s culture? How might you describe it in one word?
  • Is DE&I integral to the values and principles that guide day-to-day operations? Or is it something that’s discussed only occasionally?  
  • Are employees at every level included (if they want to be) in co-creating DE&I priorities, initiatives, and programming?
  • Do leaders from the CEO down effectively communicate support for DE&I?
  • Do all people leaders authentically model what DE&I looks like?
  • Is data about the organization’s DE&I efforts shared enterprisewide?
  • Are there employee listening channels in place to help detect misconceptions or misunderstandings about the goals and objectives of DE&I initiatives?
  • Do misconceptions or misunderstandings about the goals and objectives of DE&I initiatives go unaddressed?
  • Is DE&I education positioned as a one-off /check the box thing? Is it perceived as remedial/corrective training?
  • Is there investment in DE&I education for the frontline?
  • Are things that should be discussed (but are uncomfortable to discuss) usually avoided?
  • Is our DE&I function and associated initiatives having the desired impact? If not, what needs to be done to clearly align them to organizational goals.

The encouraging news is that most companies are making steady progress in 2024 on their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. And the actions available to leaders to help guide their organizations in a positive direction are relatively straightforward—grounded in listening, communication, ongoing education and development, and consistency. 

i4cp members: Download the aggregate survey results

Not an i4cp Member? Learn more about becoming an enterprise member

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