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The Anatomy of DEI: It's Multi-Dimensional and Messaging Matters

With all the misunderstanding around DEI today, it’s time for a reality check. One of the most prevalent contexts we’re hearing DEI come up in is the so-called “Anti-Woke” movement. But what does DEI have to do with being “woke”?

As I understood woke, the meaning was very much intuitive --- aware, awake, awakened --- and tied to being socially conscious in its broadest sense. At least, that’s how I’d given meaning to woke based on the contexts in which I’d been hearing it used for at least a decade before the term got on political radars post-George Floyd. Yet, somehow, “woke” became a regulated matter with bills being introduced in nearly 40% of the U.S. state legislatures. Interestingly, DEI became a primary object of the Anti-Woke legislative action with proposals put forward to shut down DEI offices, stop mandatory DEI training requirements, prohibit diversity statements, eliminate worker/student targets and stopping “Wrong to our Kids and Employees”, as one state went so far as to create an acronym that expressed its objective with legislation. And while all of these state legislative bills were being introduced, we were awaiting the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on race-conscious college admissions at two universities. A keen timing play, in my opinion, that created inflated caution around DEI in the workplace.

The hype that ensued about the state-level legal implications for DEI were oftentimes tied to the anticipated overturn of perceived affirmative action in the college admissions cases. That’s when a lightbulb went off for me that DEI was being commonly digested as a means of fostering racial advantages, and more specifically, racial advantages for people of color. Whoa! In my mind I wondered, is this really where we are with DEI? And to my disappointment, the work I was doing in the DEI space around this same time provided reliable data that proved the race-motivated sentiment of DEI had taken hold. For example, qualitative data showed there was pervasive, internalization of messaging in workplaces that DEI programs were seeking to replace white people with less qualified non-white people. People were referring to themselves as “non-diverse” if they did not represent being a person of color. Others were speaking in terms of “diverse hires” when people of color were being hired in jobs, especially in management and leadership roles. Certain employees were saying they did not see a space for them in their company’s DEI strategy. And some DEI efforts gave rise to reverse discrimination lawsuits. Perception had become reality.

With data to support such overwhelming perceptions of DEI as a race-based effort, this indicated that messaging (or communications, rather) was missing the mark. More alarming, however, was the implication that some DEI messaging was at odds with DEI principles of equity and inclusion by creating perceptions of unfairness and exclusion in the work environment. Outcries about this, including, but not limited to, state government reactions, led to DEI budgets being dramatically cut and, in some instances, altogether eliminated out of fear that legal repercussions might ensue. Private and public sector entities reacted. The “D” in DEI was being viewed through a myopic lens and placed diversity in direct opposition to the “E” and the “I”. Why? The answer is simple. Diversity was translated to mean race. When in fact, the dictionary definition of diversity in simple terms is differences. Yet, the “Anti-Woke” contingent homed in only on racial differences to deal a blow to DEI progress.

If a clearer picture was being painted about DEI, it would have shown that differences embody internal and external dimensions of DEI. Internally, DEI focuses on the employees in the workplace and those employees represent a multitude of differences, i.e., gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability (mental, emotional and physical), military status, marital status, economic background, and of course, race too. Most of these differences represented in the employee population are also legally protected when it comes to equal treatment; therefore, DEI programs can be utilized to intercept perceived or real discriminatory practices and potentially mitigate legal claims. But employees are not the only stakeholders in a work environment. External stakeholders like suppliers, customers, the local community, the general public and shareholders also represent diverse interests that have influences on successes and failures of organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit.

The point being that differences covered by DEI extend beyond race and based on those differences, there are unique interests that are directly tied to experiences created for diverse stakeholders. Whether those are workplace experiences, customer experiences, supplier experiences or public experiences, ensuring that fair, equitable and inclusive practices are being advanced is a DEI principle. Understanding the unique and diverse interests of stakeholders, internal and external, in order to specifically satisfy those interests creates a competitive advantage. Consider the data that shows inclusive companies are 1.3 times more likely to be high-performing and agile (Josh Bersin). Messaging DEI as more than a race-based strategy is also critical to fool-proofing inclusive practices (unless race is being used to remedy past discrimination or address human safety, according to guidance offered in the 2023 U.S. Supreme Court Opinion in the college admissions cases). Hence, if your view of DEI is one-dimensional, then your strategy is probably half-baked.

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