Harmful mistakes companies make in their DEI efforts

By Michael V. Nguyen 5 minute Read

On one hand, this is certainly a welcome development since lack of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) in the business world reinforce systemic inequalities and injustices. These inequalities are what sparked the protests in the first place.

On the other hand, it also presents a potential problem in that too many diversity programs initiatives are carried out in ways that not only lead to subpar results but can cause more harm.

To avoid these pitfalls, companies need to develop better awareness and sensitivity, and that can only be done by first gaining a clearer understanding of what those pitfalls are.

Focusing on the “D” in DEI

A common mistake many organizations make is to expressly focus on the “D” in DEIB. Adopting just this limited view, leadership teams focus on only what’s outwardly visible or compositional diversity, so the numeric and proportional representation of different groups within an organization.

This sort of effort is done more by prioritizing job applications submitted by a few target groups, followed by emphasizing hiring people from those groups. It’s not that this is wrong in itself. “D” is a component of “DEIB,” after all. The problem is when companies focus on this to the exclusion of the other parts that make up DEIB (the “equity, inclusion, belonging”). Relatedly, if we’re using the alternative the JEDI acronym, we would also use a “J” for “justice.”

Part of the problem with focusing on just the “D” (and there are many problems with it) is that it creates the outward illusion of equity and inclusion.

To better illustrate this concept, think of an iceberg. Ninety percent of it is underwater and not immediately visible. If “diversity” is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, then “equity,” “inclusion,” and “belonging” are the other 90% beneath the water. Unfortunately, appearances are not only deceiving, they are also very powerful. People are not conditioned to look below the surface. But as with physical icebergs, it’s that which lies beyond the immediately visible is what ship navigators must worry about. This is one of the ways in which DEIB initiatives often end up not just ineffective but damaging.

However, a noticeable lack of visible diversity can at least bring attention to the fact since outside observers or the employees themselves are more likely to notice. But if an organization manages to make their workforce appear diverse but, at the same time, does little for genuine equity, inclusion, and belonging, then this is arguably worse than if they had done nothing at all since the invisible barriers and discimination can get concealed by the surface-level diversity.

Performative DEI and self-serving aims

Something even worse than focusing exclusively on the “D” is performative DEIB work, which is similarly common.

There’s some overlap between performative DEIB work and DEIB work that focuses only on the “D” in that both are about appearances. But what makes performative DEIB even more harmful is that underlying the “performance” (i.e., diversity-themed parties or social media campaigns constructed around hashtags) are self-serving motives rooted in excessive concern for ROI.

This might be more acceptable if it were undergirded by substantial work being done simultaneously in the areas of equity, inclusion, and belonging. But when done without those things, performative DEIB reaches an almost insidious level of harmfulness in that it creates additional rewards and privileges for the already privileged while doing little of substance for the underprivileged. Essentially, it’s further un-leveling an already unlevel playing field.

Lack of shared accountability

Another common pitfall is, instead of sharing accountability across the organization, to place all the burden of DEIB initiatives on the shoulders of a chief diversity officer. Often, this executive may be a leader who, due to their background and experience, may be better suited in a different C-suite role such as an HR officer. This often happens with Black women, who are the most common demographic chosen to serve as CDO but who, unless they have a background in DEIB and are given sufficient resources, often end up burning out.

At the same time, organizations must take care not to make the opposite mistake of hiring a white, heteronormative, able-bodied male in the position of CDO. Not only is that likely to be interpreted in this current day and age as tone deaf, even well-intended white allies can suffer from “advantage blindness,” limiting their effectiveness in a CDO role. Admittedly, there may be some situations in which having a white CDO may have some potential advantages so it is not a black-and-white issue. But at the very least, an organization should not go this route without a careful consideration of its own unique situation.

The cumulative result of these pitfalls is that even if their intentions are good, organizations often end up reinforcing the current system. A sentiment that’s commonly expressed is that the “system is broken,” but it is in fact working exactly as intended, which is to privilege and empower certain groups and marginalize and oppress others. Dismantling and reimagining it, therefore, is the only real way that diversity initiatives can achieve their purported aims.

None of this is to dissuade organizations from pursuing initiative. These pointers are meant to help companies better understand that effective DEIB work isn’t easy and that it isn’t an area where shortcuts can be taken, at least not if companies wish to make a real difference and live up to the pledges many of them made in 2020. It requires true, sincere commitment over the long term.

To again use the iceberg analogy, any visible DEIB issue that can be identified is linked to a massive body of behavior patterns, mental models, and oppressive systems of which 90% is hidden under the surface. It’s only when those systems and their connections to the visible DEIB issues on the surface can be identified that true, lasting solutions can be developed instead of short-term, reactive solutions.

Michael V. Nguyen is a professor at the University of Southern California.