Briefings Magazine

A New Path to Relevance

DEI efforts should be addressing both structural inclusion and behavioral inclusion. 

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By: Andrés Tapia

Tapia is Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the author of various books on DEI.

Back in 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, despite a lot of justified skepticism, the feeling was that maybe this time would be different. And it did feel different. Even CEOs were making denunciations against “systemic racism” and were wading into tackling “equity.”

A critical mass of corporate executives were chastened and fewer and fewer were uttering the line that “despite pockets of discrimination, overall, we are doing pretty well on this diversity thing.” The tragedy simply blew all that to smithereens and energy, time, and millions of dollars followed the exhortations and outrage. DEI, the shorthand for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, became a top priority. Townhalls with “courageous conversations” popped up at companies everywhere. Chief diversity officer roles proliferated at organizations of all sizes in all industries. Diversity budgets got a pop and many DEI leadership roles were created where there hadn’t been any.

So many promises were made. They sure sounded good and sincere and game-changing.

But we know what has happened much more recently, as  the counterforces of backlash roared back. Affirmative Action in universities has been struck down by the US Supreme Court and corporations are being attacked for their commitments to DEI. That backlash, along with fears of a recession, spurred many firms to cut DEI funding and shed DEI roles. Some companies backed off because the publicity was not worth it, and leaders who had been skeptical about DEI programs to begin with started to say “No, this is enough.”

It’s easy to fully fault the reactionary forces or the economic headwinds for DEI retrenchment. But instead of just blaming others, I see this as an opportunity to take stock of where DEI may have had blindspots and where we can make the case for DEI much more powerfully than we ever have before.

For at least a decade the signs have been there that the case for DEI has not evolved enough at companies. Too many leaders tell us that their DEI efforts are done because they’re “the right thing to do.” Sure it’s the right thing to do, but DEI still needs to expand its business relevance—and therefore justification for budgets and resources.

So how does DEI get back on solid footing? First, demonstrate the business relevance to the enterprise’s top priorities of innovation, growth, talent optimization, sustainability, and any other organization-specific critical needs. The research is in: Diverse and inclusive organizations do better, much better, than their less inclusive peers. If DEI can be positioned as the key enabler to the daily concerns business leaders have—growing markets, succeeding in acquisitions, and increasing profits, among others—then it cannot be seen as a distraction, a soft issue, or a cost.

At the same time, DEI efforts should be addressing both structural inclusion and behavioral inclusion. Unconscious bias training is fine, but ensuring that all employees can rise to the fullness of their potential is far more important. Identify and eliminate obstacles that aren’t about diversity and inclusion (improving overall manager development skills can cure a lot of ills). Then root out biases in talent systems, which often are rife with criteria that inadvertently filter out talent that represents a vaster and more diverse pool of candidates.

Finally, create inclusive and diverse teams. Those diverse groups create trusting, psychologically safe environments for all, allowing them to take the greater risks that innovation requires. This more trusting environment also lowers barriers to learning key interpersonal and work-relevant characteristics about each other, which accelerates their effectiveness in harnessing the team’s collective intelligence.

The road ahead for DEI is unpredictable and rocky. It’s also a path to new ways of doing the work and continuing to make a difference—no matter who says it can’t be done.


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