We’ve all heard the saying, “A person’s true character is revealed by what they do when no one is watching.” This rings true in every area of life, especially when observing a business.
Leaders, often well-intentioned, are quick to make pronouncements regarding diversity, equity, and inclusiveness (DEI). The real test is when they come back weeks or months later and see their results.
“Sadly, these results are often mixed,” says Wynne Nowland, CEO of Bradley & Parker. Although most leadership teams believe that prioritizing DEI is vital, they may also believe it will simply fall into place.”
The reality, according to Nowland, is that DEI initiatives must be deliberate to succeed. In this regard, corporate leaders must not only plan for it, buy into it, and incentivize it, but must also lead the charge in implementing it.
What is performative corporate DEI?
Performative DEI is when a company or leader announces they will support DEI initiatives, but no actions are taken to achieve these goals. “In other words,” Nowland explains, “performative DEI is all talk and no action.”
As Nowland explains, underserved communities may view performative corporate DEI as:
- A company that reuses a picture of the only person of color in the company to claim they are racially diverse.
- The DEI department experiencing a high level of turnover, highlighting signs that the position is more for show and less about actual change.
- Company leaders who are caught complaining about “diversity hires,” creating an atmosphere where underserved communities feel denigrated.
It’s easy for companies that believe they’re doing a good job in promoting DEI to stumble unwittingly. “Regrettably, prejudices and bigotry have been deeply ingrained in our society for generations,” Nowland adds. “Unconscious bias is real, and even people who think they have the best intentions can be guilty of microaggressions against underrepresented groups.”
What’s a leader to do?
It’s really easy for companies to develop fancy procedures and policy memos that make it look like they’re doing something about diversity and inclusivity. “That’s the easy part,” says Nowland, “the hard part is putting it into practice. To do that, leaders must have some pathway to assess progress and track results. Otherwise, it’s just a nice piece of policy with no substance.”
Any organization seeking to embrace inclusion needs to start from the top. The practices, language, norms, and processes that support these inclusion goals need to move entirely and effectively down the organizational chart.
As with any for-profit project, achieving diversity is a goal requiring a comprehensive plan that identifies the organization’s deficiencies, and sets goals and a timeline to correct them. Something like superficial copy written in a policy memo just won’t do. Too often, those kinds of actions are taken to “tick off a box” without ever moving the needle. Company leadership needs to set the tone, and be certain that their managers and supervisors are onboard in order to execute these missions regularly.
Creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace is a slow and frustrating process. Business leaders must be honest and transparent to build new relationships for actual change to occur.
Wynne Bio: Wynne Nowland, the CEO of Bradley & Parker, transitioned at age 56. She came out as trans to her entire company in an email, featured in the WSJ, saying “You’ve all known me as Wayne, but tomorrow morning I will arrive to work as Wynne.” She was already out to her family and many friends, but coming out at work was her final step to being who she truly was. As one of very few trans CEO’s, Wynne is able to provide unique insight on trans issues and topics as a trans business leader and entrepreneur.
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