Equity, diversion and inclusion (EDI) programs are often implemented with the best of intentions, and organizations appreciate that they are good for business. So why are so many employers getting EDI initiatives wrong?
Decades ago, the sociology and political science departments of progressive universities worldwide realized that some individuals would face continual barriers to their success based on inherent characteristics such as race, religion, ethnic origin, gender expression or sexual identity.
Social theorists and activists called for the implementation of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) programs to even the playing field for racialized or marginalized groups, whose professional potential might otherwise be squandered by institutional racism, systemic barriers or bias — intentional or not.
I was on the front lines of those discussions growing up. As a sociologist specializing in organizational behaviour and a professor at Ryerson University, my late father, Donald Williams, was a long-time proponent of EDI programs his entire professional career. He carried those principles home and made them fodder for discussion with his children, long before we were of the age to fully understand the concepts he was floating.
In my professional life, I’ve worked with organizations that have found success in taking a proactive approach to workplace policy design and implementation. Yet, as social justice movements have gained sway in recent years and organizations have been urged into action to improve diversity representation and boost the equity of workplace outcomes and inclusion, our firm has had to assist in managing the unintended fallout.
EDI programs are most certainly implemented with the very best of intentions and organizations are strategically embracing the reality that they are good for business, particularly to remain competitive and source candidates from a broader pool. As such, they’ll often try to be proactive and charge forward with a progressive diversity and inclusion strategy.
Armed with goodwill and benevolent motives, why are so many getting the EDI initiatives wrong?
In their haste to fulfil corporate diversity mandates, organizations and their leaders often task HR with developing comprehensive EDI policies and initiatives that are sweeping in scope and mandate but complex and top-heavy to implement, let alone maintain. In many cases, these policies are not customized to suit an organization’s operational realities or existing culture, making them seem overly bureaucratic and dogmatic. Their impracticality sets the stage for tension and failure.
Poorly designed EDI programs can also be highly disruptive. Anti-oppression training, for example, can be so superficial that it fails to address the root causes of the very behaviour it’s trying to address, thereby anchoring unwanted conduct. For example, singling out a group in the context of EDI initiatives can be a surefire way to build resentment across a workplace. Employees will often stake a position on one side of the gender/racial/social/ethnic/cultural divide or the other, as tempers flare and behaviours and biases become entrenched. An ensuing wave of micro-aggressions and flagrant, unwanted conduct can eat away at staff morale.
Another key issue is recruitment. While EDI initiatives are designed to help attract, engage and retain a diverse and representative employee set, their success can also introduce an entirely new set of challenges. Put simply, it takes a strategic approach to manage a diverse workforce. If an employee group is largely homogenous, it will develop specific cultural and behavioural traits. Introducing individuals from different racialized or marginalized backgrounds into that group will invariably alter that balance and create the potential for conflict.
Having consistently applied policies that prohibit inappropriate behavior, but also introducing engagement-driving initiatives such as team-building events and peer-mentoring programs, will help to mitigate the risk of cultural upheaval and the alienation of new colleagues. So, too, will solid onboarding, career development, skills training and advancement. Absent those directives, tensions could well boil over.
Most importantly, organizations need to take a pre-emptive approach by pragmatically dealing with the fact that, no matter our identity, we all have different experiences that we bring to the workplace — and specific biases. We are prone to assume intentions that our colleagues may or may not have, based on external experiences, which can be triggered by benign workplace incidents. This is the reality of the human condition.
Make no mistake, organizational diversity and inclusion will deliver a competitive advantage when managed properly. But that means treating this as the complex issue that it is and implementing EDI initiatives in a strategic manner. That requires properly setting foundational principles and expectations, paying careful attention to detail and considering the potential HR and workplace culture ramifications.
Otherwise, organizations risk turning their progressive push into a retrograde affair that does more harm than good.
Laura Williams is the founder and principal of Williams HR Law, a human resources law firm in Markham, Ont. She can be reached at (905) 205-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.