You’ve seen it in the news, D&I is out DEI is in

D&I has evolved, it’s all confusing and similar, and it is time to dive-in

Black woman with two pigtail style braids stands in front of a white wall holding a black posterboard which reads, “I WANT TO BE HEARD” in all capital letters and in a white text. The text appears to be painted by hand vs using a sencel. The woman is wearing acid washed jeans and what appears to be a black top. The woman also has on a black facemask. She is not looking into the camera, but to her right and is looking off into the distance.
Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Hiding part of yourself is exhausting, as is living in a world where judgment is cast upon you based on your skin color. Various elements, for a lot of people, make showing up to work, or simply life, difficult. A lot of ridicule is taken, part of you is dropped at the door on the way in, and there are some unimaginable challenges faced. Some elements can’t be hidden, forgotten, or ignored, sometimes the element is a visible disability, but no element should be ignored.

A unique group of people from varying backgrounds, ethnicities, races, disabilities, sexual orientations, all of these things, and more create diversity.

In 2018 diversity details started to become public and became an item that companies were scored on. It was a score that would drive or hinder their recruiting as future employees weighed this score in their decision to apply.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) story includes schools, government oversight in the workplace, numbers tracking, the creation of government bodies, and more. Its history is intertwined with US history.

The growth of DEI has, at times, been a result of historical events. Most recently it was the events of 2020 that sparked the evolution of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) to DEI. The world, specifically the US, saw racial injustices in the media, the pain, hurt, and videos of victims. It was unavoidable. The items that shook the world also rumbled into the workplace. The topic was unavoidable and as companies began to discuss race and diversity they have had the opportunity to reflect on the mishaps that had come before.

Back to the beginning

The idea of diversity is rooted in the Civil Rights movement and first was implemented in the Education sector in the 1960s. The topic of diversity was brought into schools with the hopes of combating racial tensions and bringing the topic to light.

In the 1960s the US was made up of numerous cultures — African Americans, Latinx and Chinco/a Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans — it wasn’t, and still isn’t, a country made up of solely white men. The diversity education was meant to provide these cultures, and other minorities, a platform to speak, for their voice to be heard. It was meant to hand these silenced Americans a megaphone on a platform where they had previously been silenced.

Next, the workplace became a testing ground for diversity. How would people come together? Would the new ingredients still result in the perfect apple pie?

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy put requirements in place for all government contractors, putting the ideals set in 1960 into play. Executive order 10925 was signed by JFK on March 6, 1961, which required government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

At this point in US history there were no requirements, pushes, or regulations on the book to ensure fair employment regardless of race, nor were there any employee ratio requirements. But, that wasn’t for long.

JFK’s Executive Order led to the establishment of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities, which was led by Vice President Lyndon Johnson. This committee would serve as the predecessor to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which was established in 1965.

The EEOC takes the diversity baton

Beginning in 1966 companies with 100 or more employees were required to file the Employer Information Report EEO-1. The requirement came from the passing of a law established by the EEOC and captured both the ratio of white employees to minorities and the ratio of male employees to female employees.

EEO-1 reporting created a measurement for companies to be evaluated regarding their diversity. How diverse is the company? This question began to shape how companies were viewed by the general public. The 2018 Forbe’s list of companies to work for introduced diversity as a factor companies were measured by. Unintentionally the EEO-1 report became the press kit for each company’s story of success and inclusion.

Is it all a numbers game?

JFK’s Executive Order had good intentions, as did the EEOC in 1966. The goal was to establish a diverse workplace where everyone was treated fairly, but the implementation of that vision fell short of enacting it.

Yes, the EEOC is there to dive into any wrongdoing that is brought to their attention. But, the process is long and resolution isn’t swift. The EEO-1 form recognizes that diverse workplaces are needed, and helps companies identify their gaps, finding where actions are needed. But when you get down to the barebones of the EEO-1 report (example), it is only capturing the details entered on the EEO form at the start of employment.

At an extremely high level the report says:

  • You have X number of employees, x% of which are a minority
  • You have X number of employees, x% of which are female
  • Females who are part of a minority are counted in each percentage.

The depth of the report varies depending on the company size.

The EEO-1 report can feel dated and hasn’t quite kept up with the changes brought over time. The report does what it was established to do, make sure employers with 100+ employees have a diverse workplace, and the EEOC is in place to ensure discrimination does not take place based on race or gender. Will the report be updated in the future to look at the ratio of straight employees to LGBTQ+ employees? Maybe with time, anything is possible.

Wait, isn’t this about D&I?

Diversity is a simple word, it means to be diverse, or “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.” In the workplace diversity simply means having employees who are different from one another.

Like diversity, inclusion is also simple. Inclusion is “the act of including: the state of being included.” Or it is “to take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group.” (It also means to shut up, but I don’t think that is applicable here, just a fun fact.)

In this case, inclusion in a sentence might look like -

“The act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability).” — Merriam-Webster

Diversity means that different elements are included, in the workplace, this may be people who have historically been excluded, and Inclusion refers to including the different elements as they are and including them in the group.

D&I initiatives companies have made may look like the celebration of black history month, breast cancer awareness, multicultural potlucks, emails jam-packed with facts, or hallways plastered with facts. The initiatives were diverse in whom they each represented, much like the workforce, and made people feel included as their unique element was celebrated in the workplace.

Times are changing and equity is a workplace must

“Equity” joined the D&I party, largely, in 2020 when the US faced a lot of unfortunate historical events, that brought to light a lot of injustices that had been unintentionally brushed aside in the workplace.

Companies, the large majority of which had no ill intent, may not have considered D&I beyond what was already in place. Some may have lacked the funds to implement anything more, and others may have planned to make changes but found themselves bogged down in other issues. Despite these or other reasons, it was time for long looks into the mirror, extensive reflections, collective brainstorming, and implementation of change.

From these honest reflections came the rebranding of D&I. There was a collective realization that equity needed to become a core element in their diversity journey and D&I evolved to DEI.

Formally, equity is defined as “fairness or justice in the way people are treated,” which seems like an obvious thing to do in the workplace. But, depending on who you are and where you work(ed), you may know that equity hasn’t always existed.

In 1997 David A Thomas and Suzy Wetlaufer questioned the impact that race had in the workplace, two decades after affirmative action became law. They set out to learn what it was like in the workplace, at that time, for someone who is from a minority.

Among those they spoke with was a Hispanic gentleman named Ed Vargas who described the impact that the media had on his experience in a professional workplace:

“In the workplace, there are executives who do not value Hispanics as business leaders because of those stereotypes.”

Vox explored also the issue in 2019 and at the time Chicago lawyer Linda Friedman, who represented 700 employees against Merill Lynch in 2013, commented about how racism in the workplace has transformed.

“Over time, the way in which people discriminate, what they acknowledge and admit out loud, has changed. But the ultimate end, which is differential treatment — treating whites more favorably than African Americans — has not changed.”

Recently, the Society for Human Resources (SHRM) did a deep dive into what life as a black employee is like at the start of 2021. Across the board, one item that stood out is the way these black employees were spoken to, the small microaggressions that the conversations they had with coworkers and leaders included. Referring to the leaders in the workplace, SHRM said:

“White managers don’t realize how common it is for Black professionals to experience microaggressions, Kennedy says. They’re often surprised to hear that some of their own actions, such as telling a Black co-worker that she is exceptional or articulate, can be offensive.”

Evolutions and change take time, they aren’t going to be perfect out of the gate, and things will be done wrong. The important part, the key element of it all, is that companies are working to create a workplace where DEI is one of the elements at its core and is the flame they never let go out and that they are honest and transparent with their employees as they go on the journey together.

Workplace Dance

Another HR professional once explained D&I using an analogy that was a lot of fun and mostly understandable. I am going to update it to include equity (DEI) and try to not butcher it. (*fingers crossed*)


  • Setting: Workplace dance
  • Diversity = guests
  • Equity = how those guests are treated
  • Inclusion = how their differences are included in the group

SCENARIO: Company X is throwing a dance to celebrate the successful launch of a new product


Company X is getting ready to send out their invites and have found themselves pondering two options:

  1. Invite everyone in the office, even the level 11s who are too junior to have worked on the product
  2. Invite everyone in the office except the level 11s because they did not work on the product

The diverse option is to include the level 11s on the email blast with the invite. The employee population who worked on the product may be diverse, in terms of their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But, the diversity does not include all levels, senior to junior, and this cannot be achieved without extending the invite to the level 11s.

Drinks on the house

Company X decided that drinks would be on the house and hired someone to work the drink station at the dance. There will be three drinks offered — Drink in a Glass, Drink in a Can, and Drink in a Bottle — and Company X is wondering if there is a way to monitor costs.


Drink in a Glass = $10

Drink in a Can = $3

Drink in a Bottle = $7

Company X is considering these options:

  1. Since the level 11s did not work on the product, limit them to only Drinks in a Can. Everyone else can pick anything.
  2. Company X sees women as dainty and fragile creatures, so they would like to limit them to only Drinks in a Glass. Men are seen as burly and working with their hands, so Company X would limit them to only Drinks in a Can and Drinks in a Bottle. Company X has a 1 to 10 women to men ratio, so they are confident this will cut costs.
  3. Company X thinks they can manage costs by providing everyone with two drink tickets that can be used on any drink option. They will also provide all employees the option to purchase any additional drinks they want beyond their two tickets.

The equitable route is to provide everyone with two drink tickets and provide the option to purchase drinks in addition to the two tickets. The other two considerations don’t treat all of Company X’s employees equally, they discriminate against various groups.


Company X knows they have employees from different cultures and backgrounds and company X would love to include everyone in the dance-off taking place at 9 pm. But, they also know that the Charkula dance from the Indian culture isn’t interesting and they find it to be extremely boring. They are trying to decide what the best option is:

  1. On the sign-up sheet list the cultures they are inviting employees to showcase, on the sheet they would exclude the Indian culture
  2. Do a sign-up sheet that includes all cultures and styles, it has no restrictions, but limits the competition to 10 dances and has the sign-up be first-come-first-serve.
  3. To be fair, Company X will exclude dances from the Indian culture and the Russian cultures. This will eliminate boredom and political tensions.

To be inclusive Company X would have to allow anyone and any dance style to sign up for the competition. The other options don’t include everyone, whether it is the Indian culture or the Indian and Russian cultures, someone’s talents aren’t being included in the whole group of Company X dancers.

Will you go to the DEI dance with me?

Company X successfully launched product Q. To celebrate they are going to host a dance party that everyone will be invited to, regardless of their work on project Q.

Company X wants this to be a real celebration and knows their employees enjoy beverages as they tear up the dance floor, so they are providing each employee, and their guest, two drink tickets that work on any of the beverage options. Knowing that some employees may want a third drink, Company X has arranged for employees to be able to purchase drinks once their tickets have been used.

One thing that the employees of Company X are known for is their varied dances, they come from different cultural backgrounds, dance studies, regional areas, and more. Company X wants to allow employees to put these talents on display and will be hosting a dance-off. Due to time limitations, only 10 employees will be able to dance. To ensure everyone has the opportunity to sign up, Company X will be using an online sign-up sheet that updates live. The sheet will have 10 slots and once they are full, the sign-up will be cut off.

What now?

It is time for companies to put the work in, really take those moments to reflect, and gather to implement change. What that looks like at one company may not be what it looks like at another. Each company’s culture and employee base are different, and those items will impact the futures ahead of them.

With the evolution of DEI, there is the opportunity for each company to make DEI about more than just race, culture, and gender. The opportunity for all groups to be included and celebrated, for everyone to have a voice, an opportunity to succeed, and an arena for their voice to be heard.

Equity is the real key in the next steps. Making sure everyone is equal, that everyone has the same opportunities, that no one is lesser than. It is also going to be the most difficult part.

To begin addressing the incidents of 2020, some companies began establishing programs for black employees, and only black employees. Some companies narrowed the scope further so that only high-performing black employees could partake in program X. In doing this companies inadvertently created further inequity. All other high-performing minorities, high-performing diverse employees are excluded from yet another activity, as were all other high-performing employees eligible for program X. While programs need to be, well, DEI, they can still be exclusive in maybe only one level, region, or department is running the program. In reality, everything can’t always be open to everyone.

Diverse employees include those who identify themselves as part of the LGBTQ+ community, are neurodiverse, have a disability, are from varying races, come from different cultures, and more. Experiences within each group may be similar, as may the experiences across groups. Regardless of the actions in the past, companies need to take this moment of pause and reset to ensure everyone is included.

One of the biggest concerns and something companies have to have awareness of, is overcorrection. Doing the opposite of what had been done or putting in place programs that, again, only address a portion of their employee population’s diversity.

The move to achieve success in DEI is going to be hard, but it will also be exciting. Companies will have a chance to not only create new programs, processes, and policies, but they also have the opportunity to go back, look at what has been done, and ask themselves if any changes are needed.

For example, a company may have a select program for their female employees. Of the top three company levels female who has been identified as high-performing may be selected to be mentored by a top senior leader, with a full growth and development plan to be set out. Almost a reward for their success.

When reviewing these programs the company may identify that their low-performing or average employees would benefit most from a mentor. That having someone to help the employee plan and navigate back to a path of success could lead to success in the employee's job. That it is an opportunity to improve an employee, build them up, increase productivity, and lessen any headache the employee may be causing. The program may not mirror what is in place, it may look different which could be a change of who the mentor is from the currently established program. Having the program in place gives the employee hope that they can succeed, it reassures them that the company cares, but, possibly most important to companies, it continues to push the company towards being an employer of choice.

It is would also be worthwhile for the company to also review, who from the top-level high-performing employees are eligible for the program as they move forward.

Conversations started in 2020 and 2021, in the workplace, companies gave groups were given the platform and opportunity to speak up and share. Those conversations are critical. They are how we learn about one another, how we create bonds, how we understand, and how we grow. Continuing forward companies need to provide that same platform to other diverse groups, allowing learning to begin there. The conversation can’t stop at one event, these critical, but casual, conversations need to be threaded through the year.

Moving forward a business professional company may host a one-hour conversation with various black employees during black history month that any employee can attend. In the remaining 11 months of the year, companies could have various black employees host a 30 minute, anyone can come, platforms for conversation and discussion. Let the same happen for all of the other diverse groups. It may feel overwhelming and time-consuming, but there would be no attendance requirement and right now, employees need to understand each other. Earlier microaggressions were touched on, things people outside of the black community (in this example) do or say. Open conversations like these allow for topics like microaggressions to be discussed, for employees to understand, and for change to start.

It is not uncommon to hear statements that the companies only care about the money. True or not, the impact DEI has is in the workplace and reputation, both, therefore, impacting the company’s piggy bank. Well-executed DEI will create an improved working environment, which will, in turn, increase productivity. The improved environment and experience will aid in the company becoming an employer of choice, which will bring in more and stronger candidates.

Addressing DEI is critical at this moment, not only because it is a hot topic, but because failing to do so will have the opposite effect on the company, marking them as dated, unfair, and somewhere you don’t want to work. But, diversity will always be evolving, DEI will forever be changing and may transform into something new in 20 years. If companies have not done so yet, they need to set the foundation for their company's diversity, create a place they can begin building DEI on. The work in this space will never be done, there will always be more to do, and it is important to remember that as we grow as humans improvements, implementations, and changes to diversity plans will always be needed.

For years we have been working to successfully have a diverse workplace where everyone is treated equally. We have created programs within companies and the government, but we haven’t quite found the recipe to create that perfect apple pie. The opportunity to revise and develop is here. Companies have the opportunity to start with a clean slate, they have employees energized about the topic, and more eyes on the topic than there has been in years. Now is the time to make up for all the missed opportunities of the past.



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