Over the past 2 years, hundreds of organizations have reached out to Awaken, with specific requests to support their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) challenges and initiatives.
In 2019 alone, we’ve been contacted by nearly 500 different organizations’ leaders — from concerned employees to CHROs, Chief Diversity Officers to CEOs — who shared their concerns, visions, and desires to create a meaningful change in their organizations.
As the CEO of Awaken, I spent about 800 hours last year speaking (using an actual phone, not just my laptop, *gasp*) with different stakeholders from these organizations — of all sizes and industries, from tech startups to media conglomerates to government agencies — trying to understand their needs and determine whether we’d be the best partner to support their goals. We’ve collected a mountain of data on what organizations are looking for, what missteps keep recurring, where DEI efforts are headed next — and noticing patterns and themes.
From the ongoing debate around the real efficacy of Unconscious Bias Trainings to the growing focus on Inclusion and Belonging, here are key trends and recommendations as your organization heads into the new decade of the ongoing journey towards Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Top 10 Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Trends & Recommendations
- Fatigue, Overwhelm, Cynicism
- Data, Data, Data
- Executives: Oblivious, Scared, Frustrated, Committed
- Distributed Teams, Global Strategies
- Integrated and Skills-Based Inclusive Leadership Training Programs
- Sophisticated DEI Teams and Roles
- Accountability through Performance Management
- Broadened Definition of “Diversity” — the Good, the Bad, the Ugly
- Reinvigoration of Employee Resource Groups
- Movement towards Social Justice
1. Fatigue, Overwhelm, Cynicism
First of all, everyone is tired. The constant exposure to tragedies and injustices everywhere, from the environmental crisis, human rights violations, institutionalized racism, sexual violence, to the rising threats to our democracy, has left even the most optimistic feeling uncertain, powerless, and overwhelmed.
“It is damn hard to expand the limits of our empathy when our emotional attention is already stretched too thin.” — Roxane Gay
The amount of direct and indirect political traumas we’ve experienced is taking a toll in and outside of the workplace. Coupled with a lack of clear progress or answers towards DEI, people at all levels — Executives to Individual Contributors — are feeling frustrated, cynical, exhausted.
Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS), is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is commonly observed amongst people who hold occupations that require a lot of emotional labor and compassion — think social workers, nurses, psychologists, etc. — but researchers are relating this concept to describe what’s happening in our society today, where folks are constantly exposed to social media and news covering traumatic events 24/7. Compassion fatigue can lead people to feel less hopeful and less caring over time, desensitizing them from others’ suffering and reducing the overall desire to engage in important issues.
Hence, buzzwords like “Diversity Fatigue” have entered the DEI sphere, hinting we may be at a crossroad of the critical mass’s resignation or reinvigoration.
- Be specific in describing the “fatigue” — don’t just say “diversity fatigue” because it can further perpetuate the idea that people are tired of talking about DEI (people are not tired of “diversity” — how can you be tired of it when you don’t have it?!). Instead, try saying “Inaction Fatigue” or “Inertia Fatigue,” “Compassion Fatigue, or “Lack of Progress Fatigue,” which are more accurate in describing the real issue and can shift the conversations to focus on solutions to breathe energy back into the work.
- Address these emotions head on and incorporate ideas around self-care and community-care into your strategy. Create space for people to discuss their feelings of overwhelm, frustration, and fatigue, and remind people to take care of themselves so they can stay engaged. Share self-care tips and invest in mental health resources, especially for those directly involved in advancing DEI at your organization.
2. Data, Data, Data
Some say the most valuable currency in today’s society is data.
Leaders of organizations strive to make data-driven decisions and DEI is no exception. While more organizations are publishing their diversity metrics (demographic data), measuring inclusion and sense of belonging is not yet a widely adopted practice. There has been great progress made in the past couple of years, where more sophisticated ways of quantifying inclusion have emerged to support benchmarking and progress tracking efforts. These newish tools and methods have been gaining momentum in recent years among smaller organizations but many organizations are still behind in measuring inclusion consistently over time.
Lastly, there is a major gap in conducting intersectional analysis (e.g., experiences of women of color, LGBTQ women, people of color with disabilities, etc.) and team-based (rather than company-wide aggregated reports) analysis, prohibiting organizations from being able to develop more defined and targeted DEI strategies.
- If launching a separate inclusion survey is not feasible, incorporate a select number of questions into your existing employee engagement or climate survey. Simple yet powerful questions such as “I feel like I belong at this company” or “I can be my authentic self at this company” can be a good starting place.
- Create more specific recommendations based on intersectional, disaggregated, and team-based data analysis — are there noticeable trends among groups identifying with 2 or more marginalized identities? Should “People of Color” or “Asian American” be further disaggregated to pinpoint specific issues and solutions? Is there a pattern of turnover on certain teams managed by certain leaders? Remember, inclusion and belonging experiences are driven largely by team cultures.
- Not all data points should be treated with equal weight. Make sure you’re not dismissing key data points due to the small sample size of the underrepresented employee population (“why worry when only 5% of population says we have a problem?”). If 90% of White men say your workplace is doing great on inclusion but only 20% of women of color agree…please, investigate.
- Data can be extremely helpful but be careful not to get stuck in inaction mode while trying to figure out the best way to collect data or overanalyzing existing data. There are things you can do with or without data — every organization can benefit from having more awareness, inclusive benefits, and more equitable processes. You don’t need to wait for a graph to tell you that!
3. Executives: Oblivious, Scared, Frustrated, Committed
Any change management experts will agree executive sponsorship and buy-in are critical to any successful organizational change efforts.
We love working with exec teams because there’s never a dull moment (they’re definitely not shy about asking tough questions!) but more importantly, when they are onboard, we can make real, lasting change happen.
So how are the executives doing these days when it comes to DEI?
Executive Personas for DEI: What types of execs do you work with?
- Oblivious: Completely unaware the organization (or themselves) has DEI issues or grossly underestimates the problem. They send their HR or DEI team on a never ending goose-chase of justifying their budget with iron-clad ROI analysis and data. They will dismiss, trivialize, or seek to do the bare minimum to appease the vocal few.
- Scared: They’re feeling the pressure from all angles. They’re scared to make the wrong move or say the wrong things and cause irreversible damage to their reputation or company brand. They focus on legal advice, compliance driven training, and won’t stop asking for “the list of things they’re not supposed to say in public.” They don’t openly champion DEI, not because they don’t care, but because they don’t want to mess up, often leading to inaction and delegation without true sponsorship.
- Frustrated: They believe they’re doing enough, more than enough, and feel frustrated when their employees disagree. Why aren’t the numbers moving? (hint: centuries of systemic oppression) Why are people still unhappy? What more can I possibly do and how much more do we need to spend? They care but fail to understand just how deep and wide the challenges are and the fact that real progress will take much longer than their quarterly OKRs. They halt programs and cut budgets when they start to feel their efforts are futile or they’re not getting enough credit for them. In extreme cases, they’ll switch out the guards by firing the head of DEI or HR, or silencing vocal employees. #yikes
- Committed: They understand the importance and the urgency of addressing DEI issues. They’re often committed to DEI well beyond the “business case” — they’re motivated and inspired at a deeply intrinsic level and are committed to the long-term change. They share the burden of trying out different solutions and making iterative improvements without making rash decisions. They listen to their employees’ concerns and hold other leaders accountable. They understand they may make mistakes (and they do, like all of us), but when mistakes occur, they own it and apologize and do better. I promise, these execs do exist IRL.
If your boss is still asking about the “business case” for diversity, your company’s in trouble
Too many companies are hiding behind this decades-old question to delay the work that needs to be done
Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to getting leaders to be inspired and committed — each person needs to go through the journey of building awareness, developing their personal connection and why, and understanding their role in the change journey to arrive at the commitment stage ready to do the work.
- Engage the exec team as early as possible and support their learning through carefully curated milestones. Achieve leadership alignment on the what and why of DEI: can all of the leaders talk about why DEI is important, not just reciting a marketing slogan, but through their genuine, authentic understanding of the issues facing their employees?
- Ensure every major DEI initiative has an executive sponsor. Do your ERGs have executive sponsors? How are they engaging? Do your DEI training programs have executive sponsors? How can you leverage them to drive participation and engagement?
- Build grassroots, bottom-up momentum by engaging middle managers and employees — use their enthusiasm and honest feedback to influence change at the executive leadership level.
4. Distributed Teams, Global Strategies
More and more organizations are embracing the distributed team model and are investing in remote teams across the globe. This calls for a shift in the way we approach DEI, with variables such as scalability to localization becoming much bigger considerations.
Leaders of global entities are faced with the challenge of delivering consistent and thoughtful experiences to employees across various regions. “How do we ensure the content and approach resonate with people in a different continent?” “How do we do that while keeping things consistent and standardized?”
- Don’t underestimate the time and resources required for effective localization efforts — “Diversity” in the U.S. means something very different than diversity in Asia or Europe. Have you ever seen a U.S. centric diversity training fall completely flat in Asia because they don’t know how issues around “race” translates to its racially homogeneous workplace? We have.
- When developing a global DEI strategy, partner with local employees and partners to understand the context before making assumptions about what will work in each region.
- Virtual learning experiences are in demand, but early results and effectiveness vary greatly. Balance in-person and remote learning experiences — test out different methods and measure the impact to find the right mix for your organization.
5. Integrated and Skills-Based Inclusive Leadership Training Programs
One-and-done Unconscious Bias Training doesn’t work.
But really, is Unconscious Bias Training effective or ineffective?
One moment every company wants to roll out unconscious bias training — it’s the sexy new thing that’s going to fix all…
There is a growing trend of organizations ditching the traditional, compliance-driven “sensitivity” training to a more interactive, skills-building ongoing training program approach. Forward thinking organizations have already begun the process of refreshing their existing manager training or onboarding programs to include DEI values, while others are mapping inclusive leadership competencies directly into their learning and development programs.
- Design a holistic learning journey that go beyond Unconscious Bias Training (Unconscious Bias Training is still important and foundational — but what comes after is just as important, if not more!)
- Integrate critical inclusive leadership skills into core manager competencies. Provide specific skills-development training programs covering topics such as inclusive hiring, debiasing feedback and performance evaluations, allyship, and creating a culture of psychological safety.
How to Not Suck at Unconscious Bias Training
6 common reasons why Unconscious Bias Training can backfire and what to do to make sure yours doesn’t suck.
6. Sophisticated DEI Teams and Roles
Larger organizations are building out DEI teams with specialized roles (e.g., recruiting, program management, benefits, analytics, operations, communications, etc.), while many organizations are beginning to seek out HR/People Ops practitioners with DEI expertise and competencies. Some organizations are beginning to infuse inclusion and accessibility expertise into their product and go-to-market teams, realizing the knowledge is required to keep up with their customers’ expectations.
Sample list of roles specialized DEI roles:
- Inclusion Business Partners: Works with different functions / departments to advise on inclusion and equity related matters (mirroring HRBP roles)
- Accessibility Testers: Ensures the company’s products and services are accessible to the end users
- DEI Curriculum Designers: Partners with Learning and Development to infuse inclusive leadership skills into all development programs
- DEI Program Managers: Plans and oversees execution of various DEI programs from Employee Resource Groups to monthly events
- Map out how and where DEI knowledge is needed across your organization (e.g., HR, Product, Customer Success, Sales, etc.), prioritize, then determine how to fill the need.
- For smaller organizations with limited budget / headcount, you may need to start by creating a task force that can dedicate time to assessing and advising cross-functionally, or finding external help until you can build internal capacity. If using internal employees, ensure fair and equitable compensation for their contributions!
7. Accountability through Performance Management
There is an intensifying demand for more accountability and action beyond just lip service. Discussions around holding executive leaders (or even the board of directors) accountable by tying their compensation to key DEI metrics have been circulating for some time, but the actual implementation has been far and few between. Organizations are beginning to consider how to incorporate specific inclusive leadership competencies into managers’ performance reviews and compensation.
- Treat inclusive behaviors as a performance issue, rather than a personality issue (e.g., “oh that’s just how he is” “he’s like that with everyone”). Establish concrete protocols for managing behaviors that are non-inclusive or toxic.
- Ensure there is a clear way to evaluate individuals’ inclusiveness during performance management. Many companies use their company values as a framework to have behavioral conversations or create a specific evaluation criteria around DEI. This way, people who are exceptionally aware and involved in creating an inclusive team environment can get the credit they deserve, while those who need to improve can receive a clear nudge.
8. Broadened Definition of “Diversity” — the Good, the Bad, the Ugly
For too long, diversity efforts focused solely on increasing the representation of [white] women in the [white] men-dominated professional world. Thankfully, most organizations now acknowledge diversity is much more vast. There are more conversations happening around how race, sexual orientation, disability, and other social identity markers impact the way people experience the workplace. However, the broadening of the definition requires a bit of nuance.
- The good: historically oppressed and marginalized social identity groups beyond white women are starting to be considered in DEI initiatives. Expanding the conversation to be inclusive of race, gender (beyond the binary), sexual orientation, disability, mental health, citizenship status, socioeconomic class, etc. is a huge sign of progress and allows for more thoughtful programs that prioritize intersectionality.
- The bad: false equivalencies are everywhere. In an effort to broaden the scope, we’re observing many conflate historically marginalized social identities with personality traits, and confuse promoting inclusion with allowing all behaviors without discernment. For example, some organizations are prioritizing making the workplace more inclusive for introverted people while not extending the same level of effort to discuss racial disparities. Some leaders are conflating “freedom of speech” with blanketly allowing all kinds of speech, even ones that promote bullying and exclusion. Unfortunately, drawing false equivalencies between historically marginalized populations and those who have not been systemically oppressed dilute and co-opt the much needed movement to correct ongoing social injustices.
- The ugly: “diversity of thought” is a term sometimes used to justify the lack of demographic diversity, asserting that there is still diversity even when the group looks the same (again, centering personality differences or different areas of professional expertise). Dismissing the importance of demographic diversity can have a detrimental effect on advancing DEI as it diverts from the actual mission.
“Diversity of Thought” without Diverse Representation is Just Status Quo
At some point along our journey, some of us seem to have lost the core purpose of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.
- Clearly define what you mean by “Diversity” as an organization. It’s okay to prioritize the most underrepresented and marginalized identities (in fact, we encourage it).
- Clarify what you mean by “inclusion” or “belonging” too: Focus on the inclusion of whom? Who needs to feel like they belong? (hint: it’s not the “brilliant jerk” who complains about having to stop being a jerk)
- Be specific in naming issues facing specific identity groups — for example, in tech, it’s not enough to say “people of color are underrepresented” — it’d be more accurate to say BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color), Latinx, or South East Asians are underrepresented, since East Asians tend to be overrepresented in tech (although still underrepresented in senior leadership positions!).
- Understand the difference between social identities and personal identities and prioritize your DEI efforts around creating fair and inclusive experiences for historically marginalized social identity groups.
9. Investment in Employee Resource Groups
Did you know Employee Resource Groups have been around since the 1960s? ERGs and affinity groups provide a meaningful space where underrepresented employees can gather regularly to build community and impact the workplace culture. Some companies are shifting ERGs to BRGs (Business Resource Groups), where they are seeking to leverage the deep expertise and knowledge of the ERG members to advance strategic business priorities (e.g., market research, product testing, etc.). Some ERGs are taking on the work of recruiting, employee engagement, and culture building, leading monthly programming to organizing recruiting events.
With added responsibilities falling on the shoulders of ERG leaders, the question of burnout prevention and retention are on top of mind for many. One key question continues to remain largely unanswered — how are ERG leaders being compensated for taking on additional responsibilities beyond their “day job?”
- Compensate ERG leaders for their efforts. Here’s how some organizations are doing it: special professional development opportunities, financial rewards / year end bonus, ensuring their contribution is counted towards their performance evaluation, etc.
- Educate all managers on the importance of ERGs — ensure they don’t penalize their team members for participating or leading ERG efforts.
- Encourage ERG leaders to seek self-care resources and provide concrete options (e.g., mental health benefits, self-care stipend, etc.).
10. Movement towards Social Justice
Long gone are the days of checking politics at the door. Political issues are employee issues. Political issues are company issues. Political issues are personal issues that impact all of us. With this recognition, leaders everywhere are being asked to take a more visible stance on critical issues impacting their workforce and consumers. There is a growing number of “activist CEOs” as well as employees feeling empowered to mobilize to demand more of their leaders, as seen in a series of courageous demonstrations organized by tech workers and more.
DEI can no longer be discussed in a vacuum devoid of historical or social context. After all, DEI work is an extension of social justice work, civil rights work, human rights work.
- Determine your organizational criteria on when and how to address political issues — which issues impact the workforce directly? Which issues align closely with our organizational values? Which issues require our perspective and participation? Which issues are we accountable to and responsible for solving?
- Empower all managers to create a culture of psychological safety that allows employees to proactively surface issues they are passionate about or impacted by without fearing penalty.
As we enter the new decade, I’m more hopeful than ever that real change is possible. The momentum is here, the desire is here, the resources are here.
The journey towards equity, inclusion, and justice won’t be easy or short — but with our collective commitment to taking an active role in it, we can move the needle and maybe even find joy along the way, too. ❤
Have additional insights or recommendations? Share via comments!
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We exist to create compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations to develop inclusive leaders and teams. We’re tired of surface level conversations around diversity and inclusion — let’s go deeper. It’s time for real conversations with real people. Check us out at www.visionawaken.com!