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10 Ways DEI Went Wrong and What to Do Now

Diverse group of five people in professional attire, one wheelchair user, greeted by a doorman opening a door.

The attacks on DEI are gaining momentum, and I’ll admit it’s a bit scary. There is a movement against this work that, according to an investigative report by the New York Times, is pro-discrimination and pro-patriarchy and is funded by a small group of billionaires. 

I do not believe that most Americans are in agreement with this agenda. However, one of the most subtle but impactful forms of power is the power to shape ideological debates. It’s not setting the agenda, per se, but setting the terms of the debate, framing for people how to think about the problem. For example, the fact that “pro-life” is a term used to create government mandates around abortion but not around the mass slaughter of animals is the use of ideological power to set the terms of the debate around abortion. Right now, that same power is being used to make tragedies and mistakes, like the accidental destruction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore or debatable choices of coverage in journalism at NPR, look like the result of DEI. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book – when people are scared because of forces outside their control, give them a boogeyman to blame. 

As Toni Morrison once wisely said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” 

With that quote in mind, I’ve been ignoring many of these attacks and doing the work with our clients, whose commitment to this work is far from performative. The scaremongers don’t scare me.

And yet…DEI work requires integrity. And it is in that spirit that I think it’s important for DEI practitioners and enthusiasts to look at their part in contributing to the current DEI backlash. I understand what I am doing is going to be uncomfortable for a lot of people. When under attack, it’s incredibly hard to look at what you may have done wrong or the mistakes you made. But I believe it’s absolutely imperative we display that sort of moral courage right now so that the field of DEI – a profession I love, full of people I love – has a chance of surviving the current onslaught. In short, and to borrow an expression from 12 step programs, we need to keep our side of the street clean.

DEI has always suffered from a sine curve of enthusiasm; its popularity rises and falls almost as predictably as the GDP. I have been in the field since 2016 (and my interest dates back to high school when I wrote a scholarship essay on how the best high school would value diversity), but I think it’s important to track what’s been happening since the interest in DEI swelled in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd.

My intention in stating all this is so that we can name the problem and then course correct. I will not “name names” because the intention is not to shame or blame anyone or any institution. But I will also not mince words about the reality of what’s happened. In the spirit of the Stockdale Paradox, ‘we must never confuse having the faith that we will prevail in the end—which we can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be.’ Productive change begins when you confront the brutal facts.  

#1. Demand outstripped supply and companies didn’t know what they were hiring for.

When the pandemic first hit in March of 2020, many organizations slashed their DEI budgets. But then, after George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight and this country began to take seriously the cancer it had gone on ignoring, not only did organizations miraculously “find” money for those aforementioned slashed budgets, many organizations, particularly small and medium-sized ones that never previously considered doing org-wide DEI, had money to do so. And so, the demand for DEI consultants skyrocketed, far outstripping the supply of seasoned professionals.

The whole phenomenon reminded me of the late 1990s when having a website became fashionable, but no one really knew why or what to do with it. (This was before e-commerce was actually a word.) It was unclear whether you were supposed to sell things or chat with people or do something else with a website. And it was unclear what made a “good” or “effective” website. So lots of people got into the website-building profession, and lots of companies hired people they knew, whether that was a co-worker’s nephew or a person they saw speak on the topic. And few of these companies knew how to evaluate if these were good hires. This leads to point #2.

#2. There are no regulations or clear qualifications for the practice of DEI.

The DEI profession has lacked universal certification and regulation to practice for a long time. A number of organizations and groups have tried to establish those standards, but it’s a tricky business because it’s not about what you know, but how effective you are at culture and behavior change. I often compare it to health and medicine; the doctor who knows the most about medicine isn’t necessarily the healthiest individual. DEI practitioners are more like personal trainers than doctors, and the proof is in their own ability to live according to the deep-rooted principles of DEI. And it’s rare that a university course teaches up-and-coming DEI practitioners that.

That being said, some academic knowledge is required; lived experience is not enough of a qualification, mainly because not everyone who has experienced oppression has done the work to understand the roots and how you unroot oppressive systems.

In the United States, we extol the virtue of passion. But good intentions are not enough for this field. I am reminded of the story of a white woman who went to Uganda to help malnourished children and operated on them without ever having gone to medical school. While she may have been passionate and had good intentions about helping people, children died because of her lack of technical knowledge and skills. In 2020, there were a lot of DEI practitioners running around with scalpels who hadn’t been to medical school.

What does “medical school” look like for DEI practitioners? It’s having knowledge and experience applying the principles of organizational development, change management, psychology, anthropology, or another behavioral science. This doesn’t require PhD-level training in my opinion, but it does require actual professional experience.

#3. There’s no universal, agreed-upon definition of DEI or its goals.

This seems like a ridiculous problem to have, but there’s actually no agreed-upon definition of what we mean when we say diversity, equity, and inclusion. (I won’t go into the lack of definitions for additional letters to the acronym, like belonging, justice, accessibility, etc., but suffice it to say, the same is true for any alphabetical suffixes to DEI.)

I have heard so-called DEI practitioners describe equity wrong, saying it’s a feeling. (Unlike inclusion, equity has very little to do with how you feel about anything.) I’ve had others ask me for a “daily equity practice” as if it’s a gratitude practice. (It’s not; equity is about systems and policies, not individual actions per se.) Frequently when I consult with clients, I have to inform them that inclusion is not about “making everyone happy” (that’s people-pleasing and actually impedes conflict competence, a critical skill for creating an inclusive environment) and that equity does not mean “everyone gets a vote” in every decision. Consensus decision-making is tricky and would grind organizations to a halt if every decision were made that way. Inclusive decision-making is transparent, but not necessarily consensus-driven.

Without clear definitions, people get to project all sorts of reasonable and unreasonable expectations and faults onto DEI. (I often joke that being a DEI practitioner is like being a human Rorschach.) Hence, it’s easy for anti-DEI crusaders to convince people that DEI is divisive and eroding trust in their organization. I literally received an email the other day where a potential consulting partner said their clients promoted diversity without DEI language; I’m not even sure what that means or how one does that, but it indicates to me that “DEI” has come to mean something very different than what the acronym actually stands for. And this is the fault of DEI professionals. How dare we allow others to define who we are and what we do!

#4. We nitpicked about words instead of grounding everyone in principles.

While I have a passion for accessibility, and even kinda like the acronym IDEA, I am using DEI in this blog post because 1) it’s what most people call this field; 2) thus it gets better search results; and 3) despite anyone’s preferences, Brevity & Wit is acronym agnostic.

Listen, I get that words matter. But not more than principles. And too often, DEI enthusiasts and social justice advocates spend time focusing on a micro-battle instead of the larger war. Companies can add as many letters as they like, but that doesn’t mean they truly understand the principles, goals, expectations, and skills needed for this work. 

A Jewish friend of mine wrote a piece about what’s going on in Israel and Gaza and called for our shared humanity. A number of self-proclaimed DEI professionals attacked him on social media, calling him vile and disgusting.

Now, I didn’t agree with everything my friend said, but I do know that the first principle of DEI is to stand against dehumanization or— to state that in the affirmative— humanize everyone. Calling someone vile because you disagree with them is dehumanizing. Anger and vitriol may work in politics, but it does not work for building bridges across differences, which is what DEI is actually about.

#5. We created social rules that are not backed by behavior change science.

There’s a lot of truth to concepts like White fragility, or more aptly, the defensiveness of any group that has historically had more power. And yet…some people tried to course correct by saying that those historically without power can be as rude as they want because they are in pain and that disagreeing with them is just one exerting their privilege over them.

I get we have to change the ways power is held and wielded in our society if we want it to be truly just and fair. But listen, emotional maturity is needed for this work. And shame does not change behavior; it entrenches it. And the public shaming, because of social media, became toxic. I am reminded of how so-called DEI practitioners went after the Chief Diversity Officer at Uber for creating a poorly titled workshop for White people. Numerous people must have seen that workshop, she may not have even had the final say on the title, but she became the scapegoat. DEI practitioners who have been doing this work for a while know she might have made a mistake, as we all do from time to time, but that never justifies public shaming. As I’ve written about before, accountability and public shaming are two very different things, but because we have so few examples of the former and so many of the latter, we tend to engage in public shaming far more often than we care to admit.

#6. We gave into either/or thinking, especially with equity.

Full disclosure: I wrote a book titled Equity. It’s a concept close to my heart that I believe is needed for a more just society.

And…it’s not meant to replace equality. The fact that there are some DEI practitioners trying to make equality seem like an outdated concept is mind-boggling. As I explain in my book and in my keynotes, we need both for a just society. Yes, people need equitable resources that are suited to their differences in personality, circumstances, environment, etc. But people also need equal human rights and equal access to opportunity. The example I often give of this is marriage equality. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, LGBT groups were advocating for any type of legal protection for same-sex relationships, from civil unions to marriage equality. But then they got together and realized that civil unions would create a “separate and unequal” legal precedent, thereby eroding their human rights. So they unified in fighting for marriage equality. 

This either/or thinking is not just limited to the concept of equity and equality. I’ve heard folks bash Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, implying that because what they did didn’t last or solve all problems at a systemic level, it was wholesale ineffective. 

Thinking that everything every social justice advocate did before us is garbage simply because we haven’t designed a perfect utopia of justice is immature thinking. We need to be able to hold the duality of honoring what was done before while continuing to improve upon this imperfect world.

#7. We ignored research on effective communications.

We live at a time in human history where there is actual research on how communicating on certain issues affects people’s mindsets and behaviors. And yet, most DEI practitioners are woefully unaware of this research and do not incorporate it into their work. Instead, they tell clients to “point to the data” when they experience resistance. But if information and data was enough to change behavior, we would not be arguing about climate change.

People working on DEI often obsess as to whether they have used the right words, like anti-racism, instead of asking how are we framing this issue? (You can learn more about framing here.) While I understand why the word anti-racism took off in 2020, we never really questioned when it should be used and when it shouldn’t. Creating anti-racist policies are great, but striving to “be an antiracist organization” is problematic because you’re only telling people what you’re against, not what you’re for. It’s like how being anti-communist led to the fall of the USSR in the 1990s, but what has been nurtured in its place? In a vacuum, systems of oppression evolve.

It’s not enough to say you’re against something, you have to say what you’re for, what you’re creating. A just world needs not only a dismantling of systems of oppression, but the moral imagination to build something better in its place. 

The same sort of “right” thinking leads some DEI practitioners to reply to a request for the business case for DEI with “Why should I have to make a business case for doing the right thing?” The problem with this moral high ground is when have businesses been known for doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing? That’s not the world we live in. We want to design human-centered organizations, but that means designing for how humans are, not how we wish them to be. Some humans value financial stability, others competition, or autonomy, among other things. As I teach in my workshops on effective communications, it’s very hard if not impossible to change people’s core values. It’s far easier to show how your value for diversity, equity, and inclusion maps onto their values. (Read about this more here.)

I could go on about effective communications for a while since that’s what Brevity & Wit specializes in, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll be brief: being effective is more important than being right when it comes to communicating the ideas of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

#8. Some DEI practitioners emphasized grassroots efforts when working with organizations.

Because DEI is a subfield of social justice (in my opinion), some newly-minted DEI practitioners took a pure grassroots approach to DEI work in organizations post-2020. But the problem is, power is not structured in organizations the way it is in our society. Staff don’t get to vote out the CEO the way we, as citizens, can vote out our elected leaders. That’s not to say organizations can’t be more democratic and inclusive, but the levers to pull are different than what we would do in our communities and nation as a whole. 

Good DEI practitioners know that you have to engage leadership first for any change effort. You wouldn’t think to implement Salesforce in your organization through a grassroots effort, would you? No, instead you might let your three best employees pilot the program, and then ask them for their feedback and to be ambassadors for the change. And you would be sure to have an executive in charge of implementing such an org-wide change. DEI and culture change is no different than technological transformation.

To continue that analogy, everyone in a company needs to have some skills in using the new technology, but maybe not the same skills. How your project managers use Salesforce is different from how your financial team will interact with it. Good change management means getting specific about how new technology will affect their day-to-day. Inclusion is no different – inclusive skills vary by job and managers need to be specific about what they expect folks to do differently. 

And finally, if there’s a major breakdown in Salesforce, you wouldn’t expect every employee to be able to diagnose and fix the problem. The same is true of building an inclusive and equitable organization – when breakdowns happen, you need specialists to come in and diagnose and solve for the problem. 

#9. We acted as if there was a realistic end in sight.

Circling back to my analogy between medicine and DEI, if a friend or loved one said they wanted to be a doctor and would consider their career successful when there’s no more illness in the world, we would sit that person down for a chat. We would tell them that’s not a sustainable or reasonable mindset; there will always be sickness and illness and people in need of healing in the world. We would counsel them to specialize in one illness or one patient population and then to focus on doing right by each patient. 

I’ve been asked multiple times some version of “when will we be rid of injustice?” And I respond with this analogy because it’s the wrong question to ask. The world will always have suffering and injustice. Even if we get rid of the man-made injustices, like racism and sexism, other injustices occur, like people getting incurable diseases or, less tragically, someone not loving you back. And even if we got rid of all of today’s injustices, the world would evolve. We’re now seeing bias and oppression in AI – something DEI practitioners didn’t have to concern themselves with 20 years ago. 

The world turns, and the pendulum swings, and our job is to address the injustices in front of us today using whatever power we may have so there are fewer injustices for the next generation to deal with. We cannot give up, but we also cannot end it all. The minute you think ending it all is the goal, you set yourself up for burnout. You are also setting up client expectations to be unrealistic and, eventually, disappointed in your work.

Like good doctors, there will never be a lack of need for good DEI practitioners. Our methods will improve, but the work has no end. Our only job is to work on our piece of the mosaic diligently, sustainably, and with integrity.

#10. Diversity of methods is not the same as effectiveness of methods.

Frequently, DEI practitioners will say there are lots of approaches to this work. And there are. But that doesn’t mean they are all equally effective, or even equally appropriate in all contexts.

DEI Councils can be effective when they have executive sponsorship and a clear charter in a large organization. But remove any of those conditions, and they become a burnout club. Or nonsensical situations, like a 40-person nonprofit that told me they had 20 people on their DEI Council.

Furthermore, DEI practitioners have to get serious about evidence and evaluation of their work. It’s a tricky business because we’re often set up to fail with unrealistic expectations and non-existent budgets. But assuming we’ve set expectations appropriately and have a healthy budget, we have to measure our impact, and if the intervention we’re conducting is not working, we have to be able to hear that and course correct.

That’s very hard to do when there’s an organized effort to discredit our field. But if we can’t bring some intellectual rigor to this work, we don’t deserve the privilege of doing it. We’re back to good intentions that do harm. And this work is too important for us to disrespect it by being defensive and reactionary.

As a writer, I know what a big ask this is. It took me years to not tie my ego to every sentence I wrote and to take feedback constructively. When I look back on my journey to getting to that level of confidence, two factors were involved. One, I wrote enough and got published enough that I don’t doubt whether I am a good writer. When I get critical feedback, I take it as a critique of the sentence, not my identity as a writer. And two, I am more discerning about who I ask for feedback. I know who are trusted folks who care about making me a better writer, not petty folks who want to tear down someone out of jealousy (and us writers can be a petty, jealous bunch, if I’m honest). 

Mentorship and apprenticeship give DEI practitioners the time they need to develop their skills with a net. And fostering a community of other DEI practitioners allows us to develop trusting relationships with folks who want us to succeed. These protective factors take intentional nurturing, but they are vital to any effective DEI practitioner’s vocation.

So what do we do now?

The attacks on DEI are real, and funded by billionaires. There are some real threats that require DEI practitioners to organize. One organization I’m supporting in these efforts is the Johnnetta Betsch Cole Legacy Institute.

But part of being a DEI practitioner is admitting your spheres of control, influence, and concern. So here is tangible advice for organizational leaders, DEI practitioners, and staff who are passionate about advancing DEI in their organizations.

Organizational Leaders

  1. Tie DEI to strategic outcomes in your organization. If you can’t answer “what problem is DEI solving in our org,” you’re never going to get the buy-in or the money to do this well. Your DEI efforts will be seen as a “nice-to-have” and the first budget to get slashed in tough times or when there’s political pressure. Making the case gives you the backbone to withstand pressure internally and externally.
  2. Invest time and money in DEI. Just like you have allocated time and money to any digital transformation, you need to invest in this organization-wide transformation as well. And then make sure your goals are reasonable given the budget. If you don’t, your organization will be your industry’s Blockbuster.
  3. Look to work with folks who can operationalize and embed DEI. Ask consultants to show their results. More importantly, ask them what their theory of change is. That is, what is their theory on what will lead to a change in the culture or people’s behavior or outcomes? As I said, there are many ways to do DEI. Some folks believe that getting people in power to listen to people who are oppressed will catalyze enough empathy that everyone will start behaving better. Brevity & Wit does not really think that’s a practical or scalable approach. Rather, we believe that approach leads to shame and blame, which actually inhibits change. Instead, we focus on building a high-trust culture with leaders who are aware of how to use power responsibly, because that creates an environment where diversity of experience and ideas can be nurtured, aired, and leveraged. You can also download our thought paper How to Hire a DEI Consultant to learn more about what you should be looking for in a DEI manager or consultant.

DEI Practitioners

  1. Keep our side of the street clean. That means owning what we did wrong. Then educate yourself on what works and emphasize that with clients (a good resource is Lily Zheng’s book DEI Deconstructed). 
  2. Accept this is about behavior and systems change, not about being right. Act accordingly. If you get your thrills from an intellectual discussion of oppression, go into academia, not practicing DEI in organizations. DEI practitioners in organizations need to be able to apply theory to articulate observable behaviors, deploy evidence-based interventions, and brainstorm practical solutions. Being effective is more important than being smart. 
  3. Focus on whether your communications are effective for driving results. Your communications should be anchored on shared organizational values. This is actually what the anti-DEI movement is doing well; they are speaking to people’s values and emotions, particularly a fear of change and a sense of freedom without any responsibility. This may mean evoking the language of the alt-right but turning it on its head, the way they do with our terms. We should be using words like freedom and patriotism in making the case for DEI. After all, what’s more patriotic than guaranteeing the freedom of every citizen to design a life for themselves where they can thrive?
  4. Stay humble and play to your strengths. The best DEI practitioners, in my opinion, know when to bench themselves. They also play to their strengths, knowing that the beauty of diversity is that we don’t all have to be good at “all the things.” Instead, the work gets done when we divvy it up. I was once on a webinar with a guy who was researching how much homes had sold in his area for Black and White families and documenting the bias in prices. Is this important work? Yes. Do I want to do it? No. I would be bored to tears and probably pretty bad at it. That doesn’t make me a bad DEI practitioner so long as I don’t offer to do that work for a client. This work is a lot easier and a lot more sustainable when we can leverage our strengths and accept our limitations.

Staff and DEI Enthusiasts

  1. Do not lose faith in this work. Remember the Stockdale Paradox when things get tough – you must never lose faith that we will prevail, even if the brutal fact is that we are under attack or that you are so burnt out you need to take a break and binge-watch all of Star Trek: Discovery. (Not that I’m speaking from experience.)
  2. At the same time, you need to make the work sustainable. The challenges of inequity, inequality, exclusion, and abuses of power will never fully go away. Adopt a mindset that lets you chip away at injustice over the course of a lifetime. Which means pacing yourself, and setting reasonable expectations for how fast your organization can change.
  3. If you want to do this work in your organization, educate yourself on organizational change or change leadership. Books, courses, and certifications abound. You don’t need to know the history of every form of oppression so much as you need to know how to move people (including yourself) to act in inclusive, equitable, and just ways. Brevity & Wit offers a DEI Change Agent Certification, but you can also get a mentor or a coach if you want to grow your skill set in this arena. 

This work is important to democracy and to our health and wellbeing, as individuals and as a society. And therefore, it deserves both our hearts and our minds. But none of us should be martyrs for the cause. Instead of dying for DEI, we should live for it. As the Talmud says:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but nor are you free to abandon it.”