July 10, 2019

We’re not talking enough about this challenging aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read the words “workplace diversity and inclusion?” Maybe it was some version of “equitable opportunities to succeed,” or “giving everyone a sense of belonging,” or “crucial to the future of work.”

Now—be honest—did you also feel an unidentifiable twinge of frustration? If so, it’s not your fault, and it doesn’t mean you don’t understand or care about the importance of addressing disparities in the workplace. Even when these issues affect you on a personal level, you can still experience “diversity fatigue.”

How does this happen? How does an issue of such importance become something that many people would rather avoid having to talk about?

It’s because issues related to identity are deeply personal. They hold a kind of emotional weight that other org-wide priorities and policies don’t. Companies can’t foster true belonging in a diverse organization without addressing the human aspect.

Without nuance, talk about diversity can have an unfortunate effect of splitting people into two camps: people who diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) are “for,” and everyone else. This is, of course, a false dichotomy: a diverse and inclusive workplace benefits everyone, and there are many traits and experiences that contribute to a person’s “diversity story.”

Despite this, people with more privilege—typically straight, white, cisgender men—often feel excluded from, or even disadvantaged by, initiatives that seek to level the playing field. While these concerns might feel like they’re “beside the point,” they matter, and they have something to teach us about the ways that talking about DE&I without care does us all a disservice.

When the need for DE&I is framed in a way that feels punitive (like mandatory training after an incident), or evokes guilt rather than empathy, it doesn’t win buy-in from people in positions to effect real change.

When diversity, equity, and inclusion is framed in a way that evokes guilt rather than empathy, it doesn’t win buy-in from people who can effect real change.

Empathy should be a guiding tenet of DE&I work. Employees need to be bought into inclusion out their natural desire to connect with and support others, not out of fear of consequences. 

Further, concepts like privilege, microaggressions, and inequity can all be introduced and explained in ways that mitigate the emotionally-charged responses (defensiveness, denial) they can elicit. (For example, when we say a group has privilege, we don’t mean that each of their lives is inherently easy and without struggle. It means members of that group have benefitted from a system that favors certain identities, often in ways that they accept as the norm.)

All of this is easier said than done when heightened media scrutiny around workplace conduct can support the fallacy that doing nothing is more advantageous than trying to support DE&I, only to end up doing it imperfectly. That’s the wrong lesson here: a botched DE&I initiative needs to be a moment of growth and learning, not an excuse to give up. “Why didn’t it resonate?” “Whose viewpoints do we need to listen to most?” “How do we make it right?”

Ultimately, companies that make a serious, informed investment in their DE&I will see benefits: financially, creatively, and interpersonally. And all that aside, working bravely is its own reward.

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Corporations like Sephora continue to hope diversity training will make a difference. Here’s what they should do instead.

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