What’s the return on investment on diversity training? You’d hope it would be a lot — after all, some $8 billion is spent on it per year in the United States alone, according to a report by McKinsey. But critics allege that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts overall have been underwhelming, to say the least. Some argue that there’s a “DEI industrial complex” that benefits DEI practitioners and the companies that hire them, without actually reducing discrimination and improving inclusion.

“DEI doesn’t work and that’s a problem,” says Lily Zheng, a leading DEI strategist and author of the book DEI Deconstructed. “We can’t have a multi-billion dollar industry that doesn’t work.”

In a Chief-exclusive workshop with Chief Vice President of Inclusion & Impact, Trey Boynton, Zheng shared their perspective on why past DEI efforts have been unsuccessful and provided advice on how to move beyond performative DEI. Where many DEI programs go wrong is that they focus on events with inspirational speakers that “create a burst of impact” but don’t yield long-term results.

“You spend some money, you get people excited, and then a year later, you’re at the same place,” Zheng says.

Achieving real results takes less glamorous, flashy work, according to Zheng. It’s about establishing what outcomes a company is striving for and gauging progress toward those outcomes.

“It’s a boring answer to a really challenging problem — which is, we just measure it. We hold people accountable to outcomes and not intentions,” Zheng says. “We have, like, 50, 60, 70 years of intentions in DEI not resulting in impact. Something has to change.”

Can Biased People Make Unbiased Decisions?

One oft-discussed approach to DEI is teaching people to challenge their biases. Zheng says they would be more of a fan of that if it actually worked. Unfortunately, decades of research on unconscious bias shows that it’s very difficult to change people’s biases.

Instead, a more effective approach is redesigning systems so that they interrupt bias. In the case of hiring, for example, that could mean incorporating “bias disrupters” such as standardized hiring rubrics and hiring panels that ensure no one person can unilaterally decide whether a person is hired or not.

Similar initiatives, Zheng says, can be deployed in deciding promotions.

People can “recognize we have bias and we're likely going to act on our biases, unconsciously or consciously, no matter how hard we try,” Zheng says. “We need to be implementing these shared agreements, these processes, these systems that make it so biased people can still make relatively unbiased decisions.”

Research demonstrates that such systemic changes meaningfully boost representation and create equitable outcomes for people of all genders and races, Zheng says. “And the best thing of all, is it doesn’t have to change anything fundamental about how we think.”

Process Matters

The importance of systems notwithstanding, Zheng emphasizes that changing the behavior does matter, especially at the top.

Zheng worked with one client on a bystander and allyship training program where employees later reported that they didn’t actually use any of the training. Why? Because managers didn’t create a psychologically safe workplace. Zheng says that if they had done that engagement from scratch, they would have started working with the company’s leaders first and urging them to model what “speak up culture” should look like to “create this culture from the top down.”

Leaders can help change systems and “once systems have started changing, then you can equip everyone else in the org with skills because now they have the contextual and environmental support to use it,” Zheng says.

There is, however, at least one type of leader that companies should beware of overburdening – the chief DEI officer.

There’s a fallacy that DEI is solely the responsibility of a company’s chief DEI officer, but that’s too much for one person, Zheng says. Creating accountability for DEI outcomes should entail distributing the work across an organization and including DEI responsibilities in everyone’s job descriptions. Designers, marketers, lawyers, salespeople, HR practitioners, engineers and executives should all be involved.

“If there’s a chief DEI officer, it’s their job to spearhead those efforts, but not to own all of them.”

When Should Companies Take a Public Stand?

Companies that never speak up on any issue are behind the times, Zheng says. Then again, it’s also not advisable for companies to share opinions on every issue, “because then we start to get into this realm of performative diversity.”

What stakeholders would prefer is for companies to have their fingers on the pulse of what stakeholders care about most — and therein lies the challenge.

“Knowing what those issues are for every company — that’s the hard part,” Zheng says. It takes understanding the issues that matter to customers and investors. But it doesn’t end there. Companies also must consider those issues in light of their mission and corporate values. “Let’s face it, not every company needs to have all the ‘right opinions,’ but it damn well should be consistent.”

How to Diffuse Defensiveness in Privileged Groups

One of the “silent killers” of DEI initiatives has been backlash, including backlash from majority or privileged groups, some of whom feel there isn’t room for them in the DEI space, Zheng says. Even among leaders who care about DEI work, 70% of white male leaders say they don’t engage in it because they feel that DEI practitioners don’t want them to, according to one study.

Better engaging privileged groups in DEI work means catering to them to a certain extent by “finding ways for them to feel good and positive about this work rather than bad and negative,” Zheng says. “We know that deploying blame and shame doesn’t work.”

Executing data-driven practices with members of majority groups can diffuse their defensiveness and bring them aboard. “We can say, this is what you’ve got to do, and if you do it, good things will happen,” Zheng says. “Make it easier to be inclusive, make it harder to be exclusive — that’s what systems change looks like.”

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