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  • Writer's pictureAhmmad Brown

Blaming The DEI Industry For Failures Misses The Point

Updated: May 29

The increased attention to corporate DEI since the summer of 2020 has been followed by several critiques of the work in the popular media. Being open to well-informed critique is essential to the improvement of products and services alike, and DEI work should not be excepted. 

There are two analytic problems, however, that tend to show up in these pieces. First, they often do not account for the breadth of approaches and perspectives in DEI work. In painting the DEI space with a broad brush, the critiques can over-generalize insights from the scholarly literature. Words like DEI trainings and workshops are liberally synonymized with DEI work generally, which when done well, includes tailored strategic work that connects DEI efforts to the organization and its specific goals. 

Second, these pieces tend to place disproportionate blame for the perceived failures of the industry at the feet of DEI practitioners. Usually omitted from these critiques is any acknowledgement of organizational leaders and their agency in approving and spending on supposedly ineffective services. 

To the first point consider the frequent reference to sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev’s study of diversity initiatives at more than 800 firms. Seminal in the diversity management literature and foundational to the conception of best practices for DEI work, the study showed that diversity interventions that afford managers little agency in how the intervention is executed are typically unsuccessful or even counterproductive. Mandatory trainings fared particularly poorly. 

There are no fewer than three problems, however, with the use of this study to suggest that DEI work generally should be viewed with skepticism:

  1. The study analyzed the success of a range of diversity initiatives by measuring the percentage change in the proportion of minorities and women in management ranks. This is only one measure—albeit an important one—for diversity success and does not speak directly to equity and inclusion.

  2. The study also found that several diversity interventions were successful, namely those that afforded managers ownership and agency in the initiative’s execution. Critiques of DEI efficacy often minimize discussion of this finding or omit it entirely.

  3. Because 2015 is the last year of data on which the study is based, the study’s analyses do not include the breadth of DEI interventions that have entered the marketplace since.

The third point is crucial. Before the 2020 racial awakening after the murder of George Floyd there was the public outcry after the killing of Michael Brown in August of 2014. This event, along with the high-profile protests of Colin Kaepernick and others, opened the door for more candid conversations about how inequality can show up in the workplace. DEI providers that support strategy and implementation work to address these inequalities—whether they show up structurally or interpersonally—often frame their work and intended outcomes around equity and inclusion, rather than diversity and representation. 

For many of us who engage the work in this way, we take a long-term approach, ensuring that the foundation for and commitment to equitable and just practices are in place before engaging more deeply on issues specific to people in minoritized identity categories by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and ability, among others. Taking such a deliberate and intentional approach tends not to yield flashy outcomes in short order.

To be sure, there are DEI frameworks and models that do not hold up to analytic scrutiny. But why do they continue to be viable in the marketplace? 

One answer to this question, as I alluded to at the top of this piece and has been discussed by other practitioners, is that leaders are not held accountable for their choices in how to engage DEI work. On the most fundamental level, the work for leaders looking to engage DEI work is to select the right tool or tools for the DEI work at hand in their organizations. This means using the same analytic rigor that would be applied to any other work a leader is considering, including the identification of goals, the assessment of where there are gaps, and the identification and employment of the right tools to address these gaps. 

As I have seen several times in my own practice and recently discussed on a podcast with another practitioner, this lack of accountability can show up before consulting engagements even begin. It is not uncommon for potential clients to show up to initial meetings having given little thought to their goals for their organization’s DEI work. 

Some DEI consultants will meet potential clients where they are and support them in framing key areas for the potential engagement scope before a contract has been secured. Sometimes this process can work out, particularly when the DEI consultant is skilled, has facility in a wide range of DEI approaches and tools, and can help the potential client shape the scope of the work to be done such that it has demonstrable impact. 

Often, however, a DEI consultant is selected to do a narrow scope of work on which the leader (and the organization more broadly) expects larger DEI progress and outcomes to be based. This is how organizations can find themselves in situations in which a consultant is hired to do a series of allyship workshops or unconscious bias trainings, and a year later, the leadership team deems the DEI efforts unsuccessful and the associated spend not worth it because Black employees are leaving at a greater rate than before the sessions began.

In these situations, it is not the DEI practitioner who should be held accountable, but the leaders who hired the consultant with goals that exceed anything a series of trainings or workshops—no matter how well conceived and delivered—could provide. 

It is incumbent upon leaders to define for themselves—with insight from their teams and the potential support of consultants—what DEI success means for them and their organizations with rigor and strategic acuity. If leaders cannot hold themselves accountable to this, there is no way anyone should be holding the DEI space and its practitioners accountable for the industry’s so-called failures.

This article originally appeared in Forbes on the posting date.

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