As we all know, 2020 was not the year any of us had anticipated. From a raging pandemic to a global reckoning on race and injustice, we faced new and unexpected challenges but also new opportunities for building equity and inclusion.
A year ago, I gave you a list of the ten trends I hoped to see in the DEI field to drive meaningful and sustainable inclusion. In some cases, we have met expectations. In others, we have been lamentably stagnant. In our responsiveness to crises, we have also pushed the limits on what is possible, leading to new trends that will carry forward into how we shape our workplace communities.
Perhaps most notable was our overnight shift to remote work in response to public safety measures. This change has helped remove barriers of access, particularly for persons with disabilities and chronic conditions, and reduced the impact of geography when making career decisions and seeking talent. Although these are promising developments, we've also learned that poor work-from-home cultures can have adverse effects and lead to burnout where healthy boundaries do not exist. There is certainly room for growth as we continue exploring the possibilities.
Here will break down the Top 3 trends that have been most impactful in recent months. Hopefully, this assessment will help you determine strengths and opportunities in your organization for DEI growth. Let’s start with the big one!
We will no longer be afraid to talk about race.
Where we are making strides: The tragic murder of George Floyd left a visceral imprint on the world, giving power to a global dialogue on race, otherness, power and disenfranchisement. Many think-pieces have pondered how the pandemic contributed to the outcry (if we were not at home, would the 8:46 minute video have been more easily overlooked and forgotten?). Still, the reality is that this was a heartbreak that could not be ignored. In organizations, Black leaders and employees called out the trauma, pain, and threat of anti-Blackness. More than ever in recent times, it appeared white people and racialized communities were naming systemic racism, too. As a result, many organizations have been intentional about creating safe spaces for dialogues about race, for example, in town halls, monthly safe talks, facilitated discussions, etc. A worrying trend of anti-Asian violence rooted in racist COVID-19 messaging has shown that conversation is broad and must be ongoing.
Where we are falling back: Although dialogue is important for learning and healing, its effects are dulled when there is limited follow-through and if nothing changes in organizations. At Boldly Inclusive, we have been fortunate to work with many amazing clients that have heard Black, Indigenous and racialized employees’ voices and demonstrated accountability and allyship by implementing the necessary changes to promote anti-racism. We’ve also seen the opposite – organizations that engage in listening exercises but are unable or unwilling to change the systems that contribute to racial disparities and exclusion. When this occurs, it reads as a lack of commitment. We see increased anger and distrust, frustration among affected communities and their allies (including internal DEI practitioners), long-term impacts to retention, and reputational damage.
Where we could be better: From our perspective, two elements could be improved. The first is safety. Although it is important to create spaces for discussions about race, it is essential to ensure that the conversation is not one-sided. For example, a common approach is to invite Black, Indigenous and racialize employees to share their personal stories about race to promote understanding and allyship. We must be careful about this approach, as it could be re-traumatizing, especially when there are power dynamics at play or the organization has not done the work to ensure that those sharing will be safe and protected. When two-way conversations occur, it is also vital that white fragility and guilt are not given priority over the voices of people with lived experience of racism.
Secondly, organizations must be thoughtful about their discourse on race and ensuring that those who are most vulnerable are not lost in the process. Broad terms such as "visible minority" are unhelpful for unpacking the different experiences of racism faced by Black communities, Indigenous Peoples, Asian-Canadians, etc., as well as how social-historical contexts and power further shape these dynamics.
Training will be part of DEI solutions, and not the solution itself.
Where we are making strides: For many organizations, employee training has been the traditional go-to solution for developing DEI. Those familiar with our Inclusion First® framework will know, even though we offer subsidized training to organizations lacking resources, we recommend training as part of a broader strategy to build and preserve an inclusive culture. Increasingly, organizations that are seeking training are doing so with long-term change in mind. They recognize that awareness of inequity is critical, that a changing environment requires a capacity for courageous conversations, and that experienced facilitation can set the stage for psychological safety. It is just one piece of a larger puzzle.
Where we are falling back: Although there is more interest in cultivating long-term solutions that include training, organizations are often looking for training that emphasizes step-by-step approaches and tools such as check-lists. From our perspective, DEI training can only be effective when relevant information is matched with an appreciation for the human element. How-to’s and linear processes are not sufficient when the reality is that engaging disenfranchised communities requires trust, trust requires empathy, and empathy requires understanding and tapping into emotions and being responsive to them. Naturally, this work can be messy – and some organizations are resisting the messiness in favour of process.
Where we could be better: In a work-from-home context, organizations have adapted their information systems to support virtual engagement. However, what works for team meetings is not always conducive to DEI learning. Boldly Inclusive has adapted its in-person learning and planning seminars to work in various online spaces and platforms to ensure workshops are interactive, collaborative, impactful, and relevant. When organizations are limited by information systems policies that disallow options for shared, behaviour-based learning, it can be expected that the outcomes will be limited. Better to engage IS teams in DEI learning plans.
Changing how we report success.
Where we are making strides: As we look ahead, we see new and aspiring leaders increasingly thoughtful about what success from the DEI standpoint looks like. In the past, diversity indicators such as representation and recruitment of equity-seeking communities have set the benchmark for success. However, such indicators only provide a snapshot of diversity without understanding experiences of equity and inclusion. For example, if an organization goes on a hiring blitz to enhance its diversity, but the work environment is not safe, welcoming, or accessible to people with a range of lived experiences, this may lead to issues of DEI sustainability. For up-and-coming leaders, it may also result in questions about the organization's commitment. For them, the logic is natural: people require not only access but also a sense of inclusion. These are the success indicators they will be looking for when identifying organizations that align with their DEI values.
Where we are falling back: On the opposite side of this equation, most organizations persist in measuring success based solely on workforce demographics and resist moving out of their comfort zone. Often this is because demographics can be easier to work with, and the many times they are deemed easier to collect. In addition to what we have mentioned above, there are a couple more limitations to this approach.
First, a number of communities and individuals do not self-identify. For a range of social, historical and political reasons, many Indigenous community members have learned it is safe not to do so. This message has been passed down inter-generationally and is rooted in trauma. As well, persons with invisible disabilities face stigma and skepticism and, therefore, may also be unwilling to self-identify. Second, current demographic categories do not capture the complexity of identity. The use, as mentioned above, of "visible minorities" in the Canadian context risks lumping large groups together and overlooks the unique realities of institutional anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. Further, for people identifying as multiracial, the option to select only one identity may make measurement and reporting easier for organizations (hopefully, one doesn't have to tick "other"!) but may not reflect how they might self-identify if given the choice.
Ultimately, demographics provide a snapshot of the organization’s diversity, but they may not tell the whole story when people cannot self-identify in meaningful ways.
Where we could be better: Simply better-aligning goals to success metrics. If an organization's objective is to create the kind of work environment where people feel included, then inclusion indicators such as respect and fairness, or belonging and feeling valued, must be prioritized. Misalignments of goals and metrics can create a false narrative and confusion around purpose and intention. Remember: demographics are not the only way to track DEI growth. We can explore a wealth of options, but doing so requires courageous, open, and accountable leadership.