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Programmatic Diversity is Problematic Diversity

by Dr. Saundarya Rajesh (founder-president, Avtar Group)
May 18, 2023
Programmatic Diversity is Problematic Diversity, Article, KonexioNetwork.com

March – traditionally celebrated as the month of Gender Diversity went by this year and I watched as masses of programs were rolled out by companies to communicate their focus on DEI. Every comms team seemed to have worked overtime during diversity month. When I founded Avtar more than 20 years ago, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion were fuzzy concepts – it wasn’t easy to talk to people about the value of diversity or the virtue of creating an inclusive workplace. I used to worry about how I can get people to understand DEI.

But today I am worried for a different reason. The uptick in the number of programs espousing the emphasis on DEI does not have a corresponding uptick in the number of people saying that they feel heard, valued, and respected in their workplace. A recent dipstick study that Avtar conducted in a large IT company revealed that DEI was actually seen as yet another addition to employer branding and dismissed as such. The letter of DEI is not supported by the spirit.

Why does this happen? Despite great clarity about outcomes and a solid plan and a robust strategy to achieve them, why do companies lose people they value? Why do such companies have so few women at leadership levels? Even as they put together detailed OKR’s to reach their diversity goals, why do we see the great resignation having more marginalised people leaving because they feel excluded? Why in spite of the presence of large megabytes of policy documents, do people not feel the emotion of inclusion?

Perhaps that’s exactly why.

Sometimes, organizations strive hard to follow the DEI rulebook to a fault. But they fail to create a nurturing workplace for their people. Let’s delve deeper.

Now, let’s suppose an organization has the following resources in place - A detailed DEI plan, a DEI council responsible for the implementation of the plan, regular training for employees on topics such as unconscious bias and inclusive communication, Orientation for new hires on the organization's DEI policies and periodic company-wide surveys to collect feedback about workplace culture.

All these practices are critical for an inclusive workplace. However, despite these practices, employees may still be experiencing micro-aggression, bias during hiring or appraisal, feeling uncomfortable speaking up about their challenges, Clueless about what allyship, privilege, or intersectionality mean and facing burnout, with lack of flexibility in their work schedules.

Unfortunately, many organizations in India are struggling with this. Mind you, most organizations that are committed to DEI, have a dedicated team to execute initiatives. And since these initiatives form the OKRs of an entire team, they sure get implemented, but the people whom they are intended for – the employees – do not benefit from this even slightly. Why is this happening? Because, most organizations diminish DEI to a set of tedious programmes, thereby pushing the true ethics of DEI – belongingness, kindness, openness, and fairness – to the wayside. That’s why I say, programmatic DEI is problematic.

So, how can we ensure that DEI practices do not forget the human in the entire process? Here are a few thoughts - Don’t set diversity targets that are outlandish. Hiring a bunch of people who are different from your usual ‘candidate profile’ does not guarantee inclusion.

Equity-led policies which are thoughtful and well-considered do more for your DEI agenda, than loud, garish events. Diversity is a leadership imperative – unless the leader is thoroughly convinced, no amount of programs will deliver that striking difference in culture. It may make sense to get a Diversity coach for your CEO, rather than tons of training programs down the line. Keep diversity training and orientation simple, steering clear of high-sounding words. Include anecdotes in your trainings. This is a game-changer, trust me!

Be open to feedback. For instance, if employees find DEI trainings boring, it is time to change the content. Encourage personal storytelling sessions by employees on their experiences of bias, inclusion, and more. This will up the human quotient of DEI by several notches.

DEI fatigue is real, thanks to the sheer volume of discussions on the topic and the pressure to stick to policies. More importantly, just increasing the number of initiatives without a proportionate investment in the ‘heart’ of the topic does not help. So, stop treating DEI as a box-ticking exercise and forget the rigid DEI rules and protocols. That’s half the battle won. Be open to ideas, experiment, and most importantly, keep the human at the heart of your DEI plans. Then witness the DEI magic unravel!