Hiring a DEI Leader? Does it perpetuate or eliminate systemic workplace racism?
Updated: Apr 8
As my timeline is flooded with memories of the death of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd Jr., Botham Jean and Ahmaud Arbery, I question daily whether I should have pride in the work I do as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Leader.
If I should feel excited to wave the diversity flag as the mascot for my organization. There is no chant or dance I can perform in order to prepare my mind for the emotional game I experience daily. There are constant moments of awkwardness as I create presentations and proposals which often advocate for myself and people that look like me. Reminding myself resistance and refusal to engage are not personal attacks against me. I can't help but question if my role as a diversity leader is helping or hurting the goals to advance marginalized groups in the workplace.
The organizational design of corporate systems is no secret. Just open your google search engine to explore the ridiculous amount of data reminding us many black and brown people have not found their place in the board room or c-suite. With racial tension continuing to rise, we see more posts of Black CEOs and Asian movie leads flooding the headlines. Some calling it Affirmative Action and others calling it WOKE. Yet many of us agree the workplace does not feel different.
I don't need data to tell you that 90% of the time I am the only black person in the "Midwest conversations and meetings" which take up 30 hours of my work week. However, it is not the environment that makes me question the roles and responsibilities of my job. Instead, it is the requests I receive to comfort the DEI "non-believers".
This is where I, the DEI Leader, question whether I was hired only to offer comfort to employees and be the corporate ear. The person who will listen to their excitement for transformation or reasons why they detest the diversity conversation. Or was I hired to actually shift workplace culture and recommend policies to advance equity. Is my brown face the poster for change or will my voice and ideas be given the opportunity to shake up the system without having to play politics and stroke egos? Each time I accommodate and lessen my request for change, am I adding bricks to foundation of systemic workplace inequity?
All of these questions swarm my mind daily as I research articles and videos to support my efforts. I filter the ones that will resonate with leadership from the ones that are too bold, making the priority of the corporate DEI efforts around assimilation instead of acceptance. The constant push for being authentic at work ignored so I may have just a small win for the sake of diversity. While knowing at the end of every conversation I will be asked to make the "business case for diversity" once again to try and influence the non-believers.
Listening to white employees use words like hard-working and tenure to describe why their department is predominantly white and male. My approach always seeking understanding first, I offer almost comical coddling responses of appreciating their hard work and ensuring them there are other hard-working Americans who look like me. Each moment feeling like defeat and a nod of agreement to their narrative, in fear I may not be able to move DEI efforts forward. Exhausted daily by the unconscious (and sometimes conscious) insensitive comments that attack the abilities of my community. Closing the laptop to the daily realization I have become the sacrifice for the DEI dream. Acknowledging there will be many moments where I will consciously or unconsciously reward the system holding me back.
My role as a DEI leader was created with good intention. It is meant to connect the dots of the importance behind the person doing the job. To pull out the massive amounts of creativity and innovation in the minds of people being left out. To open doors and create paths for long-term change which benefits the entire organization. Unfortunately, this is only possible if the corporation is willing to dismantle the institution and rebuild a new one, with new DNA. Not because the original institution didn't work. In fact, it did work as designed. It was made with an unconscious formula to limit access to opportunity. Recognizing the formula has components which yield better results based on your race and gender.
It has become clear the role of a Diversity Leader is often used as the classic technique of smoke and mirrors. Very few organizations have added a DEI Leader to their executive staff. Few have shown proof of increases in hiring and promotions for marginalized groups. Few have closed the compensation gap and leadership gap. Few have recognized the value of the role and its impact on the culture and the business. With Affirmative Action laws dating back to the1960s to support fair employment practices for people of color, women, veterans, and persons with a disability somehow there is still a need for a DEI Leader. Where do we go from here?
The rush to hire a diversity leader may not be the answer to your problems. Placing years, sometimes decades, of systemic bias and closed-minded culture on the shoulders of one human will prove to be impossible. It is time for companies to determine if they are truly ready for a complete organizational transformation. If they are ready to step back and reflect on the inner circles making decisions about promotions and project assignments. To audit hiring processes and the managers involved in selecting the next wave of talent. To acknowledge what families are receiving dollars through payroll, vendor payments, and acquisitions. Organizations who are willing to stop asking for the "diversity business case" and start admitting they are proof of recycling white dollars and "like-me" pipelining to the CEO seat.
Could my role as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leader perpetuate systemic racism? I believe so.
Might we consider a new approach. Where diversity, equity, and inclusion is not optional. It is a lens we view all business processes and decisions through. The role of leading diversity, equity, and inclusion should, and always will, belong to the CEO.
It is time to rethink the DEI Leader and recognize the talent missing from the c-suite table is actually a Chief Transformation Officer. It is not DEI that we need to learn. It is how to change and remain flexible with an evolving workplace. Through transformation, we can reimagine the type of workforce that is desired.
You don't need a diversity leader. What you need is the courage to change. You need the courage to start over.
CEO of Corporate KIN Diversity Strategies