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Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives Are Often Just Performative

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October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The theme for NDEAM 2021 is America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is the newest trend through which businesses and organizations can engage in what often amounts to performative allyship. After suddenly finding room in their budgets to pay the incredibly high salaries of new DEI directors, organizations are proudly lauding their commitment to creating more inclusive workplaces by publishing the CVs of these new hires. A common theme is quickly emerging: many of these new directors are privileged, able-bodied professionals with prestigious degrees from selectively competitive higher education institutions. Many have several publications in their names, the result of decades spent studying and contemplating various ways organizations can accommodate people with diverse backgrounds and needs.

Each time I see another announcement of a local organization’s newly hired DEI director, the thought that immediately comes to mind is: nothing about us without us. This phrase refers to the importance of including people with diverse backgrounds and needs in all stages of the change process, rather than making decisions without their input and lived experience.

I can’t help but wonder if the money for these DEI Directors’ salaries might have been put to better use by soliciting the opinions and experiences of the populations these organizations are attempting to reach and include, or perhaps through a comprehensive evaluation of organizational systems and structures at every level to identify obstacles and barriers to meaningful inclusion. Merely hiring one new executive or administrator is not indicative of an authentic commitment to creating more inclusive workplaces.

Meaningful inclusion is not simply providing employees accommodations that allow them to conform to the status quo of the current organizational systems and structures that hinder them, or offering safety nets to employees in times of crisis (for which employees may or may not receive approval). Organizations that are interested in creating purposefully inclusive workplaces must commit to organizational change by carefully analyzing barriers and obstacles related to organizational structure, hiring practices, workplace culture, systems of support, and others.

Interested in creating a meaningfully inclusive workplace? Here are some questions to consider:

1. Do our current job offerings allow people from all walks of life to access meaningful employment opportunities within our organization?

This should include full-time and part-time positions, positions with flexible shifts and hours, opportunities to work from home, partnerships with local supported employment organizations, paid leave policies, and others.

2. Does our current organizational structure value and celebrate the unique work styles of all employees?

This should include employee evaluation methods, supervision structures, systems of support, and a commitment to valuing each individual employee’s strengths and needs.

3. Are we offering opportunities to all employees to not only learn about important DEI topics, but opportunities to engage in growth and discourse with peers?

Many organizations offer trainings and seminars for employees on topics related to DEI, such as micro-aggressions, ableism, workplace culture, and others. Organizations could offer Restorative Justice circles for employees to work together to repair harm caused by interpersonal interactions and organizational structures and systems. Organizations could also create advisory groups or panels to assist with all stages of the change process at all levels within the organization.

4. Are we offering adequate systems of support for all employees, regardless of ability or need?

Rather than simply providing contact information for outsourced Employee Assistance Programs through which employees can obtain short-term counseling support, consider expanding HR departments to offer ongoing support to all employees utilizing a case management structure. All employees could have a dedicated case manager checking in regularly to offer additional supports, as necessary, and advocate on behalf of the employee.

Getty image by designer491

Originally published: October 22, 2021
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