In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the unrest during the summer of 2020, companies couldn’t make statements about their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion fast enough. They posted on social media. They held meetings. They formed diversity councils and purported to listen closely to the needs of their teams.
And it hasn’t been sufficient.
A recent Catalyst report, “Words Aren’t Enough: The Risks of Performative Policies,” found that three-quarters of employees from four white-majority countries believe their organizations’ racial equity policies are not genuine.
“Performative policies” aren’t just ineffective, however. The report states that they can cause true harm to your organization, contributing to turnover, lack of trust, poor performance, and reduced productivity.
“It’s a wake-up call for leaders that you can’t just make a statement and step into the movement,” says Tara Van Bommel, coauthor of the report and director and statistician in the research department at Catalyst, a global nonprofit that focuses on workplace inclusion. “It’s not just making the statement and then saying, ‘Okay, I’ve checked the box.’ Employees are savvy. They want to see action behind it.”
So, what can your organization and its leaders do to truly foster belief in a commitment to DEI? Here are some of Catalyst’s findings, as well as other expert opinions.
Be ready to have tough conversations
To actually create change, first there needs to be an assessment of the past. And that can lead to difficult and uncomfortable conversations, says DEI consultant Netta Jenkins. “There are so many people, especially within the majority group, who don’t really want to explore the trauma, and those experiences that those from marginalized groups have faced because there’s a level of guilt that comes up,” she says, comparing the situation to a romantic relationship: “If your partner did something to you, and they just want to move on, that’s going to make it hard to move forward.”
So you have to be willing to have difficult conversations, which includes truly listening to the feedback you’re getting about your current workplace and what needs to change so that you can identify the best way to forge a better path ahead.
Create a culture where people can speak out
You can’t have important conversations if people aren’t willing to speak out. Some employees worry that it’s not their place, or that they may cause trouble if they speak up, says Alina Vandenberghe, co-CEO of Chili Piper, a Google-backed sales tech business. It’s up to leaders to create a culture where people feel free to speak out about their concerns and not face consequences.
But that’s a tall order. As written in Fast Company, less than 10% of employees were comfortable voicing their DEI concerns to senior management, according to one report.
Chili Piper recently implemented adjustments that changed the company’s ratio of women in leadership roles to 50%, while closing the gender pay gap and overhauling job descriptions to eliminate unconscious bias. Vandenberghe says these efforts led to the company being a more inclusive place for all 250 employees—not just women.
Engage in consistent and transparent communication
Being clear about what the company is doing and why is critically important as new priorities and initiatives are rolled out, Van Bommel says. In the Catalyst study, respondents indicated that one thing signaling a performative policy was when they heard a new initiative being announced and then never heard about it again.
“This signaled to them that they were left in the dark, never really knowing what came next,” she says. Leaders may want to wait until all the details are finalized, but that may be a mistake. More communication is usually a better alternative.
At Chili Piper, straightforward communication about the company’s expectations helped elevate employees to greater success. Clear career paths were created to show each team member how they could progress in the company. “Everyone knows what they need to do to get to the next level,” Vandenberghe says.
Demand—and support—leadership commitment
Jenkins says that another step companies can take to show their teams that DEI matters is to be clear that there is no tolerance for noninclusive leaders. Give everyone in the company responsibility for DEI and put it in job descriptions for new hires.
“That way, people know as they’re reviewing their job, ‘This is what I’m getting myself into. I must have the DEI lens—it is a requirement for this organization,'” she says. Then, ask questions about DEI and anti-racism commitment in the interview.
Leaders must also hold each other accountable, Jenkins adds. “And it’s not just about saying we’re committed, which is the performative piece. It’s saying, ‘Hey, even as a leader, if another leader is not following this, then they need to leave. There’s no place for them here,'” she says.
Van Bommel says that training is another useful component of shifting behavior and attitudes. Catalyst’s research found that leaders with high levels of empathy were more likely to create genuine racial equity policies, which drove greater inclusion for employees of color.
“I think [empathy is] an important tool for leaders to be able to hear employees where they’re at, and to actually really deeply understand what employees need and what they want and to take an open mind to hearing what’s working and what’s not working,” she says.
Tie goals to compensation
Of course, the ultimate form of accountability is to tie DEI performance to compensation, Jenkins says. “Typically, they say, ‘Well, this is hard,’ or ‘We couldn’t do it,’ or come up with all sorts of excuses. But suddenly, when your compensation is tied to it, there are a whole bunch of solutions,” she says.
Integrate accomplishment of DEI responsibilities and goals into performance reviews or other forms of evaluation. Van Bommel says that approach can also be used for fostering leadership and company culture attributes like empathy.
As companies make the shifts to address DEI issues directly, it’s likely that they’ll make a misstep or two. In those cases, be humble and make it right, Van Bommel recommends. “Employees [aren’t] seeking perfection,” she says. “They’re seeking people to be honest, and to demonstrate that humility, which is one of the core inclusive leadership behaviors that we identify in our research.”