DE&I doesn't happen overnight

Consultants can help organizations tackle DE&I, but they can’t do everything.
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Francis Scialabba

· 8 min read

In our debut month, HR Brew is asking the question “Where are we?” with stories that explore where we, employees and HR professionals, are physically working at this point in the pandemic, as well as where we are metaphorically, as the industry sees rapid growth while confronting enormous challenges. Our next story, from Sam Blum, checks in on where HR diversity initiatives are at.

Like the Bat-Signal hanging low in the nighttime sky over Gotham, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) consultants have been summoned by corporate America to rescue the working world from generations of racial and gender inequality.

The summer of 2020 was a watershed moment for race relations across the world, galvanized by protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The reverberations cut through the walls of corporate board rooms, spurring CEOs to beam the letters DE&I into the sky (or pick up the phone). The hope? That a team of sage experts wielding PowerPoint presentations would swoop in and unveil the secret formula for eradicating inequity in the workplace.

The past 19 months have reportedly been a boom time for the DE&I consultant industrial complex. And as companies scramble to issue anti-racist proclamations and convene listening sessions with employees of color, the DE&I consulting industry has come under greater scrutiny. As The Cut reported, workers and experts alike have leveled accusations that the industry promotes diversity for optics, and companies hiring these consultants often treat DE&I as a routine matter of compliance, as opposed to an ethos that must be woven into their DNA.

Various experts in the field told HR Brew that as organizations continue to wrestle with the DE&I dilemma, it’s important to keep the longer arc of American history in mind. Consultants can help, they argue, but only if the consulting is supported by a historical and philosophical perspective: that the task of enacting tangible change in the private sector is inseparable from the 400-year struggle to achieve racial equality in the United States.

With that in mind, organizations can carry on the work even after consultants have cashed their checks and moved on.

Moving the needle

Corporate diversity—and the calls for it inside offices and the legislative arena—are nothing new. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 established wage parity for men and women, while employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, and national origin” was outlawed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fast forward to today, and those once-historic gains now seem meager: Out of the 1,800 CEOs who’ve led Fortune 500 companies since 1955, only 19 have been Black.

Meanwhile, a 2020 report on D&I and gender inequality from asset-management firm Mercer that surveyed 1,157 organizations and 7 million employees notes that 81% of companies have pledged to combat gender disenfranchisement in the workplace, but only 42% have a “documented, multi-year strategy” to implement “D&I goals.”

Enter the consultants, who offer an outsider’s perspective that can, in theory, overhaul an organization suffering from a lack of diversity via anti-bias training and what many call a “strategic vision” for implementing true DE&I.

“There’s this huge diversity apparatus that has sprung up that doesn’t work, and that institutions are spending billions of dollars on every year,” Pamela Newkirk, the author of Diversity Inc., a book about DE&I consulting, told HR Brew. “The needle is barely moving even as diversity is mushrooming into a much bigger industry.”

The widespread protests in 2020 spawned a procession of public denouncements of racism from corporations, in what a cynic might liken to the Olympics of Virtue Signaling. The world was watching them, so companies made pledges that Black Lives Matter and participated in social media initiatives like #BlackOutTuesday: In total, 950 brands posted black squares on Instagram during the 24-hour period.

The number of corporate DE&I jobs has also grown sharply since last summer. According to data from Indeed provided to HR Brew, the number of job listings containing “diversity,” “equality,” or “inclusion” in the title jumped by 67% between January 2020 and October 2021.

Ashish Kaushal, the CEO of staffing service HireTalent and founder of the DE&I consultancy Consciously Unbiased, said the summer of racial reckoning did prompt a surge in his company’s business. Now companies are “actually spending money to see that their culture and environments are changing,” he said.

Newkirk worries that newly hired diversity officers might just be token gestures who ultimately are shoved back into the shadows once the clamor dies down. Specifically, she fears organizations “hiring a chief diversity officer and then marginalizing that person within the institution and not giving them the tools and the access to actually make change.”

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Diversity theater

Silicon Valley, for example, has been quick to promote its inclusivity initiatives, but many Black employees have lambasted the tech world’s thinly veiled “diversity theater.”

One-off, or even annual visits from a consultant will do little to affect sustained progress, Torin Perez, a DE&I consultant and speaker, explained. “The criticisms [of the industry] have been fair. Will mandatory unconscious bias training...change the trajectory of our organization? The answer by and large will be no.”

The problem with companies that preach a high-minded rhetoric about DE&I, or that use consultants to lackluster results, is that they lose track of the longer-term vision. For Perez, “there is an element of justice” when it comes to consulting. “How do we achieve justice?” he told HR Brew. “For many organizations that point is completely missed...they’re lacking the larger origination story, they’re lacking the larger context of why we even have DE&I initiatives in the first place. It’s grounded in human rights. It’s grounded in human value...striving for a more just world.”

Putting words into action

Kavitha Prabhakar, the chief DE&I officer at Deloitte, said the summer of 2020 “was a humbling moment...because it helped us as an organization recognize that this is a moment where we have to acknowledge how much work has to be done.”

For campaigners like Perez, however, the work has always been there, begging for an overhaul from practitioners. “If you needed George Floyd’s murder to wake you up, there’s a good chance that if anything less significant than that happens,” he said, the legwork of DE&I will be lost on your organization.

Prabhakar said that Deloitte has made efforts to flip certain “orthodoxies” that have kept companies stuck in the ways of the past. Employees, for example, are encouraged to give their managers “upward feedback” about their commitments to DE&I, and recruiters are relying less on GPA requirements and university reputation when vetting applicants. “You look at someone who’s been supporting their family, had night jobs, and made [a] 3.5 [GPA] in school, are we saying that [this candidate] isn’t ready for our firm?” Prabhakar said.

While Deloitte has instituted new measures, such as releasing its first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Transparency report this year, Prabhakar noted that the company did consult an outside organization to help it navigate the rocky post–2020 terrain.

For the most part, even consultants agree that they can’t single-handedly stamp out generations of entrenched racial bias and other societal inequities that manifest in the workplace. And leaders within the DE&I space largely agree. Isa Notermans, who was formerly the head of diversity and belonging at Spotify and is now the head of people and culture at Linktree, told HR Brew as much. “You need to build support for change internally, otherwise it’s always going to look performative. You need to find your company’s ‘why’ and you start from there. Mobilize allies at the ground level [within the company].”

Notermans, for one, thinks compensating Employee Resource Groups for the extra work they put into DE&I efforts can go a long way. “Look at that from an equity perspective, and think about expanding opportunities” for employees who do this extra work, Notermans said.

These solutions are thoughtful and worth a shot, but without the historical perspective that draws on the broader struggle for equality and equity (there’s a difference) in this country, organizations might be virtue signaling into the void.

As Perez puts it, if the bulk of your DE&I agenda started after last summer, you might have a long way to claw yourself out of the wilderness. He said of the racial reckoning of 2020: “It was this cultivating moment where we couldn’t look away at this...virtual streamed lynching of a Black man. And people needed [to witness] then say ‘all that stuff that happened hundreds of years ago is still happening today. And without that context, organizations lack the spirit and the oomph to be able to sustain their work...How do you create sustainable change if you require these massive events to get your attention?”—SB

Additional reporting by John Del Signore.

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Sam Blum via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SamBlum_Brew) or simply email [email protected].

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.