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Column | Staff Development

How organizations can take a comprehensive approach to DEI initiatives

Column | Staff Development

How organizations can take a comprehensive approach to DEI initiatives


To achieve substantive change, leaders must ensure diversity, equity and inclusion are pillars of organizational culture.

Diversity, equity and inclusion should be a way of life in our organizations. We know that for many companies, such an approach is long overdue. We have to be humble enough as leaders and colleagues to understand that for all the mission statements we’ve written, the equal-employment posters we’ve tacked onto bulletin boards, the nondiscrimination statements we’ve included in our job postings, abundant work remains to be done.

Hiring for diversity is essential, but we’ve learned that unless all employees feel that they have a voice, that their growth will be supported and that they can be their authentic selves at work, there can’t be true inclusion.

Michael Slepian, professor at Columbia Business School, puts it this way:

“When employees felt included, involved, and accepted (real inclusion), they felt like they belonged in the workplace. When employees felt like others asked for their input only because they were supposed to or sought their opinion as someone who can represent their social group (surface inclusion), they felt like they belonged less.”

Commitment to the work of diversity, equity and inclusion must remain robust at the very top of organizations. When the most powerful people in the hierarchy make an initiative a sustained priority and push to embed it in all aspects of organizational life, change can happen.

And that change is needed. Working for diversity has been a tough road for those who undertake it. Not just frustrating, but even risky.

A 2016 study revealed a stark reality:

“For all the talk about how important diversity is within organizations, white and male executives aren’t rewarded, career-wise, for engaging in diversity-valuing behavior, and nonwhite and female executives actually get punished for it.”

Blame discomfort with change, ignorance, political differences, inherent bias — whatever the reason, barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion don’t fall until people with clout and courage lead the way and bring others along with them.

Why some DEI approaches don’t work

Organizations often assign DEI responsibilities to human resources departments. HR naturally has a role to play, but that department shouldn’t be viewed as automatically the best fit nor be given sole responsibility. Some HR departments lack depth of knowledge of DEI best practices, so they have a learning curve. Or they may be overwhelmed with other duties.

If organizations go as far as to create DEI executive or management roles, they must be prepared to give those individuals the resources necessary to succeed. They should have a seat at the highest tables and be part of strategic planning. Every person in the organization, especially managers, should know that the DEI leader is a power player, not just everyone’s helper or conscience.

And don’t expect team members from traditionally underrepresented groups to carry the load, either. For many, it’s been invisible, unpaid and frustrating work they’ve been doing for years. They deserve agency — the opportunity to be as involved as they choose.

When it comes to creating a workplace where all employees feel they belong and that they matter, the responsibility rests with everyone.

Taking positive early steps

When the #MeToo movement erupted in 2017 and when the death of George Floyd in 2020 focused a national spotlight on anti-Black racism, windows of opportunity emerged for people to speak out. About sexual harassment. Unequal or unfair treatment. Lack of opportunity. Hostility. Microaggressions that make daily life painful.

The best leaders have now chosen to listen, and to keep listening, so that they can fill the gaps in their knowledge and the holes in their organizations.  The learning and the doing are ongoing efforts.

Initiatives being undertaken by forward-thinking organizations include:

  • Strategic planning that prioritizes diversity
  • Culture surveys
  • Diversity-focused recruitment, hiring and promotion systems
  • Updated job descriptions
  • Improved reporting and resolution processes for staff concerns
  • Retooled evaluation processes
  • Training and development
  • Mentorship programs
  • Employee resource groups
  • Benchmarking, goal-setting and accountability measures
  • Transparency in measuring and reporting progress (or lack of it)

These aren’t breakthrough ideas. What can make them different this time is a shared sense of urgency and responsibility. Implementation can’t be performative, a matter of going through the motions to give the appearance of good faith without genuine commitment. These initiatives and their outcomes should be treated with the same oversight and scrutiny that are applied to KPIs and bottom lines.

Gauging the effectiveness of DEI programs

Consider asking your team an aspirational question like this:

Imagine that our workplace becomes known as a place where colleagues from all backgrounds feel they share an environment where diversity, equity and inclusion are a way of life. How would such an environment be different from current experiences, especially for those who have been historically underrepresented?

Document the responses. Use them to inform and inspire change. Commit to tracking your progress over time and being transparent about the results.

And please don’t think of this as a one-and-done initiative. The best places to work never let up on making their environments safe, supporting and welcoming — for everyone.

About the Author

Jill Geisler

Jill Geisler is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago, and a Freedom Forum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership. Follow Jill on Twitter @JillGeisler.


Do you have questions or topics you’d like Jill to address in a future article? Email Nick Hut, HFMA senior editor, at

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