Diversity efforts are Acronym Soup. Can we find a single frame?

Diversity initiatives inside companies can feel like a carnival ride of nothingness — lots of decks created, meetings held, and “data analyzed,” but not much real change year-over-year. You try to wonder why that is and one thing we easily come to is, well, companies are run by middle-aged white men typically, and they’re out of touch and step with these issues. That might be one thing. Then we come to the whole “well, companies’ goal is to make money” rabbit hole, and people scream passionately about that. Then we fight through our keyboards and again, little happens.

One of the big issues is honestly framing. Probably the most conventional way people describe their diversity efforts is DEI, but the “E” in that varies a lot by company: equality or equity, for example. Then you have some companies bringing in belonging, which in reality is similar to inclusion, and allyship, which is similar to and different all the other ones. So some companies call it DEI, some D&I, some DEIBA, some DEIB, etc.

It’s Acronym Soup. That doesn’t help the efforts scale.

I think we need a single frame for these efforts, but I’m honestly unclear on what that is. Here are some ideas, though.

  • Put everything under the concept of “diversity:” Don’t bring in the other words except periodically, but not at high levels. This might tone down some eye-rolling about the wokeness from executives who just want to get back into a revenue meeting.
  • Bottom-line tie: I’ve heard some companies frame this as a moral discussion, and that’s part of the framing issue. Moral discussions are nice and important, but legitimately a huge percentage of companies have incentive structures that are inherently amoral, and those companies are where Ivy League MBAs want to work. That’s what white-collar is. So if something deserves a seat at the discussion table solely because it’s a “moral imperative,” well, it’s not going to get very far at that table.
  • Words that matter: That’s why I would suggest creating the whole frame around “diversity.” I think executives broadly understand what that means and why it might be relevant for their brand and overall business. I do not think a lot of executives understand what inclusion means, how that’s different from belonging, the nuances of equity vs. equality, what “allyship” is, etc. I had an executive tell me two weeks ago that allyship “just feels like a description of being nice to a co-worker. Why do we need a term for it?” Indeed. It feels like something that got popular on Instagram so now 30,000 people are rolling with it and it’s gaining steam. That makes an executive groan.
  • The brain and belief structures: Most people’s connection to diversity is tied to their brain science and their belief structure. If you sat at grand-daddy’s knee and he told you that blacks were evil and steal, well, short of a lot of nuance, self-awareness, and exposure to the African-American community, you will probably get to your 30s and be somewhat racist. If that is you, sitting in a training led by #HRCathy is not going to change how you feel about your black co-workers. It’s just not, and we know that from research. The framing for these topics should almost be 1-to-1, which is obviously harder to scale, and we should talk to Scott about his deeply-held beliefs and how he brings them to work. Because Scott won’t accomplish anything in a stupid HR or vendor training, but Scott might feel differently about things if the conversation is deep and wide.

Those are some framings that I think could improve how we think about organizational diversity initiatives. What say you?

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