Skip to main content

The client was eager to see their preliminary results. They’d hired us to conduct an assessment of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their organization, and we’d just completed the first phase. We’d run our algorithm on their HR data to see how talent moved through the organization, and we’d completed an employee satisfaction survey. We had some colorful, cool-looking graphs we were eager to present.

We were especially excited to share some good news: Contrary to a widely held belief, people of color were not leaving the organization at a higher rate than white people. Also, it seemed people of color were being promoted into middle management slightly faster than white people. We still needed to get more granular with our data analysis, but at first glance there were some real strengths to celebrate.

However, the executive team was far more interested in the survey comments. While the satisfaction numbers showed that Black, Latinx, and Native American employees were only slightly less satisfied at work than their white and Asian coworkers, many comments from African American and Latinx employees were highly critical of the organization and its leadership.

Our team explained that the upcoming focus groups would unpack the disparity between lower BIPOC employee satisfaction and their equitable promotion and exit rates. We reminded the client that these results were preliminary.

However, many leaders were so hyper-focused on the comments that progress was nearly derailed. Instead of receiving the good news about their emerging strengths, they fixated on problem-solving around the comments, pushing for immediate town hall meetings and training for all people leaders. These well-intended but overly reactive urges were eventually pulled back by revisiting their goals and helping them slow down and see the big picture.

A Misunderstanding of DEI

This scenario is all-too-common in DEI work. A heightened sense of urgency when none is merited is a fear-based response that rarely leads to meaningful change. Racism and inequities have existed in the U.S. for hundreds of years. No time is wasted in taking a few more weeks or months to gather and properly analyze data, carefully consider options, and create strategic action plans. In fact, taking that time is critical to making the right decisions to ensure sustainable change, which includes identifying and leveraging strengths.

More importantly, behind leaders’ disproportionate concern with employees’ opinions is often a fundamental misunderstanding of what DEI is about. As a veteran of the field, I believe DEI is about ending oppression and co-creating equity. Oppression exists when people exercise power over others in unfair, unjust and/or inappropriately harmful ways. Oppression occurs when we harm or inhibit others’ lives and livelihoods for unfair, unjust, and/or ineffective reasons.

Equity exists when all people have equitable access to all the resources and opportunities necessary to live their happiest, healthiest lives. This access enables people to fully contribute their unique gifts for individual and collective benefit.

In the workplace, equity is present when all people have equitable access to all the resources and opportunities necessary to be “successful” — however individually and collectively defined. When equity exists, people can learn about opportunities, apply, be evaluated, hired, compensated, onboarded, developed, promoted, and exited based on their abilities, skills, character, and behaviors – not based on their group identity or any trait over which they have no control.

Therefore, the existence of equity in the workplace can be measured as equitable access and equitable movement up and through an organization. Access and movement can be assessed through quantitative measures like hiring rates, promotion rates, exit rates, performance evaluation scores, and who receives which opportunities for development. When disparities show up in these quantitative measures by demographic groups, qualitative approaches like interviews, focus groups, survey comments, and observation can uncover the reasons.

These reasons may indicate the disparity isn’t due to oppression but other factors like personal preferences, cultural norms, or high market demand for certain skills or qualities. More often, the disparity reflects historical oppression in which members of oppressed groups were categorically excluded from high-value roles, levels, or jobs. This exclusion results in both an unequal playing field, and disproportionate psychological and financial burdens that marginalized employees carry into the workplace.

Most commonly, the root cause of a disparity is oppression in the form of workplace systems, structures, processes, policies, and norms that disproportionately harm, burden, or exclude members of groups (who were not meant to be included or benefitted by those systems, structures, processes, and policies). Workplace oppression mirrors and amplifies historical, and current, societal oppression.

Feelings vs Oppression

However, feelings do not necessarily indicate oppression. A person can be oppressed (unfairly denied equitable access to resources and opportunities), yet feel that they are not, and even vehemently deny that they are.

I’ve known women who denied they faced sexism while they were being paid less than men in the same role, passed over for development opportunities, and subject to frequent microaggressions. People deny their own oppression for multiple, complex reasons that are usually a necessary form of self-protection. But according to the data, these women were being oppressed based on gender, despite their feelings to the contrary.

Hyper-focusing on people’s feelings and relying on them as the main indicator of oppression — or the sole gauge of DEI success — presents two problems. One, it allows us to ignore oppression that victims don’t perceive, or even know about. This is still unjust, unfair, and inequitable, and therefore gets in the way of our individual and collective thriving.

Second, relying on feelings to indicate oppression permits those who feel oppressed, but are not, to receive consideration for their grievances equal to those who are actually oppressed.

For instance, many white people and men claim to be oppressed, when the data are (usually) clear this is not the case, either organizationally or societally. This is unfair and inequitable, and also ineffective because it drains energy and attention from addressing the real problem of oppression.  Read the rest on

Leave a Reply