From Ethnic Lunches to ERGs: 10 questions to ask about your D&I program in 2019

January 22, 2019Dr. Leeno Karumanchery

I’ve heard this powerful notion in a number of D&I conferences recently. “If you’re not disrupting, you’re not doing your job.” While I love the sentiment, I don’t know if I quite agree. I would submit that every organization is not set up for disruption, and most D&I leads are on a very thin, very short leash. In order to understand just how disruptive you can be, you have to understand what’s expected of your program, and what you are allowed/empowered to do? Which is to say that the answer to both questions is tied directly to what kind of organizational climate and culture your leaders endorse and support.

I remember my first forays into D&I work in the late 1990s. I was in the midst of my doctorate and informally consulting with school committees and small community based organizations as I conducted research for what would eventually become my first book. It was all very basic stuff really, but it gave me the itch for consulting. The thing that I loved the most was that everyone I spoke to was really really passionate. They didn’t just want to see results, they needed to see them. I mean, it was about their children, and their communities. They had a vested interest, and so passion wasn’t hard to find.

Fast forward to one of my first experiences as a D&I consultant out there in the “real world.” I was flying high under my own banner. I think I called it the Diversity Training Institute. I had a one-stop approach to marketing and sales, and it was simply called “Word of Mouth.” Don’t laugh. I was a sociologist with absolutely zero idea of how to run a business. But for the most part, I was lucky and it worked. I’d do a training or a keynote, and word would reach the right people with a few simple messages: (a) I seemed to know what I was talking about (b) I could explain everything in practical, everyday non-academic language, and perhaps most importantly, (c) I didn’t tend to alienate people along the way. Life was good.

Then it happened. I got a call from the HR lead of a very large company. Back in 2004, this would have been my first real corporate experience. I came into that initial meeting guns a blazing with all the confidence that inexperience and a modicum of success provides. And if I do say so myself … I killed it. He was thrilled. He said he loved everything about it and particularly loved that I wasn’t shying away from real issues that could actually help him diversify the organization. Then he took some time to give me the lay of the land. It went something like this:

“So this is all great. I love it. The next step is for you to present to our CFO and CEO. Now, you have to understand that our CFO is just interested in straight numbers. She’s not gonna care about the rightness or wrongness of diversity. And our CEO is going to really want to understand how this impacts the bottom-line, and the bottom-line alone. It’s not gonna be easy”

Suffice to say, he painted a picture of a very very difficult and unlikely path forward…and he wasn’t wrong. It was a month before the big meeting and I took all that time to prepare. But when the time came, nothing seemed to matter. They were clearly uninterested, explaining that they didn’t really see “my kind” of diversity work as necessary. And they went on to describe the great things they were doing, and took the time to explain their diversity program. It was centered around ethnic lunches, and how they celebrated Black History Month … with … ethnic lunches. I was clearly skating uphill in that meeting. It was my first lesson in how driving inclusion in an organization is entirely dependent on the climate and culture as set by leadership. Unlike those first consulting experiences, no deep passions here, no vested interest in D&I to speak of.

Since those early days, I’ve had the good fortune to work across sectors, with small social service agencies, large unions and even larger Fortune 500s. The one constant I’ve found in every one of those experiences was that the quality of D&I work that I could do, and the degree to which I could help make systemic movement, was entirely dependent on whether the leadership actually understood how social power, (i.e. racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, ageism, etc.) was a part of the puzzle. How they themselves might be part of the puzzle. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that they necessarily understood the field specific complexities, but they at least understood that the answer wouldn’t be found in food, parties and isolated initiatives.

Take for instance ERGs (Employee Resource Groups).

At their best:

ERGs can do some really positive things for affinity group members. Through professional development programs, mentoring and other leadership stream efforts, ERGs can grow potential leaders who might not otherwise find opportunities to shine … and do so in a space where members might feel a relative degree of safety to “be themselves.” They can help build a sense of community for staff who might otherwise feel like their differences are not valued by the company. And, the differences in perspective and experience of ERG members can sometimes provide insights for leadership. While this kind of programming can develop fantastic bridge points, they must be seen as part of a larger D&I strategy and not as ends unto themselves.

At their worst:

When installed and executed as little more than “Tick the Box” measures, ERG programs can provide a false sense of security for everyone involved. What does it say to members of these groups when they look up and see little change at the upper echelons? What is the impact when only certain “types” of people seem to move up and out of ERG ecosystems? When only certain types of people seem to find the mentors? In some ways, don’t these programs just continue the traditionally siloed approach to diversity where “the work” gets done in a particular place, with particular people, most often outside the main business of the company, and outside the locus of real organizational power. We need look no further than the number of high profile discrimination lawsuits that have broken in the news in the last few years. And how many of these same organizations boast high numbers of women on staff, thriving ERGs and improving scores on engagement surveys.

Last week’s post was entitled, It’s 2019. Why are we still using D&I strategies from 20 years ago? So, I want to take this week’s blog to ask some questions that might pull at relevant challenges for today’s D&I professional. if you lead the D&I strategy for your organization, it doesn’t matter whether you’re new to the position and the industry, or whether you’re well experienced and have what you believe is a strong and impactful program, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. If I had to pick just one, what would I say is the main thrust of our program? Do we focus on hiring more diverse bodies? Do we work on internal development and affinity programs? Do we use tools to hire people who are more inclusive? Something else…?
  2. Has this program contributed to the development of an inclusive culture that drives high performance?
  3. What metrics or assessment tools do we use to determine the efficacy of this program?*
  4. If we have managed to develop and drive an inclusive culture, how do we now hire with an eye to sustain it?
  5. How do our on-boarding process and personnel development strategy work in tandem to position new hires to be successful while also driving the culture we have so painstakingly built?
  6. Do we (i.e. leadership and personnel) have a general understanding of the difference between organizational power dynamics and social power dynamics?
  7. How do we support leaders in recognizing and mitigating social and organizational power dynamics in their management and supervisory style?
  8. How do we ensure that issues like micro-management or supervisory bias can be prevented or rooted out and addressed in their infancy, before they become real problems?
  9. How do we integrate D&I metrics into team formation and development?
  10. Is the D&I strategy woven throughout the Talent Cycle of our organization, or is it siloed?

I pose these questions because they’re a good way to take stock of where we are, where we’ve been and where we might want to focus our attention as D&I leads. Again, it really does come down to climate and culture. But more specifically, the leadership mindset that drives the climate and culture of our organizations.

Does your leadership have a vested interest in D&I? If they do, here’s the good news: doing diversity doesn’t have to be disruptive.

In next week’s blog, I’ll look at how you can build a D&I strategy that fits within your company’s climate and culture, dependent on how you answered those 10 questions.


*I’ve always been suspect of how D&I programs can be effectively evaluated internally because it’s sort of like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Simple likert style surveys (e.g. 1-5, 1-10, scores from “not at all” to “very much,”) are easily manipulated and gamed by respondents, and honest qualitative feedback is difficult to garner when you are surveying dicey, incendiary subjects like race, gender and sexuality.

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