Is DEI Activism helping or hindering Corporate Diversity progress?

Standing up for your case has a long tradition in Diversity. Today, media amplify various forms of activism and DE&I is increasingly perceived as a personalised or political form of engagement – rather than a future-oriented way of supporting organisational priorities. Read about unwanted side-effects of this.

DE&I 2023 Trilogy (part 2)

The roots of Diversity go back to several U.S. civil rights movements and hence include a spirit of activism by default. However, ‘Diversity Management’ was originally designed as the business-based, organisationally embedded and strategically aligned version of civil rights. Meanwhile, large civil society (activist) campaigns spill over from society, politics and the media into the corporate sphere. There, corresponding in-company activities change the perception of (corporate) DE&I programmes. With my own multiple activist backgrounds and also a focus on strategic change I see the need to raise critical questions here, including

  • Are activist campaigns an effective way to raise awareness and support in a company setting?
  • Which (other) approaches are required in order to create sustainable change in the business context?
  • Does activism generate unwanted, adverse side effects in a corporate environment (or beyond)?
  • In what way can activist energy and skills be used effectively to help drive DE&I-related change in companies?

This second part of the 2023 DE&I Trilogy discusses these key questions while the other parts look at how to deal with opposing opinions and at the dynamics of power in DE&I – both critical to both activism and organisational change.

Dynamics of Activism – revisited

I have no doubts that most of the major societal achievements were initiated and driven by activism. The respective movements flag out deficits or gaps that were not on the radar of those in power or not considered relevant. Activist campaigns are guided by a desire to exhibit a strong attitude, based on robust values. They formulate clear demands based on their evaluations, and they invite like-minded people, aka followers, to support these. This aims at creating a critical mass to show the significance of a position and the power with which the claims are put forward.

In companies, this happens, e.g., by focusing to representation or pay gaps

In a nutshell, activism creates a storyline that flags out issues, calls out malpractice (e. g. injustice) and demands from decision-makers to change policies & procedures. Those currently holding power might be accused of not having adapted the system earlier and this omission serves as a justification for harsh criticism or uproar.

Pointing out issues has never been as easy as today

Today it is easy to find the starting point for an activist campaign: Data and various types of studies are readily available and it only takes a few clicks to identify discrepancies and build a case. Adding context, e. g., comparisons or catchy illustrations, punchlines or personal stories, almost guarantees attention – and support.

In companies, DE&I uses some of the same methodologies which are key to answer the ‘why’ in the first place: Do we > tap into the full talent base > reach all our client needs > collaborate effectively… etc.?

However, I see a few issues in how ‘DE&I cases’ are presented today:

  • What is the quality of the data, studies or benchmarks used and is it presented in a consistent way?
  • What is the motivation of publishing gaps or issues – is it information or publicity or self-marketing?
  • When do we celebrate progress versus calling it ‘too little, too late’ – are our evaluation or narrative biased?
  • What is the value of adding more causes and claims to an existing agenda where progress is being made?

These questions are derived directly from examples I have observed (in the business context) and each of them had concrete negative effects on the respective change process. This can get worse if the next (logical, consistent) analytical step is skipped and the described gap is directly turned into accusation.

Read about representation data and check referenced articles.

Root cause analyses are key to systemic change – not to activism

D&I gaps exist for (many) reasons and don’t occur over night. How much background – or history – do we need to understand? My activist soul often said: This was screwed up in the past – we now have to rebuild it and get it right. My organisation development brain says: In order to orchestrate constructive change and take everyone with us on the journey, it is key to understand past mechanisms and how they led to the existing situation. For DE&I, libraries of research describe the breadth and depth of barriers and biases in people, structures, processes and cultures that all contributed to today’s gaps and discrepancies.

We should not expect agreement on such root cause analyses and discussing them from different perspectives provides everyone a more complete picture. DE&I leaders should aspire to also understand how their organisation differs from other ‘best practices’ – for initiating and driving change does not work in the same way and trial-and-error is unaffordable.

Read why restarting D&I can kill it.

An accusing narrative enlists support – and creates resistance

A comprehensive change strategy based on your root-cause analysis might be perfect but not what people like to hear. Instead, requesting gap-closure by next week seems appropriate in a world where disruption equals progress: legacy systems that consumed a lot of resources are replaced by digital tools that appear to be clean, future-proof – and, of course, cool. With this activist approach we can demand current leadership to give up privilege and share power, or they risk to be ignored and eventually replaced. This tactic finds support among DE&I fans while it creates resistance among those who are not aware of inequities, inequalities and the benefits of removing them. Strong, simplistic claims create the following negative (side) effects:

  • Dividing your workforce into camps (beyond sadly existing silos) works against the one team one culture idea that has become so important
  • Generalising a group of people and accusing them of a shared/common fault is likely to make them defensive rather than considering change
  • Putting a strong focus on ‘the others’ can obscure the responsibility (and possibilities) ‘we’ have to contribute to positive change

Read more about including the mainstream in DE&I.

Although organisational diagnostics are a natural element of corporate development, DE&I aspects are sometimes called ‘political’ – which creates a new issue that is also related to activism.

Appearing to be ‘political’ can be criticised – or strengthen your business

Since D&I was created as a business-centred alternative to the political non-discrimination agenda, companies ‘stayed away from politics’. This changed in 2016 and continued following the murder of George Floyd. Companies started to use #metoo #blacklivesmatter and #loveislove as ways to bring their values to life. Values that are often criticised for being void web verse. Simultaneously, ‘diverse opinions’ started to criticise equality and equity, e.g., in specific areas like LGBT, supported or guided by political ideologies. This led to a new interpretation, e.g., by UEFA or FIFA, that LGBT was not a basic human trait (of all sports persons and audiences) but something ‘political’. By the way: leaders of one of these organisations would openly support Qatari politics.

Read more about Bold Corporate RacialEquity engagement.

The politisation of DE&I topics eventually spilled over into the corporate sphere with vast effects:

  • Some perceive individual DE&I engagement and corporate DE&I activities to be ‘political’
  • Companies find themselves caught between two stools, e.g., when they sponsor football events or use Twitter

The smart way to leverage the new context is to go back and analyse it from a business perspective. I did so in a consulting situation when a top manager asked me if their company should make any (political) statement at all. We put together insight that showed a business case for pro DE&I statements, which we know would be against some political parties’ positions. However, this aspect does not crush the business case itself and therefore unmasks some behaviours of business leaders as guided by personal preference.

Pro-active approaches in this respect are found in the corporate marketing area where B2C businesses launch campaigns based on their commitment to and support for diversities. Also, in the B2B context we have seen notable examples for this as you can read here.

Check if your company has an ‘activism’ issue in DE&I

As a DE&I practitioner, you may wonder if any of the described issues exist within your organisation. As they might not be obvious the following check list assists in reflecting your situation. If you have recently noticed four or more of the following statements or reactions, we recommend you revisit your priorities and communication.

  • “Our resource groups are key drivers for D&I and provide perfect visibility and support!”
  • “Do we also celebrate an International Day for men/families/whites/…?”
  • “Our D&I strategy is in good hands; the D&I managers are really passionate and do a great job!”
  • “Should this (*) not be a private matter?” (* = sexual orientation or childcare or sabbaticals, family care, commuting)
  • “It’s so nice to have these diversity events every now and then – great input, always something new to discover!”
  • “We have so much legislation for all these issues – what more do we have to discuss or consider?”
  • “I am convinced the future / young generations will change this naturally / automatically!”
  • “We have talked about all this for years and don’t see change – what else can we do than increase pressure?”

These statements can be signs of misperceptions often based on a lack of consistency of DE&I with corporate identity and strategy. You should take them seriously as they can easily and quickly lead to polarisation, creation of camps and eventually conflict.

There is of course also another form of discrepancy, explained in this article.

Conclusion

‘Activism’ is a key source of societal progress and an important root of DE&I. However, corporate DE&I should be organised as a business-based addition to activism. Activism utilises powerful methodologies to drive change and it can produce unwanted side-effects for DE&I in companies, including the perception to be ‘political’.

Achieving progress on DE&I requires smart gap analyses and robust strategies beyond demanding parity or other forms of balanced representation. Avoiding perceptions of personalised or politicised activism requires, among others

  • DE&I messages must be based on corporate identity and consistently echo corporate values
  • DE&I formats must be connected to everyday work realities and support business priorities
  • DE&I stakeholders must reflect the diversity of the workforce and management population

A clear business agenda with shared priorities serves as the most effective guideline for DE&I to be seen both consistent and adding value. Clear alignment ensures DE&I activities are understood as part of the corporate agenda and based on corporate values and hence supported on that basis by all.

 

Michael Stuber is The International D&I Engineer and founder of European Diversity Research & Consulting, the EMEA level D&I pioneer, and provider of insight-based, international and innovative DEI diagnostics, strategies and solutions. Visit his company website at www.european-diversity.com

Other articles of this trilogy:

Part 1

Part 3 (following)