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Getting Past the Top 5 Barriers to DEI Program Implementation

Getting Past the Top 5 Barriers to DEI Program Implementation


There’s an old adage that says, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

In the case of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program implementation, it would be more accurate to say, “If it were easy, everyone would do it well.”

As it turns out, there are often unexpected hurdles in the way of success.

We’ve seen that play out in a 2021 survey of business leaders and employees measuring their companies’ DEI efforts. Both groups—95% of business leaders and 75% of employees—gave their organizations high marks for commitment to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

However, their assessment of actual progress told a different story:

  • When asked if their companies have established a formal DEI program with clearly defined goals, 69% of employers responded favorably, compared to 49% of employees.
  • Both groups expressed almost the same opinions about program implementation, with less than half saying their company had gone “above and beyond” and an equal percentage indicating “there’s still a way to go.”

Clearly, when it comes to DEI program implementation, the struggle to connect the dots between best intentions and tangible results is real.

It’s also a topic that DEI Strategist and Facilitator J Israel Greene of Greene Consulting Group spoke about in our webinar Beyond Check the Box: Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion.

Greene shared best practices for creating an active and healthy DEI program and asked webinar attendees to choose up to three of their own DEI implementation challenges.

Five themes emerged that are fairly universal. We asked Greene for his thoughts on how to address each of them.

Each of these barriers can hamper your DEI efforts. Let’s examine them in more detail.

1. Lack of Goals and Metrics

How and what to measure could easily be the biggest challenges organizations face when implementing DEI initiatives. That’s not to say they’re not measuring anything—but all too often, those metrics don’t necessarily contribute to solving real problems.

Companies Often Lean on Vanity Metrics

Greene refers to something called “vanity metrics,” which represent the most visible type of diversity, such as gender and race. He argues that most companies, regardless of size or industry, default their DEI initiatives to those vanity metrics right away without much thought about the real DEI issues within their organizations.

For example, the first order of business for many companies is to focus on hiring more women and people of color.

"Expanding representation in the hiring process does create opportunities in the short term. But it also puts additional stressors on Human Resources and takes them away from identifying and addressing the company’s actual DEI needs. Without support to retain and grow that talent, companies are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over."
J. Israel Greene
– J. Israel Greene, DEI Strategist and Facilitator, Greene Consulting Group

In exchange for creating short-term opportunities, companies often create additional long-term problems. So senior leaders may see DEI as under control, but they’re actually under “the illusion of inclusion,” creating a disconnect between company leadership and underrepresented employee groups.

Instead, companies should treat DEI initiatives like they treat any other business problem.

Every DEI Issue Is a Business Problem

In her December 2021 Fortune commentary, titled “We Need Real Metrics, Not Heartfelt Conversations, to Tackle Workplace Diversity,” Joan Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law, UC Hastings Foundation Chair, and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law, points out why many DEI initiatives aren’t effective:

“If your company had a problem with sales, would it call people together to discuss how deeply everyone values sales, declare National Celebrate Sales Month, and expect anything to change? No. What the company would do is to gather the evidence, pinpoint key metrics, and proceed with unrelenting focus to meet its goals. Companies should use the same tools in the DEI context.”

Williams further elaborates on her research showing how evidence-based changes to business processes, metrics, and measurements can quickly result in significant DEI gains.

Four DEI Benchmark Categories

So which goals and metrics should companies address? That depends on the organization.

Greene highlights four categories and 275 different benchmarks that can be measured, depending on the scope and size of an organization.

Foundation Benchmarks

Foundation benchmarks are focused on the DEI issues that impact your organizational leadership, vision, and company structure. For example, your company mission and vision may include an inclusive and equitable workplace. As such, you would want to track (among other benchmarks) your attrition rate among LGBTQ+ employees, or any other demographic, which would serve as a high-level indicator of program success.

Internal Benchmarks

Using our same example, internal benchmarks would examine what can be done within your company to resolve the LGBTQ+ attrition issue. Those benchmarks provide early data about whether your efforts are effective, so you can continue to improve the strategy (instead of finding out only after the attrition rate has changed).

Which internal benchmarks should you use? If you have (or are considering) an ERG (employee resource group) to provide a safe space and representation for LGBTQ+ employees, this is the perfect question to pose to them. Instead of trying to figure out what is contributing to LGBTQ+ attrition, working with an ERG lets the company hear it straight from the people themselves, resulting in candid, deeply helpful guidance on your DEI program progress.

External Benchmarks

External benchmarks assess how your company is representing itself outside your organization. Following the example of creating an inclusive and equitable workplace, here are some questions to consider:

  • Are your job descriptions gender-neutral?
  • Have you shared them with job boards that target LGBTQ+ candidates?
  • Have you asked any advocate groups to weigh in on your hiring practices?
  • Do your health care benefits meet the Standards of Care-8 (SOC-8) established by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH)?
  • Do you have a supplier diversity strategy?

Bridging Benchmarks

Finally, bridging benchmarks involves assessments and measurements with specific KPIs and periodic reporting to determine your DEI program progress.

“These benchmarks can be complicated and sometimes force even the most well-intentioned companies to pause with the fear of getting it wrong. So they don’t move forward.”
J. Israel Greene
– J. Israel Greene, DEI Strategist and Facilitator, Greene Consulting Group

Greene suggests identifying two or three high-level problems, creating actionable steps with metrics, and then monitoring progress on a quarterly or semiannual basis. Make course corrections as needed, but stay focused on solving those original problems.

2. Inadequate Training

There’s no shortage of DEI training in the corporate world. In fact, diversity training is another default tactic that employers lean on as a way to say they’re implementing a program. In the United States alone, companies spend up to $8 billion each year on diversity training.

That doesn’t mean all of it is making an impact. It turns out, training isn’t the panacea companies have traditionally thought it to be.

“The first thing employers must understand is that training alone cannot solve the problem of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Training should be thought of simply as one step or resource in the journey and is not meant to be the entirety of the destination.”
J. Israel Greene
– J. Israel Greene, DEI Strategist and Facilitator, Greene Consulting Group

Within his consulting practice, Greene offers four courses he’s found have helped make an impact on company leaders and employees. The workshops include:

  • Understanding Emotional Intelligence: Viewing Diversity Through An Equity Lens
  • DE&I Basics: Creating An Inclusive Culture
  • Awareness of Microaggression
  • Unconscious Bias: Barriers to Leadership

3. Low or No Prioritization by Top Leadership

Another barrier to DEI implementation happens when senior leaders don’t make the initiative a priority. Often, it’s because they either don’t (or won’t) see a problem or think your company is already doing enough to address DEI issues. This goes back to that disconnect originally mentioned.

How should wellness coordinators and HR leaders overcome this barrier? Greene recommends using the language of decision-makers everywhere: data.

Details Breed Credibility

“You need to pull together quotes from employees about their experience, specific numbers on turnover and the reasons for it, and anything else to show that the problem is, in fact, not handled. It’s hard for anyone to negate that when you’ve got data stacked up as proof.”
J. Israel Greene
– J. Israel Greene, DEI Strategist and Facilitator, Greene Consulting Group

How do you gather this data? Conduct employee listening sessions—even anonymously—to find out what they think is most important. You can also measure employee sentiment with short, targeted surveys they can complete on their mobile devices or through your wellness platform.

Tap into your ERGs and find out what they’re hearing on an aggregate level to help explain why your company has high turnover rates or low rankings on sites like Indeed and GlassDoor.

While you’re at it, check out the comments related to those rankings. Granted, there very likely could be negative emotions underpinning what’s said, especially if the comments are from dismissed employees. But it can still help paint the picture, especially if you’re spotting certain trends or common issues.

If you’re not in HR, you can ask about turnover, employee satisfaction, and other quantitative data points. Otherwise, gather it from your various data stores.

4. Budgetary Restrictions

Related to prioritization is budget allocation, which is another common barrier.

According to a study by SHRM, Fortune 1000 corporations budget between $30,000 and $5 million for their DEI efforts, with an average of $1.5 million. But what happens when you get pushback on budget? How can you work around that and still deliver an effective program?

The quickest way to address budgetary restriction concerns is to build a business case that connects to organizational or executive values. In the same way you need to deliver data to justify why DEI initiatives should be a priority, you also need it to justify the details of your budget.

Talk to the various department heads who are and will be impacted by DEI. Specifically, identify the policies and practices that need to change, new marketing tactics and channels to explore, and additional vendor relationships. Encourage those leaders to champion the need for budget for their portion of the initiative.

Meet with your ERGs and program sponsors to get their buy-in, so they can justify the allocation of funds to your DEI program. Leverage the benchmarks and metrics you’ve identified and show company leaders how they will resolve issues related to employee retention and satisfaction.

The more evidence you provide that each part of your program will have measurable positive effects, such as cost savings, growth opportunities, and showing the triple bottom line impact, the better your chances of getting most, if not all, of your budget approved.

5. Cultural Resistance

“Usually, resistance is rooted in people assuming that DEI is only about race or women. You need to show the totality of DEI and how it benefits them.”
J. Israel Greene
– J. Israel Greene, DEI Strategist and Facilitator, Greene Consulting Group

In some cases, the resistance is due to another factor—unconscious bias.

Understanding Unconscious Bias

Shifting your company’s culture isn’t easy, and not just because of overt discrimination. A silent but pervasive barrier to DEI program success is the unconscious bias that you and your employees aren’t even aware they have. Conversations around unconscious bias can often be uncomfortable when people struggle to reconcile their self-image as a “good” person with the idea of having biases.

That’s why understanding unconscious bias is particularly important. It’s defined as the subconscious attitudes that can shape how people respond emotionally and rationally to others in everyday situations.

It turns out there are 16 types of unconscious bias in the workplace, including:

  • Affinity Bias: People connect with others who share their interests, experiences, and backgrounds.
  • Confirmation Bias: The tendency to evaluate situations and judge people subjectively.
  • Attribution Bias: Judging a person’s behavior based on previous observations and interactions you’ve had with them.
  • Conformity Bias: Also known as peer pressure.

Other types of biases include gender bias, ageism, beauty bias, height bias, and more.

By confronting these unconscious biases in the workplace, business leaders and employees can at least become aware of them. From there, they can work to identify when those biases are shaping decisions and behavior.

Start Developing Your DEI Program Today

Having a plan to address these barriers is one step in the process of creating a DEI program. You’ll still need to build a sustainability model and lay out basic action steps to follow for success. If you would like assistance in developing your program or have any questions about how to put these ideas into practice, WellRight can help.

We’ve created a comprehensive DEI resource with everything you need to consider as you develop your DEI program.

The Employers' Guide to DEI Resources

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