As each person gazed into a webcam from home offices, the senior team of a medium-sized, East Coast technology firm learned of their broken organizational culture. Black employees and people of color (POC) were the most offended.
At first, the leaders attributed the problems to a pandemic-demoralized workforce. Yet, the employees’ comments described problems that started long before the virus changed the workplace. They spoke of favoritism, betrayed trust, and more.
The leaders responded by enhancing their efforts to recruit Black employees and other people of color since their issues seemed the most urgent.
They failed to acknowledge or address the other cultural problems, even those directly connected with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
A few months later the company discovered they were losing more people of color than they were hiring! Sound familiar? Many companies can tell a similar story.
The leadership of the technology company fell into an all too common trap. They acted as if the challenges of DEI stood outside of the bigger cultural picture. In fact, the issues connected with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) rarely occur in a vacuum. DEI strategies succeed when a healthy organizational culture encircles them.
DEI as a Piece of the Cultural Puzzle
As employees of a company, people of color join the larger collective. Along with norms, policies, practices, and systems, employees together create a culture.
Since everyone participates in this common culture, intentionally or not, organizational dysfunction affects all adversely. However, the most vulnerable employees such as POC suffer more than others.
Recall the old saying, when white people catch a cold, Black people get pneumonia.
Consider the following examples.
An organizational culture rife with favoritism affects everyone. However, those underrepresented in leadership positions, such as people of color (POC), are more often the victims of these practices. Why? Because leaders tend to offer the best opportunities to those who are most like them.
Often this tendency is unintentional. Nevertheless, the impact is real when those in power favor similar others.
Frequently this practice advances a homogenous group of white male team members.
In the words of an employee, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And leaders allow only white males to be squeaky!”
Nonetheless, merely expanding the boundaries of who gets to be squeaky will not solve the problem.
Of course, leaders should avoid practices that exclude people of color– the group favoritism is most likely to affect.
Furthermore, companies should establish practices to ensure opportunities are always available to employees of color.
However, they will thrive only in an environment where inclusion is a priority, everyone’s voice is heard and respected, and all are valued.
When asked to offer solutions for eliminating favoritism, one wise employee suggested, resetting cultural norms and values with DEI at the epicenter.
Psychological Safety and Trust
The best diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts thrive in work environments where people feel psychologically safe.
Fear is not conducive to creating a culture of belonging. If anyone is threatened by disrespect, harassment, or bullying, everyone suffers.
Destructive behaviors have an impact on all employees, even those who do not experience the bullying directly.
Of course, the most vulnerable employees are the least likely to feel safe in such a workplace. They are unlikely to have faith in any inclusion-related efforts if they see leaders tolerate bullying, no matter who the harasser targets.
Lack of psychological safety causes a profound erosion of trust that can negatively magnify differences and undermine effective communication.
Those who work in a distrustful culture may struggle to differentiate friends from enemies.
Unless employees trust each other, their leaders, and the company, they are likely to experience hits to their productivity and well-being.
Without trust, defensive behaviors, damaging competitiveness, and conflict emerge and undermine the best DEI efforts.
And, lack of confidence in the organization and its leaders depresses the creativity and innovation that comes with diversity. Therefore business success is at stake.
DEI Success Depends on a Healthy Culture
The key to successful DEI is to view it as dependent on the overall organizational culture’s health.
In the words of an employee of the tech company, organizations should quit trying to look diverse and focus instead on being diverse.
Recognizing the criticality of incorporating DEI initiatives into the broader cultural picture, the employee called for a “culture curator.”
When DEI is positioned as a bolt-on to the bigger organizational picture, rather than central to it, progress is unlikely. To make meaningful change, companies must embed their DEI values and endeavors deeply into the culture. No matter how committed, leaders cannot expect to make progress unless the overall company culture is positive and strong. No one thrives in a broken culture.
Of course, DEI efforts are critical for prioritizing opportunities for people of color. At the same time, those companies with a commitment to respecting, appreciating, and empowering all while supporting the most vulnerable are most likely to realize long-term success in their DEI endeavors.