Diversity Insight: 5 Common Mistakes in Your DEI Strategy

five crumpled pieces of paper on table
By Marcus Maples , Denmark Grant

5 minutes

Avoid these obstacles to achieving true diversity and inclusion in your organization.

With the reckoning on systemic racism that our country has experienced since early 2020, there has been a renewed focus on diversity in many industries. This has long been a persistent challenge in our profession. To ensure this latest push for diversity is more successful than past efforts, it is crucial for organizations to acknowledge and avoid past mistakes. When it comes to diversity and inclusion strategy, try to avoid these five common missteps that continue to be obstacles to achieving true diversity and inclusion.

1. Failure to Recognize the Power of Why

The first mistake is the failure to recognize the power of why. D&I initiatives often begin enthusiastically and are undertaken with the best of intentions. However, before you start to hire diverse talent, you should ask a powerful yet simple question. Why? Specifically, why are diversity and inclusion important to your company? Your why is going to impact your how.

People support D&I initiatives for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s a moral decision. For others, it’s a business decision. The “why” can vary based upon the specific goals of a particular organization, and that’s fine. The important thing is for supporters of D&I to understand why stakeholders believe diversity and inclusion are important. If they don’t think it’s important, then we have to find out what they do consider important and tailor the approach to speak to that perspective. For example, if they’re concerned with the bottom line, then you could share with them organizations with advanced D&I programs experience higher levels of performance, higher levels of innovation, higher levels of loyalty and a greater sense of belonging. The flip side is also true. Companies with minimal or perfunctory D&I initiatives experience fewer benefits.

2. Failure to Understand Past Mistakes

Often, D&I advocates focus on the external before understanding the internal—the problems at home. I cannot emphasize this enough. When considering D&I strategy, leadership must take a hard and unapologetic look at whether and why diverse team members at their companies have not been successful. The first step is to learn why diverse team members have left the organization (the real reason—not the reason they gave to be polite). Look deeper. Talk to them. Engage with them. Have a dialog to understand the challenges they faced. Consider conducting a cultural audit in which you send a questionnaire to the diverse attorneys to capture their experience. Have your CEO or diversity chair go on a listening tour. Also, engage with non-diverse staff members to learn how they view diversity and what they think could be done better. That’s where you begin.

3. Failure to Recognize One Is Never Enough

Mistake No. 3 is simple: It’s the failure to recognize that one diverse team member is never enough. Many firms or companies have one diverse staff member that they parade around at functions for audiences who want to see diversity. Too many firms or in-house teams sit that person at a meeting table when it seems useful to them. Afterward, that person goes back to his or her office and is not a meaningful participant in the organization until the need for their diversity arises again. That’s not diversity and that’s not inclusion. One is never enough because if you put all your eggs in that basket, and that person leaves, you have to start from scratch. Help your colleagues understand that hiring or recruiting only one diverse person is not sufficient. The goal is to build a culture of meaningful inclusion.

4. Placing Too Much Emphasis on a Single Event

The fourth common mistake is attempting to resolve D&I challenges with a single event. You see this in a variety of circumstances. Companies provide a one-time training. Employees take a one-time test and analysis. People are asked to read one book. Firms do one pipeline program. Companies do these things and think, “Okay—I’ve done it. I can check the box.” The D&I problems faced by any community cannot be solved by a single event, a single banquet, a single check or a single luncheon. We need everyone to work on multiple fronts to ensure we’re making sufficient progress. Consider how ingrained implicit bias is in our community. Habitual thinking cannot be undone by a single event. You can’t change your body with a single workout. You can’t change your waistline by eating one healthy meal. D&I has to be a practice. It’s a lifestyle, not a single event.

5. Failure to Evaluate Current Programs

The fifth common mistake is a failure to evaluate current programs and policies to determine whether they’re effective. I’ll put it simply. Organizations put metrics behind everything but diversity. But when it comes to D&I, do you know your intern conversion rate? Do you know how many of your diverse team members start low in the organization and get promoted? Often, leaders have absolutely no idea. The same goes for the pipeline programs we participate in. For the most part, we don’t know whether the programs are successful, and we don’t even think to ask. We must start thinking about the effectiveness of our pipeline programs, our internship programs, and the rate of promotion. If we can’t identify where our weaknesses lie, then we’ll never effectively address them.

I hope your organization avoids these mistakes. Developing a successful D&I initiative is an all-hands-on-deck effort, including help from diverse talent and allies alike. You may have noticed that the term “ally” has become part of the popular discourse. In my view, ally is not a term you can give yourself. You become an ally based on either a track record of delivering D&I results or a commitment to delivering results. To that end, one way to avoid these common mistakes (and become an effective ally) is to develop an awareness of your own biases, maintain a sense of compassion and be willing to take action.

Marcus M. Maples is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Birmingham office and chair of the firm’s D&I Compact Advisory Board. Denmark J. Grant is an associate in Baker Donelson’s Nashville office.

Reprinted with permission from the July 8, 2021, issue of Corporate Counsel. © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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