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Nat talks about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Written by Nat Sutton on August 28, 2019
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Nat Sutton is a partner at Buffkin/Baker and head of the firm’s nonprofit executive search practice. He joined the firm in early 2018 from Heidrick and Struggles, where he was Vice Chairman and specialized in nonprofit search. Nat has worked extensively in the DEI arena. Most recently he placed the Director of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion at one of Manhattan’s most renowned independent schools.

A Strategic Imperative

In the beginning…

The Landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and prohibited racial segregation. Additional prohibitions of discrimination based on age, sexual preference, or disability emerged over time through legislation and the courts’ interpretations of civil rights laws.

But as years rolled by, corporate and academic leaders recognized that advancing equal opportunity for all entailed much more than hiring practices…it required changes in the culture of the workplace and the classroom.  That realization spurred an emerging profession that specializes in creating work and academic cultures where there is true diversity, equity, and inclusion.

DEI—What is it?  Why is it important?

As equal opportunity became the law of the land, companies, governments, nonprofits and academic institutions adopted affirmative action plans to help increase opportunities for underrepresented groups.  These plans, which often established target numbers for hiring or admissions of minorities and women, were devised to help level the playing field.

But in the minds of some, quotas meant people were not hired on the basis of talent, intelligence or ability, but simply because they ticked an appropriate minority box.

And while well-intentioned affirmative action opened doors to employment or academic admissions particularly to women, it did little to insure any minority or female worker or student a comfortable, welcoming environment for work or study, nor did it guarantee the opportunity to be evaluated, promoted or recognized based on ability and achievement.    These plans also did little toward evaluating the existing culture of an organization and the attitudes of fellow workers or students and how they might impact diverse individuals.

“Over time diversity began to be recognized as not simply the morally right thing to do, it emerged as a practice that brought measurable value to the corporations and institutions that were working to advance it.”

For example, business executives in a consumer-based economy found that a corporation that serves the general public had a tremendous advantage when their workforce mirrored the consumer population it served.

They saw that diversity brought new ideas and, points of view, and honoring cultures and cultural differences created new markets, expanded opportunities and fostered real success.  They saw, for example, a billboard in Harlem advertising baby formula with a white mother and baby was ineffective; the same billboard in the same place featuring an African-American mother and child boosted sales.   But by actively encouraging diversity in their workforce, that company also learned that an African-American mother, offered new ideas and different approaches to unmet needs beyond her racial community.

So civil rights begat affirmative action and affirmative action begat recognition that diversity has business benefit.   Diversity created bottom line value; diversity in the classroom not only helped student expand their thinking, it prepared them to function more adeptly and effectively in an increasingly heterogeneous world.

As recognition of the value of diversity grew, the voices of talented minorities and women grew louder and competition for their services became more intense.   And with that came the realization that negative attitudes and hostile environments deeply affected not just minorities and women, but productivity and sense of unity for all.  Clearly, retaining minority and female talent had as much to do with the comfort, comradery, being respected, and feeling that you belong in the workplace as it did with salary and benefits.

Thus was born the concept of diversity, equity and inclusiveness, and with it a new management specialization created to make the workplace or the classroom not only more diverse, but more welcoming and open—a place where ideas are assessed on their intrinsic value, and everyone feels respected, empowered to contribute, and that they are a genuine important part of the community.

With that came the identification of attitudes and actions—intentional or unintentional—that made people feel separate from the group, unappreciated, unmotivated, and undervalued.

Experts in the emerging field of DEI—Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—classify many of these attitudes and actions as “microaggressions.”  Whether verbal, nonverbal, and environmental, they are hostile, derogatory, or negative messages aimed at marginalizing a person or group.  Although typically targeted around race, microaggression can be directed to any marginalized group—women, older workers, religious minorities, disabled individuals, and people who identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans, or questioning.

They are a form of bigotry that may be intentionally wielded to hurt or uttered unintentionally by the unaware. Regardless, they wound, and create a hostile environment where productivity and free exchange of ideas are stymied.

Microaggression can take a variety of forms, from sexist comments, “mansplaining,” racial stereotyping, inappropriate delegation of tasks, to talking over others.  They can be as overt as calling an African-American man “boy” or as subtle as referring to the mode of dress of a minority group as “costumes.”

Complex, emotionally-charged, and increasingly recognized as an important element in creating open, productive, and inviting work or educational environments, DEI continues to emerge and evolve as leaders look to maximize the talent of their worker or the students trusted to their care.

They seek to evaluate the current cultural condition of the workplace or classroom, identify issues that are barriers to equity and inclusion, and address those barriers in a constructive and healing way.  They understand that a healthy environment is one in which everyone feels they belong—respected, valued and open to their contribution…and that a healthy environment inspires creativity, productivity, and success.

DEI—How do we get there?

Professionals specializing in inclusivity, equity, and inclusion are increasing in number as this nascent discipline emerges in the marketplace.  Their backgrounds tend to be varied—they may come from education, psychology, sociology, human resources and industrial management.

While some may feel the position logically fits under human resources, regardless of their background, to implement a strong and impactful program the person heading the DEI initiative must be very visible and clearly have the support and commitment of those at the highest levels of the organization.

In the case of a corporation that means the CEO and the Board of Directors must be active and visible supporters of DEI.  In an academic setting it is the school superintendent, school board, the head of school, principal, college or university president, or dean who must lend their gravitas and very visible support to making the school environment not only diverse, but one in which people feel welcomed, valued, included and their work evaluated fairly.

The optimum reporting relationship for a DEI Director is directly to the CEO or the head of the academic institution.  To have real credibility and the ability to evaluate and bring change to a culture, the DEI Director must be perceived by individuals at all levels of the organization to hold an unqualified imprimatur.

There are three fundamental aspects of developing and implementing a successful DEI program.  They are: communication, trust and relationships.  To be effective, the Director of DEI must be seen as a partner whose job is not to place blame, but is someone who is a resource—someone whose goal is to make the environment one that is equal and welcoming to everyone.

Building a plan to achieve this goal is as unique as the organization itself.  And it involves sensitivity, patience, and strong interpersonal skills on the part of the DEI Director.  He/she must first evaluate the culture of the organization to determine what the current environment is like for diversity individuals and where change is needed.

Elements of this plan may include:

  • Working with the CEO and the Board to develop strategic goals for the organization, identify benchmarks to measure progress toward those goals and to keep them engaged and committed to DEI goals.
  • Building affinity groups to determine what the environment is like for various minority groups and to surface tensions and issues that currently exist.
  • Examining how and if communication flows through the organization from the top down and from the bottom up.
  • Reviewing organization-wide communications for unintentionally offensive language or indicators of unrecognized microaggression.
  • Building relationships and networking with heads of departments, and middle-level managers to get input and assess progress.
  • Conducting workshops, creating programs, and in-service training on a variety of DEI topics to build awareness and sensitivity among a variety of the organization’s constituencies.
  • Developing a grass-roots understanding of organizational goals and recognizing that everyone at every level plays a valuable role in helping achieve them.

DEI Outcomes—Measuring Success

DEI is heavily emotion-based and, to an extent, true diversity, equity, and inclusion lies in the eye of the beholder.  People may become defensive when issues surface regarding their language and activities that make others uncomfortable or feel they are not valued as equals and whose contributions to the organization’s success are not appreciated.

To be successful the DEI Director must examine a DEI issue from both sides—from the side of those who intentionally or unintentionally offend and those who feel offended.  Particularly in the case of people who unintentionally cause others to feel uncomfortable, not valued or not a part of the team, it may be a simple matter of identifying the offending behavior and heightening awareness.  More blatant and deep-seated behaviors that cause intentional hurt and discomfort among minority colleagues may demand a more confrontational approach both by the DEI Director and senior management.

In addition, the DEI director must become an on-the-job trainer who subtly or sometimes not so subtly, draws attention to issues and barriers that exclude, isolate or offend specific groups within the organizations.

Throughout the strategic process communication and trust are at the heart of a successful
DEI program.  It is the DEI Director’s responsibility to work with individuals and groups throughout the organization to create an open environment in which minority groups and individuals identify issues regarding equity and inclusion and become partners in helping correct them.

Hallmarks of a successful DEI program include:

  • Improved long-term retention of diversity employees
  • Buy-in at all levels of the organization that an open, respectful environment where everyone feels they belong and are valued creates a more productive and successful workplace.
  • A consistent decrease in the number and severity of DEI-related grievances
  • The evolution of more open communications and teambuilding at all levels of the organization
  • A general feeling of inclusion in which ideas are valued and people are respected
  • Increased sensitivity to how words and actions can negatively impact others

There is no such thing as a perfect workplace, a perfect classroom, a perfect employee, student, executive or organization. But it is clear that when people feel they are a valued part of an organization where they are encouraged and free to contribute, they are more productive, more creative and happier.  When people feel they are valued and belong, they take their job more seriously and consistently do their best.

In an academic setting where faculty and administration consistently teach and expect their students to value diversity and play fairly and be inclusive, they are role models and teach their students a valuable lesson of inclusion and equity that will help them succeed in an ever-widening and diverse world.

The role of DEI Director is an evolving one, but one which is becoming more widely recognized as an important contributor to success, whether in academe or the corporate world.

Developing a culture that is truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive requires examination, recognition of issues that separate people and effectively addressing those issues is a complex undertaking.  It goes far beyond the mere hiring minority employees, creating affirmative plans and adhering to EEOC requirements.

But it is an investment which, in a highly competitive job market in an increasingly diverse world, will pay big dividends to corporations, academic institutions, NGOs and society as a whole.