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Big Companies Are Finding Out They Need Help With Diversity Messaging

Updated June 18, 2021 at 7:54 PM ET

The murder of George Floyd forced American companies to reckon with racial inequality in ways few had before.

As a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultant, Lily Zheng has had a front-row seat to the wide range of approaches that companies have taken in response to last summer's racial justice protests, from the purely performative to commitments to structural change.

When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, the economy sputtered. Zheng says it was a tsunami hitting the DEI space. In droves, DEI practitioners were laid off, lost contracts or had their work indefinitely paused.

Then the killings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota sparked protests that spread from coast to coast, and activists put pressure on corporations to use their power for racial justice.

After years of passivity — or even contribution — toward inequity, companies didn't know how to respond. Just a couple of months after trimming their DEI programs, companies were scrambling for guidance.

Pressured by customers and their own employees, a lot of companies seemed to feel like they needed to say something. Their need to be out front of a national social movement meant they were proclaiming themselves allies. They made pledges, promises and even bulleted lists of goals.

Some corporations called on DEI consultants for help, but clumsily issued social media statements before receiving advice, Zheng says. These gestures, like posting a black square on Instagram, were often criticized as performative.

Zheng says companies need to treat DEI like any other major primary business function if they want to be successful.

"The consistent failure across all of this is to treat DEI like any other major primary business function deserving of headcount, deserving of budget, deserving of decision-making authority," they say.

One or two DEI training sessions may not do much, but a longterm, funded DEI initiative can build a new foundation to affect the whole system. But if customers and employees keep calling for change, leaders will start to see these movements as setting a new status quo, Zheng explains. Structural shifts would then be prioritized for the survival of the company.

Zheng spoke with All Things Considered about how they've seen the DEI industry change, what companies should avoid and whether corporations can really improve racial equity in America.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

What are some consistent mistakes you see companies making when they try and work on issues of diversity, on issues of equity?

Well that's a big question...

Sounds like there's a lot of mistakes!

Of course there's a lot of mistakes. I mean, why would my profession exist if companies were doing it right?

So one of the biggest ones, I think, is that they will allocate a laughably small amount of money... They will put the burden of change on unfunded volunteer groups like DEI councils, and they find that the same challenges keep cropping up — the same critiques keep cropping up. They are consistently accused of performative diversity.

But the consistent failure across all of this is to treat DEI like any other major primary business function deserving of headcount, deserving of budget, deserving of decision-making authority. And that shift has only happened, I would say, very, very recently.

What about the flip side criticism in that you're hearing more and more people say, "You know, this sounds like bringing a certain kind of progressive politics into the workplace and indoctrinating people in that politics." What's your response to that?

Well, companies have never been isolated from politics. And when I talk about politics, I refer to conversation about society, social issues, economic issues. Companies have always weighed in on these things. And this, I think, is a very reasonable shift for companies to take. Given all of this movement happening in our broader society.

Where is it going next? ... Is this a turning point?

I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell you exactly where the field is going to go. What I think is interesting is this question about social justice, about the role of company and society is unlikely to end.

I think we're going to see rather than [an] unspoken de facto status quo where we don't talk about politics in the workplace, companies being more and more outspoken about whether they are social impact, social justice companies that care about the world or — whether they are companies that, on the record, on the books, perhaps proudly say, "We don't talk about these issues here."

I don't know what that's going to look like yet, but I think those trends are going to continue playing out the way that they are now.

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