The DEI Word Cloud

Doing DEI Work: The Experiences of DEI Practitioners

Diversity is arguably one of the most recognized social and organizational phenomena. However, we have continued to struggle with “how to make diversity work”. In United States, we have experimented a variety of diversity ideologies, that can be captured within (at least) four distinct eras of diversity practice, including the White supremacy and the sanctioned exclusion of racio-ethnic minorities' before the 1960s, the equal opportunity–Civil Rights of the 1960s, the diversity management and multiculturalism of the 1980s and 1990s, and contemporary inclusion/ post-race era (refer to Nkomo & Hoobler’s study published in Human Resource Management Review). As we have progressed through these eras, our understanding of diversity has evolved from focusing on differences to emphasizing identity, intersectionality, and developing inclusive processes. But what about the DEI practice? Has it also evolved?

We know that diversity is contextual. And as we reflect on the prevailing environment within United States, it is important to examine how this has impacted diversity practice within organizations. Let me offer two distinct examples to illustrate how the context has continued to evolve over the past few years to (possibly) impact diversity efforts within organizations. A CBS poll found 6 in every 10 Americans believe that race relations are generally bad. This compares to an earlier poll (from 2009), in which 66% Americans expressed that race relations were good. Research also indicate that structural and institutional racism continues to persist within the United States amidst un-resolved racial tensions. Goldberg (2015), who is skeptical of the idea of post-raciality, argues that racial expression has in fact become more virile in recent years. At the same time, we have also witnessed the rise of #Metoo movement. Some studies claim that male employees are self-policing (out of fear), and avoiding hiring female workers in the aftermath of the #Metoo movement- thus contributing to sexual discrimination.

With these (and many other examples) in mind, I sought out to take stock of the diversity (equity and inclusion, i.e. DEI) debate and practice within organizations, by interviewing DEI practitioners. Since DEI practice is written in the daily interactions of DEI practitioners, I believe that they are central to this assessment. Before discussing key findings of this research, I want to make an important note here. We all know that the key to managing diversity effectively is inclusion. While in recent years, diversity and inclusion have become synonymous, they are distinct concepts. Diversity is a pre-cursor to inclusion, and without inclusion (i.e. creating an environment where people can be who they are, and that values their unique talents and perspectives), diversity can (in fact) become problematic. Equity is ensuring fairness and justice to address structural imbalances.

Below I present findings of the study, that is based on interviews with 25 DEI practitioners across the United States. I select the following themes in order to describe their experiences, as well highlight the current DEI practice. Please note that I use pseudonym to protect identity of all DEI practitioners.

Hired as a reaction but working with a passion

DEI practitioner shared that organizations hired them without a clear understanding of what needed to be done, either as a reaction to an internal jolt (such as a racially charged incident at work), an attempt at legal compliance and/or market pressures/ trends. Hence, DEI roles and responsibilities represented a wide range of activities, from training, creating awareness, strategic planning and EEO compliance. For example, Penny, formerly in the military working on EEO compliance, described her role as ensuring fair and equitable hiring practices, systems review, annual reviews, and conducting engagement surveys. She said that she was involved in “a lot of strategic planning and strategic thinking.” Similarly, Sam and Karen were also engaged in strategy formulation and planning. Tabitha, Gabby and Rhonda were focused on hiring practices as per the changing global demographics, and evaluating effectiveness of their programs to meet business needs. Mona described their role in terms of championing and advancing diversity, to be an advisor.

Despite a variety in their roles, a majority of these practitioners approached DE&I with passion- through their personal values and philosophy, which was shaped by both their identity and backgrounds. They expressed their guiding values in terms of improving lives, social justice, fairness and equity, morality, equal opportunity, offering opportunities to reach full potential, empowering people, advocacy, and making a social difference. Sam talked about providing people an opportunity to be their authentic selves, and to be able to set others up for success. Gabby savored the idea of being the ‘voice of the voiceless’. Savanah and Cindy talked about social justice with passion. Lincoln eloquently talked about his identity as an African American man, and how that influences the lens with which he practices DEI.

Living in the pressure cooker

There is no doubt that DEI practitioners live in the pressure cooker on a daily basis. Internally, they have to fight for top leadership commitment to DEI programs, pushing them beyond lip service. Practitioners argued that DEI should be among the top 3 business priority- but isn’t. Many of them talked about experiencing a disconnect between DE&I walk and talk. A shared understanding is critical, but it was lacking in many organizations. Sam talked argued, “everyone thinks in their mind, they know what diversity is”. She went to elaborate on the challenges of brining all stakeholders on the same page, with respect to what DE&I means and represents. In the same vein, practitioners also talked about the lack of a supportive culture in their organizations. Molly argued that DEI is not a band-aid solution, Zaire said that DEI shouldn’t be treated as quick fix. “It is about cultural change”.

In addition, practitioners referred to the external pressures that both mobilized as well as paralyzed them in their work, and their organizations. Some of these pressures included growing polarization, rise of hate speech, the confederate flag, police brutality, the #Metoo movement and unresolved racial tensions in the United States and globally. Such tensions made DEI work all the more compelling for them.

It is hardly surprising that many practitioners also expressed the taxing impact of their work. Zaire talked about the draining impact of ‘being the voice of all men and black Americans’, and Pamela referred to the political heaviness of DEI issues, that can be hard to separate from personal life. Heidi talked about the expectation (from DEI professionals) that they are perfect human beings. She argued that it is important to be “forgiving of yourself. Making mistakes, owning mistakes and becoming better the next day.” Zaire referred to her burn-out because of budget constraints, and Karen shared strategies for those burned out- having a personal coach, and joining affinity groups to work through the personal nature of DEI.

Doing DEI work in a non-inclusive environment

Various models of inclusive workplaces highlight the primary importance of top management/ leadership commitment to promoting inclusion. In terms of the processes and practices, feelings of psychological safety, being respected, involvement in the work group, influence in decision making, authenticity, recognizing, honoring and advancing diversity are critical. While I didn’t interview a cross section of employees in sampled organizations, based on DEI practitioners’ experiences (refer to the low levels of leadership commitment, lack of supportive culture and shared understanding, lack of learning and integration), it was clear their organizations didn’t have an inclusive environment. The concept of inclusive workplaces refers to a work organization that is not only accepting and utilizing the diversity of its workforce, but is also active in the community; participates in state and federal programs to include population groups such as immigrants and women, and the working poor, collaborates across cultural and national boundaries with a focus on global mutual interest. An inclusive organization is also a good global “citizen”. All of these dimensions were missing in their organizations. My overall assessment is that inclusion is just an accepted buzzword, however, it has not been implemented because of organizations’ piecemeal, reactive and ‘business case’ approach to DE&I initiatives, and a general lack of buy-in from the top leadership.

Diversity remains a scary word

The mere mention of the word, ‘diversity’ still scares people. We know that diversity has been challenging, especially when we reflect on power structures, organizational norms, and deep seated assumptions. Responsible diversity management involves openness and willingness to learn from each other. A culture of debate is possible through respect of the ‘other’. The concept of respect, if based on recognition of human dignity, can be valuable in DE&I. I believe that in order to address the many challenges faced by DE&I practitioners and to make a positive impact, we must adopt a humanistic lens in DEI. A humanistic view allows us to focus on protecting human dignity and promoting well-being through a culture of respect.

DEI practice has remained predominantly stagnant

Interviews indicate that DEI practice hasn’t advanced much. A majority of the organizations are continuing to recycle the same old approaches, focusing on making a business case, avoiding discriminatory practice and EEO compliance. However, many strong and well-intentioned DEI practitioners have joined the profession. I believe that organizations need to step outside the box - and create spaces for new approaches, in which there is room for experimentation (for example, humanistic ways of leading DEI). Given the pressing socio-cultural, political and economic challenges that directly impact us, it is our responsibility to come together to move the DEI needle forward. Otherwise, organizations would be recycling the same old DEI approaches in a piecemeal fashion, however, with little impact and increasing frustration.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all DEI practitioners who participated in this study. I am also grateful to my students- Zoe, Christian, Sam, Briana, Ali, Kimberly, Tai, Christy, Yvonne, Anees, Rebecca, Cody, Petal, Ellie, Jalana, Anjane, Lindsey, Nicole, Nikki, Sarah, Tao, Luke, and Krystal. This paper is the result of our collective efforts. They inspired me! Our classroom discussions kickstarted this study; and many of them also contributed to completing the interviews included in this study. I dedicate this study and its findings to all of my students, who make me a better person, by enriching and challenging me. All errors are mine.

Published: Feb 20, 2020 (2/20/20)

This article has emerged out of the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate leadership. For more information, please refer to



Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.

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Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.