Develop a Diversity & Inclusion Plan that Isn’t Fluff

Here are five (easy, but not simple) steps 

by Eric M. Bailey

The country is talking about race and racism in a way that many have never before experienced in their careers. Organizations are beginning to develop, review or refresh their diversity plans in response, but don’t want to appear as if they are reacting to the broader national conversation. For many, this was something that was in process already; for others, it’s altogether new. Some believe that the negative perception of being reactive is worse than doing nothing at all. This is the first step in taking a stand in support of homogeneity. 

It’s important to understand that a homogeneous organization is not necessarily bad. I regularly try to scrub judgements based on perception from my language. Judgements like, “good” or “bad” often lead to deep emotions and powerful yet unproductive disagreements. My point here in highlighting homogeneity is this: If the goal is to promote or improve efforts around diversity and inclusion, taking a stand toward homogeneity is counterproductive. 

Ph.D. psychologist and organizational development executive Randy Currier once shared, “We promote what we tolerate.” At the time he uttered this nugget of wisdom, the most pressing thing in his organization was gossip in the breakroom. As times have progressed, the wisdom of his words has become increasingly profound. As organizational leaders learn of the realistic possibility of inequity within their organizations or embedded in organizational policies, procedures or practices, any step of inaction is a step in support of inequity. 

How to Develop a Diversity & Inclusion Plan

Step 1: Start with why. The first step in creating an organizational diversity plan is to identify why a diversity plan is necessary in the first place. A plan is defined as “a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something” or “an intention or decision about what one is going to do.” In all cases, a plan is less about communication and more about action. The purpose of creating a plan is to get from one state to another state. 

Questions to ask: What is the impetus of this plan? Is this in reaction to employee sentiment? Has this been waiting in the wings for months or years? Is there a challenge from the outside? 

Being candid with the reasoning for beginning this process is critical. For lasting success in dealing with diversity, candor is a requirement. In any change initiative, if the words shared by organizational leadership don’t match the actions, the initiative is likely to fail. Encourage the entire leadership team to identify why a diversity plan is the right step for the organization. There are well-documented benefits to any organization, but upon starting this process, each organization should take the time to identify the why. 

Step 2: Establish definitions. The next step is to identify what “diversity” means in the context of this plan. While there are broad and narrow definitions of diversity, many organizations initiate diversity plans but have no agreed-upon definition of diversity. In the context of workplace diversity, there are myriad ways in which a workplace can be diverse, from many of the common categorizations like gender, race, age, tenure, experience, primary language, etc. to many of the more cerebral distinctions, thinking style, extraversion, emotional intelligence, analytical inclination, problems-base/solutions-based, etc. 

Question to ask: What is our working definition of diversity? 

Additionally, with such a broad possibility of the organizational definition of diversity, the creation of a tangible measure of success is often neglected. This measure doesn’t need to be concrete, especially at this phase, but recall that for a plan to be effective, it must lead to action. A plan is designed to move the organization from one state to another. If there is no clear understanding of the current state, or a clear vision for the future state, a plan cannot exist. At best, we can create an inspiring message. This is not a bad thing, but is not a plan. 

Step 3: Get the right people in the room. Many organizations institute change initiatives in one of two ways: One is by generating and vetting ideation and implementation methods at the top of the hierarchy and prescribing them down throughout the organization. In the other, ideation and implementation methods are passionately generated from the front lines and presented upward. The problem with the former — and most common — situation is that a purely top-down approach lacks the energy, passion and ownership of a vast majority of the organization. This isn’t to say that ideas generated from the top are all ineffective. Rather, it’s important to understand that many are more passionate when they can see their contribution to the idea or decision. 

Interestingly, the converse situation (bottom-up) is also relatively ineffective, albeit for a different reason. If a change has strong grass-roots momentum but lacks support from the top, it’s unlikely to have the necessary staying-power to effectively move the organization forward. What’s needed is an approach that is fully supported by the upper echelon of the organization and utilizes the passions of the people across the organization as the driving engine. 

Questions to ask: Who are the usual suspects we always lean on for new initiatives and committees? How can we invite more people into the generative conversation?

One highly effective method for inviting new voices into the conversation is the process of a blind application. Open the application to everyone in the organization and ask a few simple, yet broad and telling questions. For example: Why are you passionate about diversity in our organization? What is the first thing you would do to improve our organization’s diversity and inclusion? Why do you choose to come to work here every Monday? 

This process is called a “blind application,” because these applications will be collected by an independent third party before being reviewed by a selection committee. The third party will strip away all identifying demographic information from each of the applications so that each can be reviewed on the merit of the questions that were answered. In practice, when our firm manages this process, organizations discover passion from employees that they didn’t know was there. Additionally, it provides an opportunity for those who are not a member of the “usual suspects” to participate in the idea generation process. Consequently, organizations end up with a much more diverse group of people to develop their diversity plan. 

Step 4: Create a culture of safety. One of the most frequent points of difficulty for teams and organizations attempting to develop a diversity plan is fear. Individuals fear they will say something wrong. Organizations fear they will be perceived as performative or not doing enough. Mistakes, missteps and misunderstandings are going to happen. If the fear of making a mistake is going to prevent a leader or an organization from trying in the first place, then the cost-benefit analysis has returned a result that taking a stand for inequity is preferred to doing some hard or uncomfortable work. 

Leaders have the opportunity to create a culture of safety — a culture where mistakes are met not with judgement but with authentic dialogue. Rather than pretending to live in an environment where one person knows everything, establish an environment where everyone is curious to learn more. 

Questions to ask: What are the greatest fears of doing this work? Is the fallout of potential mistakes worse than the reality of inaction? 

Step 5: Now, develop the plan. Work together as a well-represented organization, in a safe environment, with clear definitions and reasonable measures of success, to create and implement a diversity plan.  

Serving as the president and co-founder of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group, Eric M. Bailey helps break through barriers of human communication in the brain. Bailey is also the creator of the Principles of Human Understanding™, a leadership and communication methodology based in brain science and psychology, and bestselling author of the book The Cure for Stupidity – Using Brain Science to Explain Irrational Behavior at Work.

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