Here’s Why Your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Program Doesn’t Work

By Charlene Wheeless

I’ve worked in Corporate America for more than three decades and, in that time, I have had the pleasure of working for some great companies and great leaders. While every company differs and has its own culture and values, nearly all of them have been the same in one way: They had a diversity program in place and it didn’t work. Some companies had chief diversity officers and others had diversity managers. The titles didn’t really matter because the programs may have been flawed from the beginning.

This is in no way a criticism of DE&I professionals. Rather, it is a view on why well-intended programs often fail to garner the desired outcome.

Trying to Solve the Wrong Problem

In the early days, it was all about diversity, and then experts added “inclusion” to the mix. And, when that wasn’t enough, “equity” was tacked on. DE&I is a worthy goal, but it’s not the problem. Systemic racism and implicit bias are the real problems to solve. And while we’re adding words to DE&I, why not add “belonging,” too? When I commit to a company, yes, I want to be included — doesn’t everyone? But if you want my devotion and discretionary time and effort, I need to feel that I belong.

Mentoring Is Not the Answer; At Least It Isn’t the Whole Answer

Many companies have mentorship programs and many people find mentors on their own. The process can be somewhat awkward, but once you get down the basics, these programs typically run smoothly. Here’s the problem: Mentors and mentees are paired to help the mentee acclimate to the company and the culture. They help new employees see where the “land mines” are and how things are typically done in the company. Well, that’s not enough and here is where this gets a little complicated. For hundreds of years, and even today, Black people are made to feel that it is our job to help White people feel comfortable with us being in their space. It’s very one-sided. When does that model gets flipped and White people take on the responsibility to make sure Black people feel comfortable?

Still Thinking It’s a Pipeline Issue

It is not a pipeline issue. There are plenty of smart, talented, Black professionals, but employers are looking in the wrong places. If a company is trying to fill its pipeline with diverse candidates, it should go find them because chances are they are not, on their own, going to come to a predominately White company. Why? Because there aren’t Black executives at such a company, which communicates to them that chances are they cannot be successful at that company.

Assuming or Managing as though It’s an Even Playing Field In the Company and Everywhere Else

It is not. If it isn’t an even playing field in society at large, how can it be an even playing field in a company? Black people have been held back for years and people have been taught bias for equally as long. How can someone feel there is an equal playing field when nearly every day we see examples of our blackness weaponized?

Unwittingly, the Company’s Goal Is to Hire People Who Will Fit and Whom They Feel Comfortable Being Around

At one company I worked for, once a candidate passed all the interviews, it was our practice to ask ourselves, “Would I want to have a beer with this person?” If that is a company’s measurement of fitness for employment, it will most assuredly have a homogenous company.

Charlene Wheeless is a black woman, mother, renowned communications expert, author and speaker with more than three decades of experience in corporate communications. After serving 15 years in C-suite positions, her life took an unexpected turn when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, Wheeless combines her extensive knowledge of leadership and communications with her skill managing adversity to help others learn to retain authenticity — in life and in business — and find strength in weakness.

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