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Balancing act: Navigating the complexities of workplace DEI initiatives

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March 7, 2024
By Bill Howatt

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There is a growing silence in some workplaces because the good intentions of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to support people of underrepresented groups are facilitating a politically correct quicksand of inclusion by exclusion. Some employees don’t feel they have a space in this work, and fear retaliation if they ask the wrong question, say the wrong thing, disagree or make a mistake.

DEI’s goal is for all to feel a sense of belonging, value, and safety in collaborating and contributing fully without fear in the workplace. They feel pressured to be silent for fear of not being politically correct.

While DEI is essential for an organization’s success, leaders and HR professionals are encouraged to be aware how politically correct DEI quicksand in their workplace can actually result in resentment, unresolved conflict, hurt feelings, and exclusion in some employees.

Employers must be aware that inclusion refers to all employees’ experiences. It is impossible to mature the DEI agenda in an environment that is not psychologically safe. The ability to ask tough questions without fear of persecution and disagree with others’ points of view are acceptable behaviours within a democratic society.


The DEI agenda is an important and noble want to do for any employer, the question and opportunity may be focusing on the how they do it. Some employees disengage from the DEI conversation and training because of their experience where they feel judged, talked at, and told what they must think.  Many are fearful of asking questions to try and understand the complexities of the topics.  As Amy Edmonston noted, “Fear is the enemy of learning.”

Recent examples I have heard from individuals sitting through DEI training create pause for me: “If you do not agree with me, you are discriminating against me” and “If you ask questions, I am not comfortable; that is a form of harassment.” When someone does not understand or feel powerless to speak up or ask questions because of risk for shame-based attacks, they are more likely to feel excluded and become silent. Judgment as to what a person should know or believe is a form of oppression.

On the opposite end of political correctness is the fact many DEI initiatives are not working or changing workplace habits but are fueling frustrations for those feeling marginalized and oppressed. For the DEI conversation to mature authentically it is critical that no one feels they must go backwards so others can go forward. Everyone needs to understand the value DEI can bring and that they have a place in the conversation.

Are you concerned about this concept of DEI political correctness quicksand and its potential impact on your workplace? DEI must be authentic, collaborative, and empathetic of different beliefs.

We only have our individual lens

When reading or listening to a person making inferences regarding DEI, try to understand the intersectional lens that influences how they see and experience the world. For example, I am a 60-year-old Caucasian male with credentials and a professional education, which come with privileges I may not fully appreciate.

What is not so obvious is I was an adopted child who experienced childhood trauma, and live with a mental illness. I am a neurodivergent with visual and auditory dyslexia and ADHD. Folks like me often find each day an excellent adventure of adapting to a neurotypical world. I am comfortable being different and accept that there is frequently more lip service than authentic interest in walking a day in my shoes. I am blessed that I am OK expressing my point of view, but I can push people away trying to be understood because of how my brain and nervous system work.

We all have experiences and challenges. However, some populations come to the workplace feeling marginalized and oppressed, even with all the DEI conversations. A successful DEI program focuses on moving everyone forward with no one feeling left out of the conversation. For this to happen, there needs to be clear expectations for all.

We must remember that traditionally marginalized groups, including women, employees with disabilities, LGBTQ+ persons, employees of colour, employees with neurodivergence or mental illness, including all forms of addictive disorders, or who live in a lower socio-economic status, typically make up a significant percentage of a workforce. To avoid the DEI politically correct quicksand, focus on everyone’s experience so that no one feels they are going backwards.

Tips for mitigating the DEI quicksand

In the inclusion imperative, we provide employers with a framework to facilitate psychological safety and inclusion, allowing employees and leaders to learn how to move past biases and discover the knowledge, skills, and habits to respectfully engage in the DEI conversation.

Clearly define the mission of inclusion. For DEI to work, it must flow through everything in the workplace, like oxygen. Every human interaction is an opportunity for learning, discovery, and caring about differences. When someone says, “I think differently,” it is likely rooted in concern or confusion. If you respond, “Yes, we all think differently,” you dismiss them and miss an opportunity to learn. Perhaps a better response would be, “How do you think differently?” Leaders need to be clear when defining the inclusion mission. It typically begins with living the organization’s values and creating space for conversations without judgment of others’ beliefs and values. It is OK to disagree. It is not OK to attack, shame, or hurt. Inclusion is not about right and wrong. It is about understanding and accepting differences. Obtain an inclusion baseline of the degree to which employees feel included in the workplace through an intersectional lens. Set the expectations for training in inclusion and practicing daily habits that promote psychological safety and inclusion. For example, see Howatt HR’s free bundle for creating psychologically safe and inclusive teams and providing clear direction on the daily habits that support inclusion.

Move from check-the-box diversity and equity initiatives to facilitating DEI accountability. I cannot imagine how frustrating some underrepresented groups feel in organizations that have done DEI training and put DEI on their corporate scorecard but feel nothing has improved. Until there are changes in how some experience oppression and exclusion, there will be frustration and anger that may contribute to creating a DEI politically correct quicksand, making some withdraw into themselves rather than building relationships with their team.

Systematic change requires education, practice, and working through differences and conflicts. Leaders can set accountability for what looks good regarding DEI. Telling someone to agree with a different religion or cheer for a hockey team they do not believe in seldom works; it typically creates resistance. Diversity requires all employees to embrace differences to thrive in a workplace, and equity requires everyone to have fair access to opportunities.

This can only happen with Inclusion. Leaders who want to embrace DEI in the most positive way,must focus on accountability for all to remove barriers that inhibit opportunities to succeed. It is not what employees are told to do or what will happen. What they feel and experience defines their reality in the workplace context. Employers can check how accountable the culture is through focus groups and workplace assessments that measure inclusion and psychological safety by collecting data about what is and is not facilitating DEI accountability.

A Plan-Do-Check-Act approach with persistent leadership can mature an organization’s DEI.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.

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