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Does DEI need a rebrand?

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May 21, 2024
By Bill Howatt


Credit: Getty Images/AndreyPopov

How clear is the average employee in your organization on the purpose and value proposition for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs? What facts do you have to form your conclusion?

Based on my applied work as a psychological health and safety consultant, organizations generally score low on these questions.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins suggests that dealing with challenges as a leader sometimes requires coping with brutal facts. And the facts indicate DEI may not be achieving what it was designed to do. DEI has even sparked articles with titles such as I hate the term ESG’: How a trendy acronym became a dirty word in Canadian business, which reminds me of an article I wrote on navigating the complexities of workplace DEI initiatives. To Collins’ point, it appears that DEI is working for some but not for others. Why? The answer depends on what group you ask.

Growing evidence suggests employers have struggled to get buy-in for DEI and are shifting focus and resources from these initiatives, although billions of dollars have been invested over the past few years.

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The impact, perceived value, and risks of investing in DEI have declined in the past 12-18 months. For example, Morningstar.com recently reported US corporations are becoming more cautious about following through on DEI efforts as businesses cut costs. Conservative activists, lawyers, and lawmakers are seeking to purge the concept from workplace life on the tail of last year’s Supreme Court ruling ending affirmative action in college admissions.

Evidence suggests that the DEI concept faces strong headwinds, and data shows that more senior leaders and boards are questioning the value and messages sent by DEI policies and training. More questions are being asked about the outcome, and new policies are being created for inclusive workplace cultures at all levels.

Does DEI need a rebrand?

One theory behind DEI is that improved diversity will increase equity and inclusion. How DEI has been introduced to many workplaces (e.g., mandatory one-way training focused on telling versus learning) may feel more like a hammer than an opportunity for some to understand and embrace.

In my experience working in a clinical setting for 40 years, people seldom do well when told how to think or what they must believe. There are thousands of lessons from religion and politics to show that when ideas or thinking are suppressed with no space for debate, resistance can start below the surface.

Science, meanwhile, has taught us there is an equal and opposite reaction to every action. Creating and implementing DEI, new ideology, and expectations for unconditional acceptance have resulted in unintended consequences.

As a scientist, my interest in this challenge includes why, what, and how things can be done differently to create a workplace where all employees feel they are psychologically safe, belong and are valued. One where employees believe differences are accepted without prejudice, the workplace is accessible to everyone, and there can be fair representation among groups.

Though I believe in DEI values, they often will not be “successfully” implemented and bought into by everyone without a solid foundation. For several years, I have coached employers, noting that without a foundation of psychological safety, where employees feel safe to speak up and debate ideas without fear of retaliation or retribution, there is little chance for inclusion (i.e., belonging), diversity, equity, or accessibility conversations.

I propose another acronym: PIDEA – psychological safety, inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility/accommodations.

Having psychological safety and inclusion in place creates an opportunity to discover and learn from diversity, and understand the benefits of equity and accessibility that go beyond mandatory accommodations.

Affirmative action is being challenged while meritocracy (i.e., selecting people based on ability), continues to be a guiding preference, leaving the solution for amending the injustice of structural racism as a moving target.

My focus and expertise are in psychological safety and inclusion. Without these, I believe diversity, equity, and accessibility will continue to struggle in the workplace context. In addition to standing for accommodations that are a basic human right (e.g., disability), it is beneficial when employers make work accessible for populations that have different needs so they can thrive. For example, if 25 per cent of a workforce is neurodivergent and employers are unaware of their needs or what they require to thrive, many of these people will feel oppressed and not understood.

Five principles of PIDEA

PIDEA focuses on factors that increase the opportunity for humans to interact to their full potential in ways that do not negatively affect others or create divisions.

PIDEA’s five principles promote success when all people:

  • Feel psychologically safe being themselves — We do not need to teach people how to trust. They know when they can trust the workplace is safe. Psychologically safe workplaces focus on accountability and learning. That does not mean employees will always feel good. Stress, conflict, and challenges are how good things happen, as there is no easy way to achieve aspirational goals. Knowing how to thrive in conflict, deal with stress, and develop resiliency are critical life skills and habits that help employees thrive and self-advocate.
  • Are socially connected, valued, and respected — People need people. They need to feel socially connected, valued, and respected at a level that gives them a sense that the workplace is a good place where isolation and loneliness are addressed. Inclusion is imperative, managed, and monitored to enable human capital to thrive.
  • Accept that no two people are the same — Groups have many visible and invisible differences (i.e., looks, beliefs, habits). Saying that is fine is different from demonstrating that it’s fine. People are more likely to feel heard when they feel safe asking questions, disagreeing, and challenging, creating more opportunities for openness and learning.
  • Everyone must believe they are being treated fairly — Employees may have unique needs, which does not mean they all should be given the same things. Consideration must be given to what is needed to help a person thrive to their full potential while helping the organization achieve its objectives. Fairness is not relevant if employers are not successful and thriving. Leaders need to be supported and trained to create accessibility. It is wise not to assume they have this competency.
  • Understand psychological safety is a program, not an outcome — Psychological safety programs that facilitate “plan-do-check-act” components create opportunities to influence environmental factors, behaviours, and habits. The result is everyone in the workplace believes they have equal opportunities, they feel they are valued and belong. They understand there is no perfection and that bias, old thinking, and habits take time to change. When excellence is the mission and tolerance, humility, forgiveness, and patience are nurtured, the workplace culture flourishes as one of caring.

In rebranding DEI as PIDEA, my motivation is to shift the DEI conversation to focus on why there must be a foundation of psychological safety and inclusion in place for an organization to build on it and ultimately thrive.

Though DEI may not be working for all as designed, merits and benefits exist. Please do not forget them!

The struggle appears to be in how DEI is implemented and then later seen to be failing to achieve the desired outcome (i.e., everyone must benefit). In addition, the equity question needs more attention and clarity around what success looks like.

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


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