Embracing Diversity in a Contested Culture

With DEI at the center of an intensifying culture war over American values, how do leaders navigate meaningful organizational change in this contested moment? We sat down with Jared Simmons, founder and CEO of OUTLAST Consulting and an Openfields advisor to discuss how leaders can build an organizational foundation for diversity in the face of internal and external resistance.

What’s your advice for leaders navigating some of the cultural backlash we’re seeing around DEI?

JS: I think leaders need to learn how to embrace risk. If organizations are committed to correcting historical inequities, they need to disproportionately invest in underrepresented groups. Working to restore this balance will often be viewed as a threat by those in majority groups who benefit from the status quo. There’s just no way around it; there will be a cost to reflecting your values, and this is true both internally and externally. I know this is unpopular, but diversity is literally a zero-sum game. It’s a percentage-based problem and an inescapable fact that underpins any effort to prioritize organizational diversity. But embracing this tension and discomfort will build risk tolerance and organizational resilience that will power you through the growing pains of meaningful change.

How do you convince organizations that DEI is worth the risk?

JS: Every organization should represent the community it serves, so in this respect, diversity is an intrinsic good—an end in itself. I have the privilege of working with organizations who share this value. But I don’t try to make a business case for diversity because it tends to instrumentalize minority employees. And given the growing public backlash, there’s no guarantee that prioritizing diversity will positively impact your bottom line. Plus, attributing the sole success of companies to the diversity of their board or c-suite can be misleading. It can simply be an investment that successful companies are willing to make due to a higher risk tolerance. There is a strong correlation here: organizations have a higher risk tolerance and take more chances on minority executives when business is booming. At the end of the day, whether its causation or correlation, greater diversity contributes to better outcomes. Ultimately, each organization must evaluate their own risk tolerance and determine whether the cost of highlighting and driving diversity is one they can afford.

You talk a lot about the importance of transparency, why is this so central to the work of DEI?

JS: Transparency is what amplifies reputational risk around DEI, so some organizations may prioritize managing their reputation over transparency, or overcompensate for inaction or failures by doubling down on messaging. This is unwise. Organizations need to be clear about their priorities. Sharing honestly about your DEI journey and what you hope to accomplish cultivates trust, promotes collective learning, and keeps organizations accountable to outcomes. This is also true internally. Disclosing your workplace representation and retention data, and being open about how compensation decisions are made can close the gap between DEI objectives and broader organizational goals. In the age of innovative data and analytics, creating a culture of transparency is realistic and achievable.  

Learning to be responsive and not reactive to the waves of our cultural moment is key.

You mentioned failures, what are some of the most common mistakes organizations can make when implementing DEI initiatives?

JS: Learning to be responsive and not reactive to the waves of our cultural moment is key. Feeling the pressure to act in the upheaval and protests of 2020, many organizations have been playing a very focused short game on diversity. They rushed to implement DEI initiatives by developing a programmatic apparatus (training, etc.) or making a handful of quick hires. But these knee-jerk reactions amounted to little more than box-checking or tokenism. We need to play the long game by focusing on systemic, long-term change. Achieving any well-intentioned DEI goals means taking a deeper look at the policies, processes, systems and culture of our organizations that create barriers to participation, or alienate and exclude those from underrepresented groups. It means asking tough questions about power, access, and our unconscious biases. These are hard questions, and embedding them into organizational DNA takes time, thoughtful intervention, and a commitment to an iterative process of improvement. It can’t be rushed.  

How can we prevent box-checking and tokenism, and burdening minority employees in the process?

JS: Underrepresented groups are often pigeonholed into leading DEI initiatives, while their employers often unexpectedly shift the responsibility of addressing DEI issues onto them. Many of these employees have no prior experience or skills in these areas but are expected to participate nonetheless—often on top of already demanding job responsibilities. They clearly have an ability to bring diversity to an organization, but they are not mere tokens in a DEI strategy. Employers need to respect boundaries by not placing the burden of DEI on the shoulders of their minority employees. Their individuality needs to be respected and celebrated, not objectified. Again, transparency is key here. Being open with new hires about where you are in your DEI journey goes a long way to building trust and accountability and setting realistic expectations.