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Going beyond the basics

Embracing diversity, equity and inclusion in your office

Craig Warren | May 2020 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated April 30, 2020

Knowledge is power, but it is powerless if not put into action.

You’ve likely been to workshops or have listened to speakers posit all the necessary steps to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). You don’t see yourself as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic or ableist. Your organization likely has a diversity and inclusion statement and your CEO has committed to the CEO Pledge on the matter. Perhaps some leaders in your organization have taken the Intercultural Development Inventory and are diligently working on their intercultural development plans. 

Your organization might fund programming to recognize Black History Month, Women’s History Month, PRIDE Month, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr and other religious and cultural celebrations. You’re committed to hiring a workforce with a broad representation of the United States, which is the strength of your community and represents your current and future customers.

Your head and your heart are swirling and, you’re wondering, “What’s next for me and my organization in our diversity and inclusion work?” In many instances, the answer is adding an explicit focus on eliminating systemic and institutional bias to your DEI work. Acknowledgment is good, but there is more work to be done for many.

Understanding individual, systemic biases

The common thread in the aforementioned section is the actions (all of which are the right things to do) are focused on the individual rather than on the systemic biases, which exist in our broader society and in your organization. According to the National Equity Project: “Systemic oppression is systematic and has historical antecedents; it is the intentional disadvantaging of groups of people based on their identity while advantaging members of the dominant group (gender, race, class, sexual orientation, language, etc.).”

Systemic bias is not the same as individual bias.
  • Individual bias manifests in one-on-one interactions (i.e., a colleague making an inappropriate comment or behavior).
  • Systemic bias is about individuals with particular identities having different outcomes than individuals sharing dominant identities within your organization (i.e., women accountants making less than their male peers with comparable or less experience; 90% of your workforce is people of color and only 5% of managers are people of color; retention rates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) employees are lower than the organizational average; 100% of executives in your organization are cisgender, heterosexual, white men who went to the same three colleges).  

What is DEI really?

It’s useful to pause here and make sure we have a shared understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Diversity is about the existence of visible and invisible differences within each of us.
  • Equity is about creating an environment where our differences don’t define our outcomes in that environment.
  • Inclusion is about creating an environment where all our respective differences are welcomed. Inclusion is feeling that you belong.
Some differences make a difference in outcomes because of systemic bias. It’s critical that you move from a focus on the individual to adding a focus on systems when you consider what’s next. In doing so, you will grapple with more fundamental and challenging questions, including:
  • Who are your systems designed for?
  • How are your systems disadvantaging some identities while advantaging other identities?
  • How is the platinum rule (i.e., treat others the way they want to be treated) reflected in your systems?
  • How are your systems reflective of systemic biases that exist in the communities you serve?
  • What role has your organization played in perpetuating systemic biases in the communities you serve?
  • Do you have the courage and data (quantitative and qualitative) to explore these questions and act on the answers?

Redefining an approach

You may be wondering what exactly a systemic approach to DEI looks like.

Consider this scenario: Your community has a growing Somali population, which has the potential to become a bigger part of your customer base and one that isn’t represented in your workforce. The following questions go deeper in helping you understand who your systems are designed for.
  • What percentage of your workforce is Somali?
  • What do members of your Somali employee resource group say about how your organization is perceived within Somali communities?
  • How are Somali communities perceived within your organization?
  • What percentage of your job applicants are Somali?
  • How are leaders held accountable for recruiting, retaining, developing and promoting Somali employees?
  • What percentage of your people leaders are Somali?
  • What’s your retention rate for Somali employees?
  • What were the key themes from focus groups with Somali employees?
  • How do the employee engagement scores for Somali employees compare to other employee groups?
  • What’s the average tenure for Somali employees? 
  • How do the average performance ratings for Somali employees compare to the average performance ratings for all employees?
  • Do your organizational policies and practices accommodate Muslim religious practices?
  • How much money does your organization spend in Somali communities?
  • How much of the organization’s philanthropic efforts are focused on Somali communities?
Now, what does this data tell you about who your systems are designed for?

Using your knowledge

In this scenario, these questions highlight a focus on how the organization’s systems are either enabling or blocking the organization’s efforts to attract and retain Somali employees. You’ll note that you can easily swap Somali with other cultural identities and the exercise is just as effective in helping you identify opportunities to redesign your systems to generate the outcomes you seek.

An effective organizational diversity, equity and inclusion strategy supports the development of individual intercultural competence, ensures that all employees feel welcome and that they can realize their potential with the organization, and removes systemic barriers based on identity.

Craig Warren is the vice president, enterprise solutions at the Minnesota Children’s Museum. He has more than 20 years of global experience serving as a catalyst for equitably and inclusively achieving strategic outcomes. You may reach him at or 651-225-6013.