Overcome the Fears Preventing Your Company From Embracing DEI Initiatives

DEI Feature

one of the barriers

At October’s Annual Conference, MHI’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Advisory Committee presented “Discussions about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs.” Moderated by Dr. Shanthi Muthuswamy of Northern Illinois University, the panel included:

  • Edward Lada Jr., president & CEO of Goodwill Keystone Area and the Goodwill Keystone Area Foundation in Harrisburg, Penn.
  • Karen Norheim, president & CEO of MHI member American Crane and Equipment Corporation, MHI Board of Directors and DEI Advisory Committee member
  • Mercedes Barragan, global inclusion & diversity manager at MHI Member Dematic and DEI Advisory Committee member

One of the barriers to implementing and expanding DEI (and “B,” for Belonging) initiatives, according to the panelists, is fear among leadership. That apprehension, they noted, is often a critical factor in companies’ lack of DEI progress. Here, I asked Lada and Norheim to share additional thoughts on this assertion.

Dow: I was surprised to hear “fear” as an obstacle to DEI progress. What are some of the fears that leaders have about DEI issues and initiatives?

Lada: As a 43-year-old white, heterosexual male, I likely reflect many leaders. The apprehensions are often around a perceived lack of expertise in the area, not knowing where to start, fear of the unknown, uncertainties about the return on investment (ROI), and general anti-DEI sentiment. Unfortunately, for some DEI has become politicized, which makes it easy to use its politicization as an excuse to not engage with the work.

The reality of DEI&B is, in the current and future state of workforce and the workplace, it needs to become the foundation upon which organizational culture is built. The number of jobs available will continue to outpace workforce availability. Companies will need to prioritize establishing a culture that focuses on retention and the shifting expectations of what a modern workplace is—or needs to become. Creating an inclusive environment that fosters a sense of belonging will be critical toward those retention efforts.

Dow: How common are these fears?

Lada: Very common, not only among leaders, but throughout all layers of a business. But it isn’t all just anti-DEI sentiment. It’s the process of allowing yourself to be vulnerable—to “put up a mirror” as an individual and as a business—that is the most daunting. It’s not knowing where to start. It’s not wanting to open yourself and the business up to potentially difficult conversations or realities.

Then the obligation to put in the work to correct, improve, or change what needs to be changed can be daunting. It is hard to confront and invest in the realities of pay equity, recruiting practices and unintentional bias in hiring policies, procedures and applications, for example. I also think there is just a general feeling of ignorance about DEI&B and a natural—and understandable—fear that you may think or say something that could be construed as racist, classist or insensitive.

Norheim: I agree. As a white heterosexual female in a traditionally male-dominated industry, yes, I’m in the minority gender-wise. But I am concerned that how I say something in the DEI space might be expressed in a way that unintentionally offends someone. It’s definitely something I am conscientious about.

Dow: There were some great recommendations for overcoming these fears in the discussion. Could you share your advice?

Lada: Apprehension is where the beauty of doing DEI&B work lives. When you show employees and clients that you aren’t perfect, are willing to learn and share, and are willing to create a culture that welcomes courageous conversations without fear of retribution or admonishment, that’s where the work becomes special. It blossoms authenticity in leaders, sets a growth mindset, and allows the space for shared experiences and shared cultures.

Norheim: The key is channeling the fear of saying something “wrong” and to be courageous enough to try. Even if you’re not perfect, you’re still on the path and making mistakes is part of the learning process. You have to be humble enough to acknowledge you don’t know what you don’t know. Also, you can’t let fear of doing or saying the wrong thing keep you from taking any action at all.

Dow: Can you suggest some resources to help leaders further address their DEI fears?

Lada: Start with looking at your own operations to set a baseline around DEI&B. I view Diversity and Equity as key performance indicators (KPIs): Are we reflective of the areas in which we work? Do we compensate fairly across demographics? Do we engage with diverse vendors? Inclusivity is the action. The culture shift, the goal, is the Belonging. Be wary of outside DEI consultants who primarily focus on the D and E and forget or devalue the I and B.

You are also likely to find partnerships at your local community college or university that can help you on your journey. Podcasts from Raven Solomon and The Generational View are great resources as well.

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