Empowering Middle Management to Promote DEI Initiatives


When it comes to nearly all corporate initiatives, support from the upper levels is crucial to generate the momentum that drives successful achievement of a goal. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts likewise require the backing of top leaders. But, as it turns out, these efforts also require the support of middle managers, who often are also the leaders stretched the thinnest and most likely to be juggling a range of competing priorities.

Recognizing this, Microsoft established a requirement for all employees to set a DEI-related professional development goal that aligns with the company’s DEI priorities. Called the “DEI Core Priority,” each employee selects a focus area, defines success metrics and shares their learning in an annual performance review. Managers are encouraged to set an example by sharing their own goals and how they plan to reach them.

The result? A 270% increase in the number of Microsoft employees who have taken optional learning opportunities outside of required DEI education.

That’s an astounding and encouraging statistic, said Mercedes Barragan, global inclusion and diversity manager at MHI member Dematic, also a member of MHI’s DEI Advisory Committee.

“Managers are, arguably, an organization’s most important population when it comes to reaching its DEI goals,” she noted. “They’re the foundation of talent management, and they shape the daily experiences of employees. Middle managers also make all the hiring, firing and promotion decisions. If their bosses make encouraging employees to increase their cultural competency a requirement for everyone, then that empowers them to make DEI a priority.”

In many organizations, middle managers are often the perfect conduit to evoke change more quickly, agreed Gerry Paci, market manager for material handling at MHI member Pepperl+Fuchs, also a member of MHI’s DEI Advisory Committee.

“Being in the ‘middle,’ they have the ear of both parties, for example, both the team on the shop floor and the team of top leadership. If the DEI message only comes from the top leadership, there is potential for a lack of relationship with the employees. Therefore, the message may be better received when it comes from their direct supervisors,” he said.

“Also, if the middle manager truly believes in the message, the conversations that need to take place about DEI will occur more frequently,” continued Paci. “That will allow a much more open space for employees to discuss the topic, which is also important.”

Lessons from the Microsoft DEI Approach

While mandating DEI-related professional development is key to getting middle managers to prioritize such initiatives, what makes Microsoft’s approach even more compelling is the open-ended nature of the learning piece, emphasized Barragan.

“Microsoft’s leadership is essentially saying, ‘we want you to encourage your employees to increase their cultural competency by taking some courses around DEI, but leave it open to them to choose what aligns with their interests,’” she noted. “They’re still holding people accountable by making it part of everyone’s review process, but they’re also giving their people the flexibility and accessibility to approach this in a way that works best for them.”

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