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How to have honest DEI discussions

There’s never been a more important time to talk about DEI in the workplace. As people take to the streets to protest racial injustice, the call to action for business leaders is clear: Black lives matter, and that means fostering an organizational culture that reflects this fact.

Preliminary discussions will likely be challenging. Even if you have good intentions, it’s easy to drop the ball when creating DEI forums. Not only do you want feedback, but you want it to be open and honest. And that requires the proper groundwork.

In this blog, we’ll provide three steps for having honest DEI discussions. That way, you can come up with thoughtful solutions—and take meaningful action.

Let’s begin.

1. Be clear in your intent.

To encourage honest feedback, first establish honest intent. Many companies, regardless of industry, are struggling with diversity, equity, and inclusion. What’s important is that you set and communicate your own DEI goals as an organization. These objectives will help frame the discussion—and demonstrate your commitment to a better workplace.

These goals can’t be quotas, nor should you want them to be. For one, a quota creates the mindset that DEI is a box to check. If you say, “We need to hire this many Black employees within the next year,” it’s easy to fixate on the number, rather than the outcome (and continued aftereffects).

More importantly, a quota distracts from the actual problem. Equality is only achievable when all voices are valued. For that to happen, an organization must foster not just diversity, but also a culture of inclusion and empathy. A quota may artificially improve diversity, but without real change, the problem will never be solved.

Instead, think of broader goals. What is your company’s mission? What are your cultural values? Ask yourself how DEI relates to and enhances these principles. If you can’t identify a link between the two, think about why that may be.

Our mission statement at PI is “Better work, better world.” We know this mission isn’t achievable without racial and gender equality. We also know we have work to do here. So if we’re to have any shot at fostering a better world, we have to start with better work inside our own doors.

honest DEI discussions

2. Welcome a wide range of feedback.

Once you’ve communicated your intent, cast as wide a net as possible to solicit feedback. Stress the importance of hearing from a variety of voices. Regardless of race, gender, or tenure, everyone’s opinion is valued.

As you reach out across the organization, you may struggle with how best to approach minority voices. Should you prioritize their thoughts? Is it tone-deaf to ask them for help?

The answer to these questions will likely depend on your organization and people. A company that’s relatively diverse will probably have an easier starting point than a company that’s predominately white and male.

When in doubt, give your minority groups the floor to start. Share your DEI goals with them and ask for critical feedback. Better yet, give them an opportunity to help shape these goals, if they’re willing. Then, you can open up the discussion to other employees. 

Just remember that the onus is not on underrepresented groups to effect change. That responsibility lies with the organization and anyone who contributes to its culture and values.

3. Accommodate different communication styles.

Even if you have a passionate workforce that wants to share feedback, doing so isn’t always easy. Especially now, when working remotely, communication can be challenging. So, now and forever, let your employees give feedback in a way that’s comfortable for them.

Think about how extraverted your employees are. Those who are especially outgoing may prefer providing feedback in an open group setting. By contrast, more introspective individuals may prefer sharing their thoughts privately with their manager.

Also consider each person’s level of formality. Those who are more formal may prefer to share feedback through documented channels. On the other hand, less formal people may just skip the red tape and discuss their thoughts casually.

Take these factors into consideration, and you’ll be able to cater to your employee’s specific communication needs. Here are a few ways to gather feedback, based on behavioral type:

  • High extraversion, high formality: recorded town halls, round table discussions
  • High extraversion, low formality: virtual meetings, Slack DEI channels
  • Low extraversion, high formality: email threads, anonymous surveys
  • Low extraversion, low formality: 1 on 1 call with a manager

Remember that everyone has a different comfort level. Where one employee may feel compelled to talk at the next all-company meeting, another may need several weeks to send an email reflecting their thoughts. Some may feel too nervous to share thoughts at all.

And that’s OK. Always come from a place of encouragement and acceptance. Understand that honest DEI discussions are part of an ongoing process. The protests may subside, but the conversations in your organization should continue. Keep that momentum going, and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture—lasting change.

>>Want to improve communication further? Start by learning about employee behavior in the workplace.

Now comes the hard part.

This is not a comprehensive how-to. Having honest DEI discussions is only the first step in a larger movement. Once you’ve solicited feedback, there’s a much tougher step ahead: taking action.

Only by taking action can the letters D, E, and I become part of your company’s reality. It’ll take effort throughout the organization—from the very top, down to the individual level. But change must happen. And change can happen, so long as you and your people carry and protect that torch.


David is a content writer and editor at PI. He loves Broadway and the Boston Celtics.

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