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'The Necessary Journey' by Ella F. Washington: Where you are on diversity and how it compares

Originally posted on Charter

The titular ”necessary journey” described in Dr. Ella F. Washington’s new book is the one to greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in an organization, an effort she contends “has no finite ending point.” (p. 237)

Leaders fixate on specific programs and policies to move them to an elevated DEI state, notes Washington, an organizational psychologist at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and a DEI consultant to businesses. “But there’s more to DEI than programs,” she writes. “It includes creating programs, yes, but also making cultural changes, finding new ways to influence people, making difficult decisions, and more.” (p. 3) Washington argues that the right approach is to think of DEI in terms of:

  • Purpose—Organizations and individuals should ask, ”What am I really trying to achieve?” and then pursue that. Some questions that help develop a vision include “How do we want to be known by our stakeholders for our DEI efforts?” and “What has held us back from achieving our goals?” Individuals similarly can set goals more specific than just being a better ally.

  • Pitfalls—”We should be self-reflecting on our pitfalls much more often,” Washington writes. “We should honestly note that, for example, our employee referral system may be hindering our ability to diversify our talent pipeline; that the informal conversation on the golf course may be introducing inequity in our promotion process; that our personal discomfort with tough topics like race or privilege keeps us from engaging in necessary conversations.” (p. 244)

  • Progress—Washington contends that DEI work is different from marketing or finance initiatives, given the fundamental human dimensions, which can make change feel slow or inconsistent. She supports tracking success metrics, for accountability and to confirm there’s forward motion. But “commit to progress over perfection,” she writes. (p. 245)

The Necessary Journey is a book of case studies, with individual chapters describing the DEI efforts of Iora Health, Slack, PwC, Uncle Nearest, Moss Adams, Sodexo, Best Buy, Infosys, and Denny’s. Washington writes that her aim is for leaders reading these cases to be able to understand for their own organizations, “Where are we on the journey, and how do we compare with others?” (p. 5) She categorizes each company according to these five stages :

  • Awareness—Companies are still learning what DEI is and why it matters.

  • Compliance—Organizations have DEI efforts because laws and regulation require it.

  • Tactical—DEI efforts exist but are disjointed, and not ultimately at the core of the business.

  • Integrated—A company can say “DEI is part of everything we do,” including connections with employees, customers, partners, shareholders, and the community.

  • Sustainable—DEI efforts are so core that they persist through changes in the economy, strategy, or leadership.

Some highlights from the case studies:

  • Best Buy—which Washington says moved from the tactical to integrated stages— traditionally focused its diversity efforts on gender. But by 2017, then-CEO Hubert Joly realized the electronics retailer needed to do more on race. Best Buy leadership talked about the link between an inclusive culture and being able to serve a diverse base of consumers. “Don’t bother giving us non-Black resumes” for Best Buy’s board, Joly said he told recruiters, and the company set targets for BIPOC employees.

  • Slack—which Washington categorizes as tactical—took a decentralized approach, believing that DEI was part of everyone’s job, but different groups within the company used different criteria for hiring until leaders eventually created company-wide inclusive hiring guidelines. The number of women in technical roles increased by almost 5% in a year after Slack introduced standardized interview questions to ask each candidate.

  • PwC—which Washington says is at the highest, sustainable stage—is a relative pioneer for corporate DEI efforts, and when US chairman Tim Ryan took over in 2016 he quickly made it a top priority. When employees responded to an early company-wide email he sent about racial unrest and violence against Black men by emailing Ryan to say the company wasn’t living up to its DEI ideals, he ditched his 100-day plan to focus on fixing that. “I had 100% physical attendance. But I didn’t have 100% mental and heart attendance,” Ryan said. (p. 79) PwC hosted a daylong conversation about race for employees, and also helped lead broader industry efforts on DEI. One lesson from PwC, according to Washington, is “Question the status quo. Break it. Ask why not?” (p. 91) PwC chief purpose and inclusion officer Shannon Schuyler acknowledges emotional difficulty for white men who can feel disenfranchised by diversity efforts, and tries to shift the focus to abundant opportunities, saying: “Maybe you don’t get that role, but you will end up with another role. There are opportunities that are here; we just have to look at it differently. We want to help the majority become allies and that means you are part of this.” (p. 97)

Washington says that leaders need to acknowledge that DEI efforts take time and sacrifices. “If an organization is committed to increasing its diversity of leadership, it may have to keep a position open longer than expected to identify a diverse slate of candidates,” she writes. “It may have to recruit outside of the schools it typically draws from. It may have to reevaluate the requirements it always had for the job (such as a bachelor’s degree): Are the requirements actually indicators of success?” (p. 117)

To be sure:

  • The patchwork of case studies—some from companies Washington consulted for—is less of a playbook for DEI efforts than a survey of what a small group of companies has done.

  • The case studies are largely based on interviews with corporate executives and so rely on their willingness to be publicly self-critical. Interviews with other employees, partners, or critics would have added perspective, depth, and rigor.

  • Washington includes—but surprisingly doesn’t comment on—Uncle Nearest CEO and founder Fawn Weaver’s assertion that the company doesn’t employ sexually “closeted” people “because that’s counter to our culture” which requires “being your truest self, your freest self, who you are when you’re at home and being that way when you’re around the team.” (p. 115) That’s especially arresting to read in a book about DEI.

  • Some DEI practices described, such as Joly saying Best Buy wouldn’t accept resumes from recruiters for non-Black board candidates, seem legally risky. Weaver acknowledges legal risk also, saying, “If I look at a position and say the attrition on African-Americans has put us below what our percentage [is] in the country, that position is held for an African-American. Take me to court over it. I’m okay with that.” (p. 118)

  • The “necessary journey” could become a harder one in the coming years as the expected Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in college admissions could also chill diversity efforts within companies.

Choice quotes:

  • “I really do want that to be a part of our fabric, so that people who do have those prejudices, people who secretly allow or even desire some level of oppression, won’t even feel comfortable working at the company. I want them to feel pushed out, and I want it to be so obvious that if someone asked why they left, they wouldn’t even feel comfortable answering the question.” —Rachel Westerfield, Slack global manager of experience specialists (p. 75)

  • “You can only get so far in building a culture of belonging if you take the people who are not in the majority to educate them but you don’t educate the majority.” —PwC’s Schuyler (p. 83)

  • “As leaders, we try to solve problems, and sometimes it’s not about solving problems. It’s just saying nothing and listening so that you really understand what the issues are.” —Chris Schmidt, retired CEO, Moss Adams (p. 132)

  • “Utopia looks like an organization not taking their foot off the pedal, constantly addressing it, not slipping back or getting complacent. We must be prepared to constantly be addressing issues and not sit back on our laurels.” —Rohini Anand, former chief diversity officer, Sodexo (p. 173)

  • “DEI is not an esoteric concept that only academics and HR professionals understand. The best way to think of it is as an effort that creates the human experience of being seen, heard, and feeling valued in the workplace.” (p. 183)

  • “On the one side the US has the American dream, where anyone can become anything. On the other side equally, you have a situation where the access to the future jobs is not there for many parts of the community.” —Ravi Kumar, president of Infosys (p. 21)

  • “The goal is always improvement and forward progress, not to find a comfortable stopping point.” — April Kelly-Drummond, head of DEI and multicultural engagement at Denny’s (p. 237)

  • “My workplace utopia is not one in which everything is perfect. Rather, it’s one where everyone is trying to get better and doing so in a place that encourages that. It’s a place where I can thrive fully as myself. I laugh with colleagues and my students. I raise my hand when something doesn’t feel right. I embrace emotion when a situation has touched me. But this utopia can only exist in environments with a commitment to equity and inclusion. (p. 248)

The bottom line is that The Necessary Journey shares the stories of companies grappling with DEI issues in a way that’s surely helpful for readers looking to move their own organizations forward.

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