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The DEI Professional and Office Politics

Diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals are leaving. My take on the impact of office politics on people who are working to implement meaningful change.

I debated returning to this page. It's been two years, and so much has happened. And yet, we are, regressing toward old habits and antiquated cultures.

When DEI took a life form of its own 2 and 3 years ago, I thought company cultures would change. World and national events were forcing companies to pay attention. There were calls to action for change, support, and to be better. Companies formed employee resource groups (ERG). There were commitments to people of color and community and promises for more conversations and seats at the table.

Ugh. We're getting ready to close out 2022, and it seems we are regressing toward old habits.

Conversations on equity, diversity, and inclusion were supposed to address many of the promises. ERGs were supposed to give employees a way to connect with others in similar communities and have access to resources.

However, search DEI professionals, and you will find a list of articles about burnout and a debate on success rates (here's a start).

I was lamenting this unfortunate turn of events and that companies continued to miss the point of representation to a friend.

I used my former team as an example, explaining that, today, that team no longer looks representative of the community it supports locally. I acknowledged that despite my years of separation from the role, I was still passionate about community, equity, and representation. I will always notice such details.

Plot twist: her response was not what I expected.

Instead, my friend exasperatedly reminded me that people don't have to be of color to support marginalized communities and that corporate companies will always do whatever they want.

I hung up the phone feeling minimized and defeated that both of the responses above were still considered perfectly acceptable and expected.

While I recovered, I wondered whether leaders had already become tired of looking beyond their own reflections.

And then I remembered why the idea of this blog even came to me. After 20 years in corporate conversations, I repeatedly witnessed corporate cultures ruled by office politics limit fair and equitable paths toward professional success.

Do the hard work, be intentional, and set up your DEI teams for success.

Several DEI advocates I spoke to commented on the challenging state of their work: supporting leaders that do not always reflect the culture changes to which they aspire. This gap leaves them to defend the organization publicly, but privately, they debate their ability to be successful and implement meaningful change.

I experienced something akin to this gap within my network a couple of years ago.

A former colleague and DEI professional posted kudos on a mutual acquaintance's social media post. Unfortunately, our mutual acquaintance had previously demonstrated less-than-desirable leadership traits and some toxic ones in both of our respective working spaces.

I am not going to lie. When I read the kudos, I felt my respect for my former colleague slip a little. I even went so far as to evaluate my response: was it personal? Was I holding a grudge?

And then I realized that I was struggling with the kudos for its endorsement of our acquaintance's professionalism. The public display of support meant more people would only know part of the story, the good one.

I am aware of the position my former colleague may have been in to participate. As colleagues, supporting her teammate may have been a professional courtesy, a DEI professional supporting a member of leadership. I'll budge a little, but I won't deny my hesitancy in trusting her and her ability to implement change...for now.

I'm not sure I can offer a solution to this challenge except to recognize that DEI professionals have many challenges to face. Unfortunately, the challenges are not only with the topic but also with the people DEI professionals are trying to support.

I hope corporate leaders pay attention to how they support their DEI colleagues. I hope the bosses can see how often existing corporate culture runs counter to the efforts of DEI. Even more, I hope leaders can see that balancing corporate and DEI is an enormous effort for the pros doing the work, as it often runs counter to the lived experiences.

Actually, I do know what I can offer. Change is hard, but it only happens when intentional effort and support exist. If you want to show earnest engagement, start by identifying a real accountability plan. One that is swift and transparent and puts everyone on the same platform of expectations. You're still playing office politics if you can't gauge everyone by the same standards.

Do the hard work, be intentional, and set up your DEI teams for success.

- M


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