10 ways to know if your DEI program is thriving…or if it needs to die.

Adonica Shaw
9 min readJan 7, 2024

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Elon Musk recently shared his perspectives on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in a widely circulated post on X. While Musk’s statement gained traction among critics of DEI who argue the field has room for improvement, it prompts us to consider a nuanced perspective.

Without passing judgment on Musk or his supporters, it is worth exploring the notion that ineffective DEI initiatives may inadvertently exacerbate issues rather than address them. There is an opportunity to acknowledge that suboptimal DEI programs might have unintended consequences, potentially doing more harm than good to the very individuals they aim to support.

This article aims to explore some of the ways in which DEI programs and initiatives should be evaluated to determine whether or not they should continue, or if they could be causing potential harm by remaining operational without the proper infrastructure.

Since there are varying definitions for DEI, for the sake of this article, I want to be clear that I’m referring to d.e.i. efforts as it relates to ethnicity and race.

So where did the DEI explosion begin?

During the summer of 2020, Donald Trump was in office, the country was facing a pandemic, there was no toilet paper, racial tensions were high, mental health was low, and people were losing their jobs left and right. In many ways, the world was going through a collective identity crisis because everything was so uncertain.

In parallel, the Black Lives Matter movement was operating at its peak, and law enforcement groups were under fire for the deaths and mistreatment of several black Americans, in addition to George Floyd. During this time, there were riots, looting, and marches — all of which, according to the Washington Post, led to nearly $50 billion being set aside to develop and enhance anti-racism and DEI efforts by the 50 largest public U.S. companies to address racial inequality.

This first-of-its-kind commitment was just enough ( back then) to alleviate discomfort, and executives across these companies were hailed with admiration for supporting efforts to level the playing field.

Now, Times Have Changed

In response to the heightened calls for broader racial equity and justice after Floyd’s murder, the Society for Human Resource Management reported a 55% increase in DEI roles in 2020. However, recent reports suggest that rather than fostering fair opportunities and a supportive work environment for Black employees, professionals in the DEI sector are now facing job losses amid the broader wave of layoffs affecting the economy.

According to NBC News, Leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion, initially brought on board in significant numbers to assist companies in achieving a more ethnically balanced workforce are reportedly being phased out. Surveys show that Black employees represent only 3.8% of chief diversity officers overall, with white people making up 76.1% of the roles. Those of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity make up 7.8% and those of Asian ethnicity make up 7.7% This trend is raising concerns among experts in the field who question whether the corporate commitment to instigating meaningful change was merely rhetorical.

An Unpopular Opinion

While swift action by the executives temporarily halted a deeper divide amongst races, it’s a fair criticism that some programs may have been created entirely too fast. Moreover, due to the sheer speed and public pressure for corporations to respond during the pandemic, these efforts may have resulted in poorly developed programs, with poor leadership and others that were never sustainable to begin with.

This begs the question, is it entirely wrong for a company to remove a component of a business if it isn’t structured well? Has poor leadership? Or whose participants are not thriving?

As somebody who has participated in some DEI initiatives, which have both helped and harmed my career, I wanted to provide insight from a participant perspective on how to evaluate whether or not your DEI program is fairly structured, so you can keep it, or if your corporation is missing the mark with DEI altogether — and needs to be reimagined or shut down.

That being said, here are 10 things to consider before determining whether or not your program needs to go.

  1. If the DEI program is public-facing, do the program participants know who the leaders are and do they have regular communication with them?

Yes; Positive outcomes are strongly associated with DEI programs when participants receive consistent mentorship and leadership support. Research indicates that individuals engaged in such programs or accelerator initiatives experience thriving results through continuous guidance and mentorship throughout their participation.

No; If the answer is no, reflect on the potential impact on participants. Envision yourself in a career-advancement program without access to leadership or mentors. Consider how this lack of support might hinder your ability to thrive. If it poses challenges for participants to navigate the environment during and after the program, evaluate the structure of your DEI program to ensure it facilitates success both within and beyond its duration.

2. Are people of multiple ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic status, or sex involved in leadership?

Yes; if the answer is yes, then this is a fair and balanced representation of program participants in leadership positions. This fosters a sense of identity within the organization or initiative they engage with. This inclusivity encourages participants to approach your organization or its leaders more comfortably when issues arise, facilitating open communication about their concerns.

No; if the answer is no, then, this can have an adverse effect on program participants. If the DEI program aims to level the playing field and participants encounter DEI-related issues, discomfort may arise in communication. They may prefer connecting with individuals they resonate with. Ignoring these considerations can inadvertently trap participants or those the program aims to support in cycles they seek liberation from.

3. Are you charging program participants for services? Are they fairly priced and can the recipients repay the fees without amassing significant debt?

Yes; Consider the long-term impact on participants and their companies if charges are imposed for participation or access to exclusive services in a DEI initiative. Evaluate whether the offered services are reasonably priced and if participants can repay fees without incurring substantial debt. If inclusion in the program would create a perpetual reliance on other DEI initiatives for progress, it may inadvertently cause long-term harm to participants.

No; if your program does not provide services for a fee, consider what resources you might be able to extend that would support the participants long term.

4. Is there programming and/or mentorship by someone whom program participants can identify with?

Yes; A DEI-related program with a clear reporting structure is a positive indication that a program is is well thoughtout. In fact, many well-developed initiatives or programs typically have mentorship, classes, specific requirements, and key performance indicators (KPIs) that participants must meet throughout their involvement. The structured approach, including weekly requirements, ensures that participants are actively learning and developing skills, enhancing their ability to sustain themselves after completing the program.

No; If there’s a lack of programming or mentorship, assess the current relevance and benefits of the program. Without these essential components, it’s crucial to question the overall value added to participants. If there’s no discernible benefit through participation, one must ponder the purpose and efficacy of the DEI program or initiative for its participants.

5. Do program participants know each other? Is there a cohesive experience among leaders and beneficiaries?

Yes; A well-structured program fostering familiarity among participants is a positive indicator. This points to the presence of a community, creating an environment where participants can build a supportive network and rely on each other throughout the program or initiative, ultimately contributing to positive outcomes.

No; The absence of communication or introductions among program participants raises concerns about the potential long-term impact. If there’s no established pathway for communication, it’s essential to evaluate whether the program is structured to foster long-term participant success. If not, it may be necessary to reconsider the policy regarding introductions or, in more drastic cases, contemplate closing out the program for necessary adjustments.

6. Are there clear guidelines around how to deal with differences of perspective? Culturally or otherwise?

Yes; having well-defined guidelines for managing diverse perspectives signals a well-structured program. A bonus is achieved when participants are not only aware of these guidelines but also equipped to navigate conflicts of interest or belief. Moreover, the presence of someone sharing the participant’s cultural beliefs or perspectives can enhance outcomes for all involved.

No; If there is a lack of awareness regarding conflict resolution guidelines in your DEI program, it’s imperative to take action. Consider implementing clear guidelines, establishing a board of leaders equipped to manage conflicts as they arise, or, in the absence of resolution, evaluate the viability of continuing the program.

7. Does the program defend and/or protect participants of the underrepresented group when issues of race/ethnicity, gender, bias, or class arise?

Yes; Having safeguards in place to protect those the DEI program aims to support is a proactive measure. Organizations should prioritize establishing such protections, as neglecting to do so might inadvertently perpetuate the very harms the program intends to shield participants from.

No; In the absence of any established mechanisms, procedures, guidelines, or protocols, it’s crucial to reassess whether the DEI program genuinely supports its intended beneficiaries. The creation or sustenance of a program loses its purpose if there is no commitment to supporting the perspectives of participants when conflicts arise. Evaluation and implementation of necessary structures are essential for the program’s effectiveness.

8. Are there surveys that rate your participation? Do leaders regularly discuss your progress or track KPIs through the program?

Yes; this is a great sign you’re doing it right! Implementing a survey to assess participation by program participants is a positive step in the right direction. An added advantage is having a mechanism for both participants and program leaders to gauge their success or experience throughout the program’s duration. This dual assessment approach contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the program’s effectiveness.

No; The absence of a measurement or rating system for the program could potentially harm participants or those engaged in the DEI initiative. It is crucial to have a means of assessing progress because without it, there’s no way to determine if the implemented strategies are making an impact. Furthermore, measuring the extent of that impact and comparing it to the initial goals of the initiative is essential for evaluating its overall effectiveness.

9. Is race the only qualifier for support or program acceptance? Is merit considered to advance through the program or additional opportunities?

Yes; if race serves as the sole qualifier for program entrance, it’s worth reassessing its structure for legal and equitable considerations. The “I” in DEI emphasizes inclusion, and excluding other groups solely based on the inclusion of a particular race contradicts the fundamental principles of true DEI.

No; If race isn’t the sole qualifier, it indicates that your organization aligns with the contemporary approach, striving to offer equal access to diverse groups. This aligns with the evolving paradigm of advancing DEI theory by ensuring inclusivity across a broader spectrum of people.

10. Does the company or organization substantially benefit financially through the participation of underserved groups?

Yes; If your organization imposes significant financial debt on underrepresented or historically disenfranchised individuals without consistent pathways for repayment, consider the long-lasting negative impact. Research emphasizes the generational consequences of substantial debt on those without clear repayment options. If your company disproportionately benefits financially, and the gains outweigh the benefits afforded to DEI program participants, it necessitates a thorough evaluation. The original goals of DEI were not meant to deplete resources, hinder future opportunities, or adversely affect supported communities. If your corporation gains more than the participants, it risks appearing exploitative of its power, signaling a need for critical examination or potential discontinuation of the program.

No; If your organization doesn’t derive financial gain from the DEI program, it’s crucial to assess the true benefit it provides. If the program is perceived as purely performative, there’s a risk of discontent among employees and the public, highlighting potential shortcomings in your commitment to DEI theory. Recent trends show consultants and employees expressing concerns and, in some cases, reporting confidential information to state and government organizations regarding the misuse of DEI, hindering corporate progression. It’s essential to ensure that your DEI efforts align genuinely with the principles and values they aim to uphold.

Bonus: If there is a clear power dynamic between program organizers and participants, is there a process to evaluate any potential abuse of power?

The power dynamics within DEI programs can detrimentally impact participants, particularly those historically marginalized. When underrepresented or minority ethnic groups find themselves subject to their white counterparts within DEI initiatives, it perpetuates imbalances and hinders genuine progress. The lack of diversity among DEI leaders can have multigenerational consequences in the communities they aim to support. Research underscores that power dynamics play a crucial role in maintaining historic power structures. It’s imperative to acknowledge that those managing DEI programs hold a position of influence, and the absence of diversity in leadership can inadvertently reinforce existing disparities. While some corporations excel in selecting capable leaders for these initiatives, there’s a growing recognition that participants often perceive flaws in program management without avenues to influence change. This presents a disservice to the initiative, emphasizing the need for a pathway allowing voices from all levels of engagement within DEI to contribute to and shape the operation of these programs.

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Adonica Shaw

Adonica Shaw is the founder of Wingwomen, a doula and a midwife in residence.