Recently there has been an uptick in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leadership and team member transitions within organizations. These transitions in DEI leadership have highlighted the fact that the strategy, responsibility, and implementation of DEI cannot be dependent on just one leader or member of the team. This lack of collaborative strategic planning often leads to a negative impact on the organization and its people. As time has passed since the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, many DEI initiatives have decreased both in number and priority.
DEI should be treated as a core business function, such as accounting, human resources, or marketing, and integrated into the organization’s overall strategy. To ensure continuity during leadership or team member transitions, it’s essential for the organization to develop and maintain sustainable plans and implementation processes. As a consultant, I often see that when an important individual or group leaves, the void left is even more significant because of a lack of structure and continued development. If DEI had been prioritized as a core business function, such as HR, there would have been more attention paid to it and its value.
How can you ensure that there are core structures in place before you need them? Steps can be taken during the onboarding process, as maintenance while someone is in the role, and after a transition is announced. By taking these critical actions proactively, the organization can ensure that continuity is maintained during DEI leadership or team member transitions. Let’s look closer at each one of these and examine some steps your organization can take.
Create SOPs for delivery during onboarding
In order to effectively onboard new DEI professionals and members of the DEI team, it is important to establish and utilize standard operating procedures (SOPs). These SOPs should document all responsibilities, initiatives, and events that are a function of the role. For example, this could include core calendar dates, committed deliverables, annual reports, a list of affinity groups and their leaders, key organizational stakeholders, meeting cadence, and other key pieces of information.
The SOPs should be compiled by the organization and housed in an online information hub for easy access. It is also recommended to schedule quarterly reviews of the SOPs to update any changes in processes, procedures, roles, or reporting structures. Creating and regularly updating these resources will also promote greater organizational continuity for DEI initiatives and faster onboarding for both planned and unexpected transitions.
Prepare an annual report to document the role over time
In addition to creating SOPs, I recommend that the leader or team responsible for the organization’s DEI functions prepare an annual report to document the progress of DEI initiatives and programs. By preparing an annual report, the organization can track progress over time, identify areas for improvement, and understand the impact of each leader’s contributions. This will foster continuity and act as a tool to drive DEI momentum, even as leadership roles change.
The annual report should include information such as: activities, data benchmarks, initiatives that have been incorporated, and the planned focus for the upcoming year. This document can also serve as an annual deliverable that can be leveraged internally when bringing someone new onto the team as a way of getting them up to speed and a version can be created in collaboration with marketing for external purposes. In this way, the organization can ensure that the DEI program is tracked, monitored, evaluated, and prioritized in the same manner as other core business functions.
Authentically address reasons for DEI attrition
In my conversations with leaders and staff within organizations, they often express feelings of grief when a DEI leader leaves. This is because when a DEI leader leaves, other team members may also depart, taking with them the strategies that the leader or team has implemented. This often occurs due to a (perceived or actual) lack of structure, collaboration, and organizational commitment to DEI. This lack of commitment can manifest in insufficient support, professional development, budget, stakeholder engagement, and other critical areas that are needed for team members to succeed, feel included, and to belong.
Furthermore, the negative organizational impact is compounded when remaining leaders try to control the narrative of a DEI professional’s departure, rather than addressing the underlying issues or concerns that may have contributed to the exit.
Instead of trying to control the story, I recommend that leaders focus on evaluating the following: What really happened here? What is the actual reason the DEI professional left? Are there systemic issues with communication, leadership, access to leadership, buy-in, collaboration or lack of support for real change? By understanding the underlying issues, the organization can take steps to address them, mitigate similar issues in the future and support a positive and inclusive work environment.
Whether you are in charge of the overall organizational DEI initiatives or leading an affinity group, standardizing functions and processes is essential success. Without standardization, the people impacted by a leader’s departure may lack the information and resources they need to continue the work, leading to stagnation of DEI efforts. By implementing strategies such as creating SOPs and annual reports, organizations can ensure that the transition process is smoother and less disruptive on the organization and its people, both for the search and onboarding of new DEI leaders and team members and for the ongoing work of DEI initiatives.
If you’ve had recent attrition on your DEI team and want to reflect on some of the reasons why or if you would like to support a new team member as they’re onboarding after a recent departure, I’d love to help.