5 DEI Red Flags & How to Pivot from a Culture Club into an Innovation Incubator

5 DEI Red Flags & How to Pivot from a Culture Club into an Innovation Incubator

As a DEI Culture Consulting company, Unsiloed has seen its fair share of companies deciding to undertake DEI initiatives–enough to be able to identify the difference between those who treat DEI as a performative and generally non-impactful Culture Club versus those who dive deeply and continually into DEI as an Innovation Incubator. 

What do we mean by “Culture Club” and “Innovation Incubator”?

A culture club is a club–it is a small subset of (generally like-minded) individuals who meet (sometimes frequently, sometimes less so) to engage in activities and conversations together. Clubs are great for connecting around niche topics and can help build small communities, but they are also self-selective and self-limiting. 

An innovation incubator, on the other hand, is a nurturing space –a group of folks (generally value aligned but diverse in interest and area of expertise) organized around a clearly stated cause of goal who work together to brainstorm and implement creative solutions to problems. Incubators are less about exclusivity and activities than they are about capitalizing on multi-disciplinary strength towards a common goal that extends beyond the group itself. 

So a company’s DEI Culture Club or Innovation Incubator approach replicates the nature of these two types of groups–small, siloed, and ad hoc DEI work versus solution-oriented, action-directed, and inclusive.

Your company should be aiming to be the latter–an Innovation Incubator. Is it?

We’ve put together a list of 5 red flags your company is a Culture Club rather than an Incubation Innovator. This is a great list to assess your company’s DEI strategy and commitment, as well as identify points for change. 

Your company is a DEI Culture Club (not an Innovation Incubator) if:

1. DEI is not connected to a specific strategy.

Culture Clubs throw around the language or initiatives of DEI with no specific strategies. While DEI may be present in conversations and activities, there are no clearly defined goals–and certainly no goals that extend into the future with specificity, timeliness, accountability, measurement, and realistic understanding of need. Your company may have a DEI statement on the website, for example, but who wrote it? Who had input? Do your employees even know it’s there? Are managers encouraged to bring it to their teams? When was the last time you updated/revised it? Is it connected to action items, or was it just a quickly pulled-together face-saving public response to a current event?

Culture Clubs pay lip service to DEI without possessing any data that prove it’s a valid initiative. You’ll rarely find DEI on the agenda for the Executive Leadership Team, or for any other leadership and people managers. 

DEI without a strategy is severely limited.

2. DEI isn’t a budgetary priority.

DEI Culture Clubs treat DEI as “extracurricular” or supplementary–there is minimal or no budget, or a “we’ll see” budgetary allocation. The budget that does exist may be spent mostly on marketing and performative actions directed towards outside perception, as opposed to internal work. Your company may support DEI but considers it entirely voluntary and will not compensate for time spent on DEI design and action. Because DEI is perceived as a “nice to have” and not a “must have”, this is the first budget that gets cut when other initiatives come up–kicked down the road until inevitably being deprioritized by the next company focus. 

Innovation Incubators hold DEI as more than just nice to have, but necessary to have. They know that true change requires workable budgetary allocations and leadership support to bolster DEI initiatives. Your DEI budget more than likely parallels to your actual DEI commitments.

3. DEI is a siloed activity that pops up a handful of times a year and is managed by the same people.

When you say you have DEI goals in your company, what does that actually look like? If your company is a culture club, it probably looks like a training or workshop every now and then, always led by and organized by the same people, always around the same topics. These events happen once and go no further; there are no follow up initiatives, no working groups, no process meetings. There are no areas for feedback or employee participation in design.

In companies like this, DEI is only understood by the solo HR person who manages to squeeze this into their role. It’s supported by the same people and generally results in recycling old programming–becoming something employees groan about rather than look forward to with curiosity. 

Culture clubs will try to “kill two HR birds with one stone” by framing state/federally-mandated trainings within DEI work. While sexual harassment training, for example, is important and required in most places, it is a cop-out excuse to consider this the end all be all of DEI work. 

Culture Clubs may also only hold DEI events as siloed reactions in relation to specific incidents or current events. These help to satisfy any employee demand while not going deep enough to address real problems (or admit culpability in possibly possessing these problems). 

As our name “Unsiloed” implies, DEI work is about building connections and integrating equity into your organization, not just relegating it to a single pillar to become stale.

4. DEI is not connected to any form of accountability. 

DEI hinges on accountability; with no accountability there is no traction for change. Culture Clubs often say all the right things and do the right things to make DEI appear central and important, but they stop there. This lack of accountability manifests in a number of ways. 

For one, if leadership is “in charge” of DEI, then they are poor holders of accountability. Ultimately, leadership tends to take the interests of the company over the interests of its people–DEI is no exception. Leadership teams tend to avoid anything that might require distribution of power or acknowledgement of deep seeded issues–because that would mean naming themselves as culpable in creating those. 

Other red flags for DEI culture clubs are the lack of metrics to measure accountability. There’s no space for DEI concerns in performance evaluations or bonuses. There are no regular anonymous check-ins with employees to understand experience. There’s no system of keeping track of hiring or retention demographics. All of these measures are tools that an Innovation Incubator embraces, because data is a major means of accountability.

Innovation Incubators approach accountability from a place of humility, willingness to get uncomfortable, and commitment to change. DEI is not about saving face, it is about taking on the challenge of fixing systems. Companies should hold themselves to DEI standards just as rigorously as they do other parts of their organization.

5. DEI is more about marketing and appeasement than challenging the organization to new standards of behavior.

Perhaps the most challenging to recognize in one’s own organization (because it requires assessing one’s intentions) is the use of DEI as marketing or appeasement with no genuine intent to actually change what matters. This is a classic example of an integrity gap, where a company will say one thing but do another. 

A great way to assess this is to compare your company’s public-facing content to its internal culture. Many companies will build diversity into their marketing content when they seek funding, clients/customers, and new hires. It’s a way to increase social capital at very low cost to the company itself–PR is always on the top of mind. Yet, those same companies can be experiencing immense challenges in DEI when it comes to employee experience. But because employee experience is internal and involves investment, money, and accountability, companies deprioritize it and instead focus on those easy, money-making claims to diversity on flyers and social media. 

Culture Club DEI is also keen to use DEI as a method of appeasement, usually in response to a specific incident or event that inspires employees to speak out about their experiences or request accountability. Threatened by employee agency (which could challenge their power), leadership creates a DEI initiative to appease, knowing full well that they will actually never go deeper than this. They then use this as a cover if accused of not taking DEI seriously.

A great example is the massive response from companies following George Floyd’s murder in 2020. With increasing calls to address systemic racism across industries, many companies quickly scrambled to get the fire off their backs. They joined the sea of black boxes on Instagram, wrote company-wide emails of commitment, and donated to organizations to bolster public image and keep folks calm. But I can assure you that this is the extent of what most companies did. The moment the news cycle shifted, many places went back to the same old. Or, even if they intended to make genuine change, they did not take the steps to actually challenge the organization to new standards of behavior. Impact always trumps intent. 

Become an Innovation Innovator

After reading this list, I encourage you to take a close look at DEI in your company. Are you a Culture Club, or are you an Innovation Innovator? If you notice any of these five things, you may want to reassess your DEI approach.