Attracting and supporting a diverse workforce is essential for companies today, particularly when it comes to systems and structures that support these goals. Recent studies have shown that companies that embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are seeing greater productivity, profitability, and innovation among their teams. Even more, employees who feel supported in a diverse environment experience greater psychological safety.
Part of integrating DEI into company culture is directly involving employees in designing and participating in structures, initiatives, and goals. With the revitalization of employee resource groups, listening circles, and the uptick in conversations happening in the workplace around important diversity topics, it’s clear that employees and companies alike are recognizing the importance of participation and voice in creating a successful inclusive culture.
More and more companies are looking to create diversity committees to help build a more inclusive environment for their employees. While they can take a number of forms, diversity committees are generally groups of employees, leadership, and occasionally outside consultants that help to organize and maintain diversity initiatives in the company. Committees form around common-identified goals and may include smaller sub-committees or working groups focused on specific topics. Overall, committees aim to bridge the gap between intent and action in an organization, moving from simply paying lip service to diversity to taking direct steps for sustainable, employee-directed change. They hinge on accountability.
Creating a diversity committee is a valuable step towards DEI integration and accountability–but it’s also one ripe with potential pitfalls. Here, we’re sharing 5 mistakes companies make when creating a diversity committee, task force, or group.
Leadership fails to set the tone of commitment and accountability.
Diversity committees exist to hold the organization accountable to DEI goals. But they cannot do this if leaders sit out of the process and delegate culture building to HR and DEI volunteers. Senior leadership must be involved in creating DEI committees, particularly because these are often volunteer-based. Employees and HR may be excited and interested in this initiative, but leadership must make sure that they are not simply handing labor over. Part of “doing the work” is…doing the work.
While you can create room for others to participate, senior leaders need to ensure that they are not only interested in profits, but in their people–which means that they will add their voices, allocate resources, make themselves available, and allow for time and space for the DEI committee and their initiatives to be effective.DEI committees should have diagonal representation across all levels of job tiers as well as across departments. It is possible to acknowledge power dynamics when leadership is present – as they work to leverage their privilege and positionality inclusively. An effective committee is not only about surface-level activities. Often, the changes needed are structural and deeply involve leadership demonstrated commitment. Leaders should participate and be willing to get behind accountability-based recommendations that the committee makes.
Requiring Participation, especially from people with marginalized identities.
Sometimes, companies jump into DEI work and immediately turn to approaching and appointing marginalized people to participate in or join a diversity committee. While this may be a well-intentioned attempt to reach out to those most impacted, it often reads as tokenization and pressure. People with marginalized identities get approached to do DEI work all the time–and not everyone wants to be part of DEI work, which can be particularly emotionally draining when expected to be the spokesperson for an entire community simply because one possesses a certain identity. In many workplaces, navigating everyday microaggressions and marginalization is challenging enough.
DEI Committees should be open to all people interested in improving company culture, helping create a more inclusive environment, outlining essential diversity and inclusion goals, and defining actionable steps to implement them. No single identity should be tokenized as the de facto “leader” in this work.
That said, if your company’s DEI committee is entirely made up of folks from dominant/privileged groups–or only these people want to participate–it is also a red flag. This can indicate a number of things, including: your company demographics are entirely homogenous–to your detriment; marginalized employees are burnt out and disillusioned from DEI work and daily microaggressions; committee member recruitment is too limited/you are gatekeeping membership; employees see the committee as performative and not committed to change.
Limited Scope on Diversity.
As a company, it may be easy for you to identify obviously marginalized groups such as people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and disabled people (groups that frequently fall into what are called “protective classes”); however, diversity spans beyond these groups. Diversity committees must challenge their thinking and expand their perspectives and definition to include other groups that often face discriminatory practices, such as the elderly, the socio-economically disadvantaged, pregnant people, neurodiverse people, people for whom English is not their first language, and folks from certain religious backgrounds. If you’re a global company, you will also want to consider how the idea of diversity looks different in different cultural contexts. This is particularly true if you are located in the Global North and have employees, clients, or partners who come from non-Western contexts. Pay attention to how you are avoiding a tendency for Eurocentricity in your DEI work.
Your Diversity Committee is Siloed as a Checkbox Activity.
Diversity goes beyond checking a box: Are you trying to create organization and cultural change, or are you just checking the diversity box to fill a quota, boost PR, or deflect from genuine cultural problems? This sentiment applies across all diversity initiatives, but is especially important for establishing a diversity committee. Often times, companies consider creating diversity committees in response to something (incident(s), exit surveys, data, world events, cultural rifts); in many cases, they are one of the first steps a company takes to really sit down and ask: “What is the state of our culture?” “How can we work to increase diversity?” “What do we need?” “How can we hold ourselves/leadership accountable?” “Why does this matter?” As such, committees are often foundational: centers of initiative, locations of accountability, hubs of employee voice. They aren’t to be taken lightly, and cannot be approached from the perspective of checking a diversity box. Not only will it not be effective for actual change, but it can appear performative, shallow, and out of touch.
Creating a diversity committee should come from a place of commitment to genuine long-term change. This may include the committee actually engaging first in their own education. Members may not have professional expertise on how to do strategic DEI work. This is one reason many successful new committees bring in DEI experts to guide them through first steps. Co-creating solutions from an informed place will help your committee go further faster–beyond the surface.
There is no Clear “Why” for the work or understanding of the committee’s role.
It is a mistake to create a diversity committee without having a clear understanding of your “why.” Aimlessly starting an initiative without a clearly stated purpose is fuel for disorganized, non-cohesive, and non-productive work–if the work gets off the ground at all. Take the time as a committee to clearly understand why you’re entering into this work. Be specific and be honest–a generalized “because we care about diversity” will get you nowhere. Companies may avoid naming their “why” because it calls them in or forces them to reckon with aspects of their culture that are harmful. Avoidance gets you started on the wrong foot. Your employees will value your commitment more if you are clear about what needs to be addressed in your culture. Sure, “we have had a number of reports of consistent microaggressions and only 10% of our leadership is non-white” doesn’t “look” great, but if it’s true and is the impetus for your work, name it. Your transparency matters. Your “why” becomes your point of reference as you make decisions as a collaborative group. It will keep you on track and focused as your group grows.
Understanding the role of a diversity committee goes hand in hand with clarity on your why. Your committee must be able to work from a place of understanding what their position is in the organization’s broader DEI commitment. In some ways, committees are like “think tanks” that explore ways to improve company culture and introduce DEI activities to broaden people’s understanding and perspective around diversity, equity, and inclusion. But they are also the mechanisms of accountability. Employees turn to DEI committees to listen to concerns and needs, and then rely on them to hold relevant leaders responsible for implementation. DEI committees are not just for show–they are for organized action.
When an organization can support, cultivate, and fully embrace diversity, it creates a place where people get to show up fully, regardless of their background and culture. DEI committees are one way to facilitate an environment where workers can thrive–when done right. All five of these common mistakes that companies make when creating a diversity committee boil down to the difference between a surface level initiative and one that is carefully considered, committed, and held accountable.