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8 Common DE&I Issues in the Workplace and How to Overcome Them

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7 min read
A transparent diagram with nested shapes alluding to DEI challenges

An overview of DE&I issues

While companies recognize the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in business settings, many face DE&I challenges when incorporating key DE&I initiatives into their operations. According to a study by Affirmity:

  • 12% of organizations integrate DE&I into their business strategies
  • 6% include DE&I in the succession planning and management process to a very high degree
  • 10% strongly agree their workforces reflect marketplace demographics
  • 9% rate their DE&I initiatives as very effective
  • 78% have relatively immature DE&I initiatives

One of the biggest DE&I challenges is getting everyone on board with DE&I initiatives. Because of this, DE&I may not be prioritized by the wider organization, leaving leaders to get the most done with the least amount of resources.

Not all hope is lost, however. By strategically leveraging their time, energy, and personnel, leaders can tackle the most pertinent DE&I challenges and drive measurable impact. 

To help you get the most out of your DE&I program, we break down eight common DE&I challenges and discuss how you can overcome them in your workplace. 

Challenge #1: DE&I is not prioritized

The challenge: DE&I is viewed as a secondary objective 

The solution: Prioritize DE&I as part of the company’s business strategy 

Some decision-makers may view DE&I as a buzzword or an initiative that doesn’t need their attention. Consequently, they may relegate DE&I challenges to others, causing them to be neglected or haphazardly undertaken by HR. Yet, while upper management may be disinterested, they take their company values seriously. Therefore, leaders can prioritize their company's current DE&I issues by integrating DE&I into their company’s mission or vision statements. 

Framing DE&I challenges as integral to the company’s core values encourages employees to see DE&I as an obligation (rather than a nice-to-have). 

DEI plan circular diagram, with each topic in a circle within the circle

For example, Thoughtworks’ mission includes three pillars: “run a sustainable business, champion software excellence and revolutionize IT, and advocate passionately for Social and Economic justice.” Including DE&I in their mission statement not only sets them apart but also allows them to show their support of social and economic issues in a public manner. 

Leaders can also highlight the importance of DE&I challenges by showing how diversity, equity, and inclusion help the company attain its overarching objectives and goals.  

Challenge #2: No measurable strategy in place for DE&I

The challenge: Limited efforts towards DE&I result in a lack of focus and non-trackable outcomes 

The solution: Establish clarity, commitment, and measurability around DE&I 

Intent is irrelevant without results — and ideas are nothing without execution. Simply stating a need for DE&I isn’t enough. For leaders looking to integrate DE&I in the workplace, a detailed game plan is a surefire way to capture the attention of upper management and gain allies. As such, leaders need a data-driven way of emphasizing DE&I and tackling DE&I issues, holding themselves accountable, and detailing progress. 

By setting DE&I goals using goal-setting frameworks such as objectives and key results (OKRs), leaders can establish a results-driven strategy that aligns DE&I with their organization’s greater goals. For example, leaders can use OKRs to improve diversity within their organization, enhance their company’s reputation, and educate employees on DE&I. 

Read more on setting OKRs for DE&I initiatives

DEI OKRs.png

Challenge #3: Not enough resources allocated to DE&I

The challenge: DE&I initiatives don’t have an adequate budget in place  

The solution: Highlight the value of DE&I and gather allies

DE&I teams don’t always resemble other teams, initiatives, or departments. For example, while CMOs and CIOs have a budget of millions, DE&I efforts tend not to receive the same support. As such, a key DE&I challenge is that DE&I leaders are tasked with transforming entire organizations while underbudgeted, with 1 in 4 CDOs stating budgetary limitations as a primary constraint. 

Yet, asking for a larger DE&I budget without a solid case for DE&I is akin to promoting DE&I blindfolded. To overcome the DE&I issue of insufficient resources, leaders must emphasize the value of DE&I to upper management to obtain adequate funding. 

Another way to widen the scope of responsibility and push DE&I to the forefront of the company’s radar is to gain allies. Recruiting employees invested in DE&I removes the blindfold and leverages a united front to increase resources toward DE&I initiatives. 

Challenge #4: Blind spots

The challenge: Blind spots obstruct the creation of an authentic DE&I culture in the workplace 

The solution: Leaders should continuously evaluate, recalibrate, and spar on DE&I efforts to ensure blind spots are diminished 

Regardless of an organization’s inclusivity, blind spots can be a common DE&I issue. This is due to DE&I leaders’ limited experience with the entire spectrum of diversity. For example, a queer female DE&I leader may be great at catering to women and LGBTQ+ colleagues. Yet, she may fall short when considering the needs of employees of color. 

To overcome such blind spots, DE&I leaders should routinely discuss with employees of different demographic backgrounds. This way, leaders can access unique, all-encompassing perspectives and recommendations covering a wide range of identities. 

Challenge #5: Importance vs. urgency

The challenge: DE&I is seen as important but not urgent — until it becomes a crisis 

The solution: Bridge the gap between importance and urgency by taking action  

Major crises start light, with minor issues sprinkled here and there. Over time, these seemingly insignificant issues begin to compound and become harder to overcome. Similarly, DE&I efforts aren’t seen as urgent until an all-consuming DE&I issue occurs. Therefore, leaders must drive urgency by framing DE&I as imperative to their organization’s well-being.  

In a report on CDOs, 79% of executives said diversity and inclusion are vital to a company’s reputation, while 66% thought them crucial for financial performance. These figures underline the significance of DE&I for organizations. Neglecting DE&I for a long time can become costly for companies. It can increase turnover, reduce operational efficiency, and decrease employees’ willingness to work. Therefore, a concrete plan of action for DE&I can help leaders bypass potential crises and create immediacy around DE&I challenges. 

Challenge #6: A lack of responsibility around DE&I implementation

The challenge: Decision-makers often detach from DE&I 

The solution: Have someone responsible for DE&I initiatives  

Yes, you want employees to care about common DE&I issues — but caring doesn't always bring results. In instances where DE&I progress is unsubstantial, the problem may be attributed to the bystander effect. With the bystander effect, everyone watching knows something needs to be done to overcome certain DE&I challenges, but nobody is willing to take charge as they assume someone else will instead. 

As the bystander effect arises due to a fear of failure or a lack of organization, DE&I leaders need to accept responsibility, gather support, and welcome the possibility of failure. Once leaders expect DE&I challenges, they can embrace the vulnerabilities others are unwilling to. This shows strength and determination as a leader, which can help accumulate more allies over time.  

Challenge #7: Selecting an appropriate leadership style for DE&I initiatives

The challenge: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to managing DE&I 

The solution: Customize DE&I management styles based on organizational needs  

Getting started with DE&I can seem overwhelming for some companies — so much so that they’d rather not invest in it. Yet, given the many ways of approaching DE&I, companies can no longer be excused from establishing it in the workplace.  

Whether an organization decides to appoint a DE&I leader from inside their team, have a team member step into that role, or onboard an external leader, DE&I’s success lies in creating a tailored approach. An organization’s path toward DE&I should fit into its current environment and align with its cadence. This requires leaders to understand the existing DE&I culture in a company, focus their efforts on areas that matter, and integrate a custom approach that drives results. 

Challenge #8: Implicit biases

The challenge: Implicit biases can stop employees from effectively integrating DE&I 

The solution: Offer training sessions on implicit biases to bring the subconscious to the conscious  

People’s subconscious minds make many decisions for them — and these aren’t always rational. Lapses of judgment during decision-making are often caused by implicit biases, which are subconscious attitudes that affect how people perceive and interact with others. 

Types of implicit biases: confirmation, prototype, similarity effect, anchoring, small numbers

Different implicit biases can pose a DE&I challenge, stopping employees from making purely objective decisions. These include: 

  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to recall information that supports prior beliefs
  • Prototype bias: believing that someone is the best fit for a task or job based on stereotypes
  • Similarity effect: the tendency to trust and be attracted to people like ourselves
  • Anchoring bias: using older information as an ‘anchor,’ where people are overly influenced by previous information when facing new situations
  • Small numbers bias: overgeneralizing about a group based on limited evidence

While eliminating implicit biases may be a difficult DE&I challenge, leaders can implement employee training programs to bring awareness to these biases. Having employees acknowledge their limitations can stop them from making quick judgments fraught with biases. Consequently, trained employees improve their decision-making skills, leading to open conversations on DE&I. 

The road ahead: Overcoming DE&I challenges

Leaders should expect to encounter common DE&I issues when establishing a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Anticipating the eight DE&I challenges highlighted in this article can prepare leaders to tackle these promptly. Effectively employing DE&I in an organization requires leaders to: 

  • Appoint a dedicated DE&I leader
  • Attain an adequate budget
  • Prioritize a tailored, measurable, and resourceful approach to DE&I
  • Gain and train allies to contribute to an inclusive environment

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