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Dear Corporate America: News Flash! No One Is Doing DEI Well

November 3, 2021
5 min read

On May 5, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky wrote a letter to his 7,500 employees about how the COVID-19 pandemic had drastically hurt the company’s business, and as a result, he would have to lay off 1,900 employees, or about 25% of the workforce. Normally a company announcing layoffs would be terrible for PR. We’ve seen countless headlines about how other companies who’ve laid off employees don’t care about their workers or didn’t do enough to make the situation work. Airbnb’s layoffs should have been met with the same vitriol, but they weren’t.

In his letter, Brian Chesky was transparent about why Airbnb was laying off employees, how many people were being laid off, and most importantly, what the company would be doing to support those laid off. Airbnb is giving employees at least 14 weeks’ severance pay, healthcare benefits for one year, and support in finding their next job, amongst other things.

It is worth noting that since the letter was published, some employees have come out to talk about their negative experiences at Airbnb and how they feel betrayed by the layoffs. However, for the most part, Airbnb has gotten largely positive press about how it has handled the layoffs. Chesky was praised for his “empathetic [and] transparent” message. Inc Magazine went as far as to call the letter a “lesson in both leadership and communication in the midst of a crisis.” Employees took to Twitter to vocalize their gratitude for their time at the company and appreciation for how Airbnb managed the tough situation.

The main takeaway here is that people appreciate transparency, accountability, and ownership. When (not if) something in your company goes wrong, the best thing that you can do is openly talk about why it happened, hold yourself and your company accountable for it, and take ownership for solving it.

The question is: why don’t companies do the same for their years of diversity failures?

How companies should approach diversity, equity, & inclusion

For the last two months, protests over the racist murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others have led companies to make public statements about how they stand against racism. Some of these companies have gone a step further and announced donations towards organizations fighting for racial equality.

While it is all fine and dandy for a company to make these posts and announcements, there’s a problem: companies are not taking ownership of their internal diversity struggles.

Here’s an example: from the outside, most people would say that Nike is a leader in inclusion and diversity based on its support of Colin Kaepernick and brand alignment with the BLM movement. However, when asked about the Instagram accounts @blackatnike, @LGBTatnike, and @womenatnike, which were created for Nike employees to share their work experiences with discrimination and harassment, Nike responded with the following statement:

“We believe that diversity of people and perspectives fuels the best ideas. We continue to strengthen our recruitment, promotion and retention of diverse talent throughout the company and to drive the change we want to see. Nike is at its best when every member of the team feels respected, included and heard — when everyone can show up fully as themselves and have the opportunity to do their best work every day.”

…What does that even mean? Where is the accountability for these negative experiences? Where is the ownership in taking action to make sure these experiences don’t happen again?

We started Dyversifi because we are tired of all of the BS annual diversity reports and “top companies for diversity” rankings. These reports are typically based on representation percentages and diversity program counts, which are undoubtedly important, but have two major flaws:

  1. To be blunt, every company’s diversity numbers suck. We don’t need annual reports to tell us that.
  2. Just because a company has diversity programs in place doesn’t mean that those programs are effective in improving the experiences of minority employees.

Understandably, company leaders are very careful to only put out information that puts their firms in a positive light, and they’re all worried about a negative PR story that could harm their reputations. Why would CEOs admit that they’ve failed their diverse employees?

No leaders want to admit that they’re not great at diversity, and that’s the problem.

Imagine that instead of a company coming out and making a bland, meaningless Instagram post stating that it “stands against racism,” the company said something closer to this:

“At XYZ company, we value inclusion and diversity; we want to create an environment where our employees feel appreciated and supported. Unfortunately, some of our employees do not receive the same support or sense of belonging as others, and we have not done a good job to promote equality and equity for all. In our annual employee sentiment survey, we found that our Black and Latinx employees are 60% less likely to feel supported by their managers than their white colleagues. We also found that our LGBTQ employees are 40% less likely to feel like they can be themselves in the office.

We are actively listening to our employees to learn about their experiences and understand what we can do to improve upon those experiences. We are working on crafting initiatives that will foster inclusion, including a mentorship program for diverse new joiners, and diversity leadership training for our middle managers. We are committed to improving, and we will publicly share our progress over the next year to hold ourselves accountable.

We know that inclusion and diversity is a journey, and we know that we have a long way to go to reach our goals, but we are confident that we’ll be able to improve by working with our team and making inclusion a top priority.”

Imagine this! A company publicly acknowledging that it needs to be better! What a concept!

In all seriousness, that is the kind of company that I would want to work for. I would appreciate the transparency into the discrepancies between employee experiences. I would love to see my leadership team taking ownership and inviting candid and honest feedback. I would be inspired by the company’s accountability in publicizing its weak points and promising to be better in a year’s time.

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The truth is, no company is doing diversity well. That includes the companies pumping millions of dollars into diversity programs and training. If we’re going to see real change, companies must move past trying to hide their diversity struggles, and move toward embracing accountability for those struggles and ownership in solving them. It isn’t any one company’s fault that the current systems have been designed to keep marginalized groups out of the circle, but it is every company’s responsibility to do something about it.

As I like to say: “guard the man in front of you.” Focus on fostering inclusion within your company, and work to improve the circumstances for the communities that your company serves. You might even get some good press out of it ;).

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