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  • December 2, 2022

When Diversity and Inclusion Gets Accused of Being Political

By Marji Marcus and Andrés Tapia

In a lively discussion with a CEO and his executive team about how to effectively respond to the racial reckoning and its impact on our colleagues and employees one of the leaders said, “Why are we even talking about this at work?”

The meeting got very quiet.

Then, the facilitator, in this case co-author Marji, asked, “Tell me more about your concern.”

The leader doubled down on why “this” wasn’t appropriate for them to focus on in a corporate setting and said it was, “just liberal woke politics.”

This kind of moment is becoming more common in corporate DE&I and practitioners are going to have get more adept at preventing societal-wide polarization from sabotaging a process that at its heart is about bringing people together and not driving them apart.

So, what to do to not have this dilemma not derail productive organizational conversations?

Fostering Dialogues that Connect Rather than Divide

Before drilling down, let’s pan out first and get re-grounded on the core intent of corporations engaging in these conversations in the first place and the context in which they happen.

Korn Ferry’s inclusion programs are well attended by individuals, people leaders, and executives at our client organizations. We see the spectrum of participants’ demeanor to being there. Many participants are eager to learn more and to do more. Others are there because they are expected to be. And some, are there unwillingly. With people at different stages of self-awareness and with varying levels of exposure to the experiences in work and society of others who may have been different from their own, our role as facilitators is to “facilitate” conversations, to foster understanding, to get participants to share perspectives, and for all of us to continue our individual and joint inclusion journey.

Some people were taught not to “see” color or that “everyone is the same on the inside.” Today, we realize that people want to be seen for who they are.

Some people were taught not to “see” color or that “everyone is the same on the inside.” Today, we realize that people want to be seen for who they are, their uniqueness, and for many people, a big part of that may be their racial identity or their gender identity, or other aspects of their diversity. The focus is on broadening our own perspectives, to see what we haven’t “seen” before, and to learn how to work toward being more inclusive, whatever our starting point.

With this as the anchor, let’s lay out a three-step process that works in staying the course of this objective when a discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion is dismissed as being political. Then we’ll share what happened with that executive session where that indeed happened.

  1. Explore the objections and different perspectives without judgment. “Tell me more” is a wonderful invitation. “What are your concerns?” shows an openness to hear. The facilitator instantly becomes a role model of inclusivity. By doing this you make space for all to better understand views they disagree with or don’t understand. These conversations can be triggering so stay in a curious and listening mindset. This part of the conversation is to let all perspectives be heard. And reinforce that with the group.
  2. Set the context by exploring the impact of current events and their impact on employees and the business.  Reassure participants that the goal is not to debate or refute. And neither is it to try to find agreement. With this, ask how are people feeling about what is going on in society? How is this showing up in our workforce? Note that today these external factors are multiplied by the pandemic, racial reckoning, economic uncertainty, and the political divide and all are taking their toll on people regardless of where they are on the political spectrum.
  3. Reframe the conversation in the context of our values and desired outcomes. Ask questions such as, “Might it be helpful to expand our own perspectives to understand the experiences of others?” “Might it be helpful to create an environment where everyone at work can feel valued and respected, and able to do their best work?” “Might this effort lead us building stronger, healthier, and more productive relationships?” “Might bringing in more diverse perspectives help us to serve a broader array of customers and support innovation?”

With this as the core, back to our story about the executive team.

The pause in the conversation allowed for different perspectives to be heard. And some of the tensions were diffused. Then the a-ha: At one point, the CEO asked, “is it political to want our company to be a place where we attract the best talent? Where people from all different backgrounds can thrive? Where people feel comfortable to speak up and share new ideas?”

In that moment, by the CEO tying the conversation to firm values, the group was able to walk back from the brink of the negativity of either/or to the positivity of all being part of an organization that wants to succeed – which requires everyone succeeding. The firm’s values become the common ground to pull collective purpose together while still allowing for differences in political views.

So, when people resist diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives or conversations by saying this is “political” or it’s about making people “feel bad,” rather than being dismissive, open up the conversation by asking them to tell you more, set the context around what people are experiencing, and reframe the conversation to be about your values and the type of firm your Company wants to be.

And that alignment is a good place to start.


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