So you set up a DE&I task force. Now what?

The racial justice movement has put a spotlight on structural inequities across America. People are demanding action of their leaders, including at work. Words of solidarity with the Black community are no longer enough and, in fact, they are being (rightfully) turned back on organizations that are not doing the work internally to walk the talk.

Amber Pandya

At United Minds, where we’ve been tracking the evolution of employee activism for the past seven years, we are seeing a seismic shift in what is being demanded of employers by their people. In fact, according to our research in partnership with Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, only 16% of employees polled in mid-June were very confident that companies are fair and do not discriminate based on race or identity, down from 41% in 2017. But, according to that more recent survey, 83% expect employers to create workplaces that welcome diversity and do not tolerate discrimination.

Related: 4 strategies for addressing racial tensions, unrest

To signal action, we’ve seen several companies set up diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) task forces. But establishing a task force to avoid the reputational risk of not having any DE&I efforts underway can backfire.

Beyond some of the general best practices to keep in mind when establishing a DE&I task force–including having a clear purpose, securing strong sponsorship and grounding recommendations in data–here are some pitfalls that DE&I task forces specifically should work to avoid:

1. Putting pressure on people of color to do the work. Just because an employee is Black does not mean he or she wants nor has the capacity to participate in a DE&I task force. Nor should being a person of color be the only qualification when naming a task force leader. The goal for resourcing the organization has to be inclusivity (of race and ethnicity but also of gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, culture, generation, veteran status, tenure and role, among other characteristics), but recruiting members should not be a check-the-box exercise. Using a “volun-told” approach further shows how far an organization might have to go in improving understanding of and support for diverse populations.

Emily Caruso

Instead, participants should have the opportunity to volunteer and task force leaders should, ideally, sit on the executive team, and have deep experience overseeing teams and high-profile projects. It’s likely that companies will have more qualified applicants than the task force can support. To remove bias from the selection process, organizations should consider bringing in a committee of external experts and/or alumni. Those who are not selected should still be offered the chance to participate in other ways, potentially in sub-committees or in giving feedback. 

2. Focusing too narrowly. One of the main goals for improving diversity, equity and inclusion is to create an environment where people can excel and advance as their authentic selves. At this moment in time, the focus of the world is on racial diversity, but diversity comes in many forms, and to ignore this is to risk further alienating other groups that are underrepresented in the workplace and in leadership.

Another important goal for advancing DE&I is to improve business outcomes by being more representative of demographics and by bringing together more variety in ways of thinking to better solve complex problems. The most successful DE&I strategies start with–but also think beyond–the employee experience to address how to best serve current customers, create solutions for unmet needs that might attract new ones and connect more holistically with the communities in which the company operates. Miss these opportunities and you might limit the impact the task force might make and fall short of expectations.

3. Trying to solve every problem. That said, a task force cannot and should not be a panacea for solving systemic inequities across the board. A short list of the questions a DE&I task force might tackle illustrates the challenge of balancing aspiration with action:

  • Where will the task force be able to make the most amount of impact in improving operations, the employee experience and culture?
  • Is the company prepared to commit to building a representative workforce and ensuring pay equity?
  • Does it make sense to review products, services, marketing and prospecting to ensure inclusivity and equitability in business practices?
  • What should the company’s role in society be?

To avoid taking on too much and making little progress against any one thing, the task force must quickly identify the areas that 1. align most closely with the challenges surfaced by initial research/data, including employee feedback and 2. will drive the greatest impact, taking into consideration what is actually feasible.

4. Going into a black box. Once established, many task forces hunker down for weeks and months to get to a place where they can offer credible recommendations. A DE&I task force must resist this urge. Instead, it needs to actively and regularly engage by sharing progress and encouraging additional input. In this way, they will provide transparency into a process from which many have been and/or felt excluded.

In many organizations, there are also other established groups with responsibility for advancing DE&I, for example chief diversity offices/officers and employee resource groups. Neglect to collaborate with these teams and risk duplication and the loss of a valuable source of input.

5. Forgetting who you serve. At the end of the day, DE&I is about people. From establishing its mission to the ultimate recommendations it makes, the DE&I task force must be informed by employees at all levels of the organization. Task force leadership must be prepared to act as a mirror to senior leadership and to the board, speaking truth to power about how diverse communities are actually experiencing the company’s culture, systems and practices. If employees do not see their recommendations and wishes for the company honored in the task force’s findings and recommendations, they will lose faith in the future. This has significant impact on the company, from recruiting and retention to engagement and performance to reputation and even investor relations.

See also: How the world’s most admired companies drive D&I

Eliminating structural inequities must begin with real change from the inside out. The work done by a well-positioned task force will provoke critical decisions in how a company operates, from how it supports its people to the strategies developed to the programs funded. An ill-conceived DE&I task force might be at best ineffective, and at worst it might further alienate the diverse employees, customers and members of the community the task force is meant to serve. Ultimately, achieving measurable results in advancing DE&I will be a business decision, one that has the power to elevate a company to a new position of leadership, not just in its own industry but in society and for corporate America.

Emily Caruso and Amber Pandya
Emily Caruso is senior vice president of United Minds. Amber Pandya is vice president of United Minds.