The toxic leadership blog

The costs of work: An examination of toxicity in dei

Can you imagine a work life fraught with micromanagement, fear-based leadership and leadership working to secretly slow progress and at the same time cheer to the skies their incremental improvement? This is the day-to-day lives of sixteen DEI practitioners that we interviewed over this summer on their experiences.

Essential question

How Can Organizations Shift to Fully Leverage Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

Toxicity in DEI

The number of Diversity, equity, and Inclusion (DEI) vacancies has increased significantly as companies large and small try to respond to a broad and long overdue call to reduce racism and improve the representation of black, indigenous, and people of color in leadership. Since last year, executive vacancies at DEI have more than doubled, with many employers announcing the hiring of new Chief Diversity Officers and promising a renewed focus on combating discrimination in their organizations. Job advertisements for DEI roles have soared amid nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd.

Can you imagine a work experience fraught with micromanagement, fear-based leadership, and leadership working to secretly slow progress and at the same time cheer to the skies their incremental improvement? This is the current state of toxicity in DEI. This is the day-to-day lives of sixteen DEI practitioners that we interviewed over this summer on their experiences.

Through these conversations, we gathered feedback and wanted to provide five insights for organizational leaders as we look to minimize toxicity in DEI and offer support for these unique organizational positions.

1. Say What You Mean

Explain what it means for your organization to hire a diverse workforce. Do not use “diversity and inclusion” when you mean “race” to combat institutional racism. And do not invite applications from marginalized and egalitarian groups for roles that require membership in the BIPOC community or have lived experience dealing with equality issues.

Another perspective of “say what you mean” to lift up is the numerous instances of cognitive dissonance in organizational culture. What this looks like leaders in many organizations will espouse equity and inclusion but in action, don’t practice it. There were numerous accounts of equity and inclusion being “thrown out the window” behind closed doors but, for optic purposes “diversity, equity and inclusion is the foundation of our institution”. This dissonance is troubling.

2. Language is a Key to Inclusion But, Be Mindful

Many organizations and HR managers entrusted with writing job descriptions are not trained in using inclusive language. The current socio-political climate makes a DEI statement an important part of an application, not false technical terms.

The term “JEDI” (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) may be viewed as a distraction. Many of these corporate acronyms are treated as institutional buzzwords and lacking substance. What if we signaled our commitment through our actions and treatment of marginalized employees, rather than our fancy words.

3. Embedding DEI is Essential

Many of our respondents were the first in this particular DEI or people leader role. In many cases, this resulted in all of the DEI issues being a focal point of whether or not the DEI leader was doing their job, and top leadership completely absolving themselves of responsibility.

The expectation that an individual’s commitment to diversity is consistent with the organization should be incorporated into everyone’s work, a top priority, and an integral part of how the organization recruits, nurtures, makes decisions, and advances its goals.

4. Toxic Paternalism Needs to Be Addressed

Unfortunately, many organizations hire people of color into DEI or related roles under the guise of shifting latent racist and sexist norms that plague their organizational culture only to find out that nothing really will change.

CDOs are often introduced to respond to existing problems, clean up an organization’s image, and signal a commitment to diversity and equity that does not exist. Despite evidence of a new dynamic in managing diversity and inclusion work, DEI leaders are not being given the real power, resources, and organizational support to make lasting changes in their organizations.

5. It Takes Us All To Do More

There is a place for everyone in this work. White people have a critical role to play in working for justice and racial justice and it is worth thinking about when they occupy the DEI Room in ways that do not maintain the status quo. Whether your workforce is diverse or not, you need to do more than just DEI.


Many organizations need to address processes such as recruitment and promotion practices and investigate whether they truly support their efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) or are they cultural theater, the act of making us believe you are changing the culture?

Leadership scorecards related to the organizational culture impact are a must. The board should also create a scorecard for the top-level leader related to organizational culture.

Far too many organizations erroneously conflate DEI as one construct. We need to go beyond focusing on diversity and focusing solely on “numbers”. How are you measuring inclusion? equity? belonging?

As we discussed the notion above related to embedding DEI into all positions, we could take this a step further, how embedded is diversity, equity and inclusion in your belief system? There are many people who are all for DEI as long as they are not made too uncomfortable when we are talking about an identity that they do not hold…we can’t keep playing the game of “this is just how the world is”, what if we did that prior to the civil rights act of 1964?

The real point of tension in this work is that many people in power don’t “see” or “feel” the oppression that many employees of color and employees with other marginalized identities face every day. The murder of George Floyd was not an awakening for everybody, the fact is, this is a reality for many employees every day. There are no amount of hashtags, public statements, and promises that can heal the impact of oppression. So at the very least, many people, especially people of color seek to make changes in roles that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion to create workplaces that they never had, unfortunately, toxicity in DEI is a cultural norm that is not discussed enough.

The impact of inauthenticity, tacit forms of oppression to maintain the comfort of the status quo is sobering, especially as we examine how DEI is “talked” about vs. what is actually being done. Examine the harm that is being done in many organizations related to this surface-level DEI, otherwise the next articles we will see is “The Great DEI Resignation”.




How Should Organizations Shift to Fully Leverage Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?


There are too many solutions to name and many of them involve shifting mindsets, behaviors and systems that were perpetuated by our greater social context. However, a good step for an organization is accountability to the organizational culture. Leadership scorecards related to the organizational culture impact is a must. This solution may also include board goals including a scorecard for the top level leader related to organizational culture.

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