There have been numerous diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) programs and initiatives in recent years, but some of these DE&I programs are ineffective. Why? Because some programs and initiatives often lack clarity and feel like automated required checklists rather than authentic sustainable plans.

DE&I plans fail frequently due to unaddressed implicit bias and challenges with leadership. When there’s a lack of commitment to DE&I goals beyond the prevailing profit motive, goals lack clarity and there’s little transparency or trust. For leadership to obtain honest support, industry must refrain from separating DE&I work from anti-oppression efforts that result in performative fixes that don’t change anything. DE&I roles increased by 55% following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, and it was predicted they would not last more than three years. By the end of 2022, jobs lost in DE&I roles was 33% vs. 21% in non-DE&I roles.

This is increasingly important in light of the deterioration of DE&I funding and initiatives in today’s environment: States now ban affirmative action measures following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of affirmative action in college admissions. More than 30 states have introduced, passed (in one chamber), or enacted bills that ban or limit DE&I initiatives during the 2024 legislative session, while 10 states have implemented restrictions that ban the use of state funds for DE&I programs. Additionally, companies need to adjust diversity programming following the recent wave of lawsuits against DE&I hitting the courts.

Grassroots Efforts

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which encourages commercial banks and savings associations to help meet the needs of borrowers in all segments of their communities, are two historically significant examples of grassroots/bottom-up efforts that have demonstrated robust impact where individuals at any level had the ability to make a difference.

A grassroots model could help employees align their DE&I values and interests with management teams, which would improve collaboration and motivate employees to participate and share in DE&I initiatives. As younger generations—including Millennials and Generation Z—make up the majority of the workforce, grassroots/bottom-up efforts will take on even greater importance. This sparks more innovation, more accurate expectations, and more efficient and effective communication. It’s essential to capture varying thoughts and perspectives across the organization because the cost of disengaged employees is billions in lost productivity.

Employee Participation

It may feel like a daunting task to successfully advocate DE&I when leadership doesn’t buy in. If organizations would support internally driven DE&I initiatives by making their development the responsibility of all employees, it would resonate with the organization better than external parties contracted for a DE&I seminar. An authentic strategy would include DE&I training led by employees with a curriculum designed by the employees. For this to be successful, employees must be valued and able to share their ideas in a collaborative environment.

Organizations can benefit by aligning employee resource groups (ERGs) with executive leadership sponsors to facilitate conversations on how to improve DE&I in the workplace. There must be a focus on individuals and accountability. For these efforts to have sustainable impact, it’s important to assign metrics and align outcomes with compensation. These measures have the potential to enhance (or build) an organization’s inclusive workplace culture.

Leadership Support

While we stress the significance of grassroots/bottom-up efforts in promoting DE&I initiatives and creating a positive organizational culture, supportive leadership is vital.  Specifically, adopting a servant leadership style—where leaders focus on the needs of individuals within their organization instead of their own—is highly beneficial for organizations engaged in DE&I efforts because servant leadership and DE&I share common core values and principles.

Additionally, in practice, servant leadership also aligns well with grassroots/bottom-up efforts. Servant leaders actively listen to others, lead by example, uphold ethical standards, act with integrity, genuinely value diverse perspectives, and are dedicated to the growth of community and people. Servant leadership plays a crucial role in cultivating a culture of collaboration, integrity, ethical standards, trust, mutual respect, and shared governance—all of which are crucial to moving forward DE&I in an organization.

More importantly, servant leaders possess a selfless mindset, particularly crucial for organizations in rapidly changing environments. These types of leaders prioritize organizational goals and actively contribute to the success and well-being of others. Not only do servant leaders engage others in decision making and favor collaborations, they also foster leadership in others, which will, in turn, prepare more leaders to champion DE&I initiatives in organizations.

In an organization led by servant leaders, grassroots/bottom-up efforts may prove more effective and efficient in improving DE&I and achieving organizational goals. This is mainly because people at all levels are empowered and engaged to participate and make contributions in a collaborative, equitable, inclusive, and open-minded environment.

Implementing diversity without a genuine understanding of its benefits may result in communication challenges or a lack of trust. Trust creates an environment in which people feel safe to have open communication and share diverse thoughts and different opinions. Mutual respect ensures a positive workplace in which everyone feels valued and appreciated. Integrity is crucial for sustainable and long-term success of DE&I initiatives as it focuses on a commitment to consistently doing the right things. Ethics principles and standards require organizations to make sound decisions when exercising DE&I practices. This results in the creation of an atmosphere where people are more collaborative to achieve the same goals despite their diverse backgrounds and different perspectives.

Grassroots/bottom-up efforts can help advance DE&I initiatives. Additionally, servant leadership can be a catalyst in driving and bolstering DE&I efforts. Servant leaders in organizations can focus on developing culture over compliance, awareness over assumptions, and leadership over legislation to promote DE&I programs and initiatives. Governmental, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations along with educational institutions should promote DE&I efforts. It’s also important to start DE&I efforts as early as elementary school, which would benefit those who will enter the accounting and finance profession in the future. Professionals also need to collaborate with academia through means such as affinity group collaboration/partnerships, engagement, consulting, curriculum development, and research activities.

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