ResourcesDark blue background with yellow dotted accents. Image of a group of people seated at a conference. Text says: "Organizational Readiness. Step One for Effective Equity Work"

Now, more than ever before, organizations are deepening their commitment to equity work. As social justice movements have put a spotlight on issues of inequity, many organizations have been public about their goals to address disparities. In many cases, this work has included issuing public statements, engaging in DEI trainings, hiring more diverse talent, and introducing equity leads.

While DEI work has recently become the ‘smart business move,’ there are many organizations and leaders who are genuinely invested in confronting and addressing inequities. According to research by Express Employment Professionals, 54% of companies in the U.S. and 40% of organizations in Canada have now implemented DEI policies.

Despite this progress, inequity remains a glaring issue across industries, sectors, and our society at large. From criminal justice to education to corporate, equity-deserving groups experience disproportionately poor outcomes, even as organizations in these spaces are actively undertaking DEI work.

According to HR Reporter, more than 66% of the HR and business executives they surveyed shared that they have only been marginally successful at creating more equitable workplaces. Data from other sectors also reveals that equity policies have not shifted outcomes for equity-deserving groups.

Why, if there has been so much commitment to equity work, have we seen so little change?

Because many leaders have skipped the essential first step – organizational readiness. Equity work cannot begin with new policies, diverse hiring, or even DEI training. None of those efforts will be effective if the organization and its leaders, staff, and stakeholders are not properly prepared to engage in this work. Without organizational readiness, equity efforts will always fail.

How to tell if your organization is unready for equity work

If you are a leader who is eager to guide your organization towards more equitable outcomes, it is important that you begin the process by ensuring your organization is prepared for the work that goal requires. Here are some indicators that your organization may not yet be ready for equity work:

You have not named issues of inequity

Often, organizational leaders begin equity work with the simple goal to ‘be more equitable.’ While this is the outcome every organization should ultimately work towards, it is too vague to be effective. It is akin to going to the doctor and asking to be cured without ever describing the symptoms you need to treat. If you want to become a more equitable organization, you must be prepared to acknowledge what inequities are happening.

The consequence: Failure to name and acknowledge inequity may lead to resistance from staff and stakeholders within the organization. This resistance can take many forms. Some people may deny outright that inequity is an issue. Others may offer ‘whataboutisms,’ questioning why equity work is not concerned with the experiences of certain groups (e.g., ‘What about white people?’ or ‘Straight people are discriminated against too’). In the worst cases, resistors may target colleagues and service users from equity-deserving groups.

You have not clearly defined your equity goals

Typically, when people are resistant to equity work, it is because they fear it will impact them negatively. For example, people with dominant identities (e.g., white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.), may feel that they are being condemned for their privilege or argue that they don’t experience privilege at all. Others may worry that creating more equitable outcomes will reduce their access to opportunities.

The consequence: If equity work is not clearly defined, resistors may try to actively impede or disrupt efforts to produce more equitable outcomes. This might include refusal to participate in DEI training and initiatives and reprisals against equity leads or marginalized colleagues.

Your leaders have not demonstrated their commitment to equity work

Equity work requires a top-down approach – all efforts and progress begin with leadership. For equity training, policies, and initiatives to be effective, leadership must be clear with staff and stakeholders that these changes are non-negotiable and integral to the organization’s culture. Leaders should also be prepared to address those who resist or impede equity efforts.

The consequence: For an organization to undergo the organizational culture shift needed to produce more equitable outcomes, leaders must be at the forefront of that change. Otherwise, staff are not likely to engage in trainings, act on what they learn, or accept equity-focused policies.

You have treated equity as a side project

While equity may not be your primary business or organizational goal, it cannot be an afterthought. Many organizations approach equity as a project that runs parallel to their mandate rather than a central goal that underpins and shapes their organizational culture. One common misstep that organizations make is handing the responsibility of equity to an employee who is usually unequipped and still expected to fulfill the duties of their primary role.  Additionally, when equity is not centered, there is little consideration of how polices, practices, and initiatives, whether existing or new, impact outcomes for equity-deserving groups.

The consequence: Treating this work as a side project severely limits the potential impact of your equity efforts. Without making equity an essential goal and outcome within your organization’s culture, the policies and initiatives you create will likely be ineffective or insufficient. Worse, you risk disregarding existing policies, practices, and cultural norms that directly perpetuate inequity.

First steps to organizational readiness for equity work

If you believe your organizations is unprepared for equity work, you’re not alone. In a society built on systemic inequities, it is reasonable that understanding and practicing equity is not inherent. Fortunately, like anything else, equity work, including organizational readiness, can be both learned and practiced. Here are five things you can do to begin preparing your organization to develop and execute effective equity commitments.

  1. Understand that equity requires skill, action, and commitment

If you want your organization to be equity-informed, you must acknowledge that equity requires dedicated effort and commitment. To be effective, your equity commitment must be a compass and guide for your organization’s culture, policy, and practice. This means investing in equity experts, whether consultants or in-house hires, who can teach the skills, frameworks, and practices you’ll need to move beyond feel-good actions and initiatives and into work that produce results.

  1. Be clear with your staff and stakeholders about why equity work is necessary

One of the greatest impediments to organizational culture change is internal resistance. While this cannot be entirely avoided, it can be mitigated by being clear and direct with all staff, stakeholders, and service users about what equity work is happening, why it is required, and what it will look like. This messaging should acknowledge that equity work is now an essential part of your organization’s goals. Not only will this ensure that everyone who will be involved and impacted is informed, but it will also provide a layer of accountability from staff and service users.

  1. Stand behind your equity commitments without reservation

If your goal is to transform your organization into an equity-informed one, a culture shift is non-negotiable. As a leader, you must determine how you will name resistance to that change. You should also decide what actions you will take to address staff and stakeholders who are unwilling to move with the shift, who actively try to impede change, or who react negatively towards colleagues from equity-deserving groups.

  1. Create a clear plan of action to engage or hire qualified equity experts

Whether you plan to retain a consulting firm or hire an internal equity lead, you must be diligent about hiring someone who is qualified to support your organization’s equity goals. When engaging equity consultants, be sure to inquire about their process and track record. If you opt for an in-house position, ensure that the person who is hired into this role is qualified and equipped to fulfill the duties of an equity lead. You should also be prepared to provide or facilitate professional development or supervision this person will need to properly execute their role.

  1. Learn the mechanisms and tools required to maintain long-term equity commitments

Explore and employ frameworks for equity that move beyond diversity and inclusion. It is not enough for diverse identities to be represented and included in your organization. Equity requires that staff and service users, regardless of their identities, have equitable outcomes and experiences. Consider how you can use data to understand the inequities within your organization, articulate the outcomes that need to shift, and create plans and policies to achieve those changes. Finally, determine how breaches of equity policies and practices will be addressed and make this process clear to all staff.

 

Equity work is a massive undertaking. As a leader, it will require you to examine your organization’s culture critically and engage in the work to make it a more equitable one. This work is often uncomfortable and challenging. If you want to overcome that challenge and discomfort, you must ensure that your organization is properly prepared for the long-term commitment of equity work.

By using the direction offered in this post, you can begin to lay the foundation of organizational readiness for equity work that leads to transformational results.

Have questions about organizational readiness or require support preparing your organization to engage meaningfully in equity work? Contact us here.