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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Action
Fundamentals

Engage Employees to Embed DEI Across Your Association

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When organizations roll out initiatives aimed at addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion, the entire team needs to be on board for the programs to bring real change. To get buy-in and commitment from staff, include them in all elements of the work.

When organizations begin efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is often at the leadership level. Many think that once leaders decree that DEI is a priority, all staff will immediately infuse it into their work. But engaging employees in your DEI initiatives takes deliberate effort, including providing training and ways for them to give input into the programs, experts say.

“If we start to engage employees in conversations and get their input, when the strategy comes out, they can see themselves in the plan, and you’ve got a foundation of buy-in,” said Emily Holthaus, managing director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Nonprofit HR. “That tells them, ‘My voice, no matter where I am in the organization, matters,’ and we’re taking that into consideration as we design the strategy overall.”

Carmen Suarez, an assistant professor of practice at Southern Illinois University and a board member for the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity, agrees that including staff at all levels is critical.

“We have to model that inclusion and let employees be participatory in the design of these programs,” she said.

If your association has initiated DEI programs in the past without involving staff, you can fix that. “Say, ‘Hey, we missed something. We created this plan, and we didn’t bring all the vantage points to the table,’” Holthaus said. “It’s never too late to shift and say, ‘We’ve learned something about inclusion and how this needs to work, so we’re going to do something very differently.’ And then start to do it. It takes humility.”

Invest in Training

In addition to involving staff in creating your DEI strategy and programming, it’s important to train your team. “You don’t wake up understanding things like cultural literacy, cultural competence, implicit bias, how to make change,” Suarez said. “Those are things that require training.”

Suarez notes that when organizations spend thousands of dollars on new technology, they also typically spend money training staff how to use it. But they regularly roll out DEI initiatives without allocating money or time for training.

“People like to go to conferences and get training, so you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is,” Suarez said. “Management has to budget that time in and then not demand of the employees to get the same amount of work done at their desk.” DEI training is a professional development activity, and organizations need to give employees the time and space to learn.

“We see people use that phrase, 'Racism is baked into the DNA of the organization.’ Well, DEI can be baked into the DNA of the organization, too.” — Carmen Suarez, American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity

Establish Accountability

Another way to ensure that employees are engaged in DEI initiatives is to hold them accountable.

“What gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded gets repeated,” Holthaus said. “Every team member should have at least one DEI-focused goal, no matter what their role is. It’s in your performance evaluation. The goal is measurable. If you’re a people manager, your goal might look different than if you’re an individual contributor, but at the end of the day, everyone has goals.”

Additionally, if the organization formed a stakeholder group to help create the DEI strategy, consider tapping its members to help hold the association accountable.

“Utilize that group as a key accountability measure for the strategy and as a way to bounce ideas, to let influence go back and forth,” Holthaus said. “Give that group access to decision makers and access to where the power is concentrated in the organization. And that group actually becomes a collective voice and accountability for the DEI strategy.”

Make Change That Lasts

After putting in place these steps, it’s time to solidify the culture of inclusion. While some staff may resist [see sidebar], the organization can promote progress by ensuring that new hires are on board with DEI expectations.

“When we hire people, we have to explain to them, these are our values,” Suarez said. “[We value] diversity, equity, inclusion, and what that means to us is that we’re constantly working on how we interact and work with others, especially those who are different from us. We’re always going to be having a series of professional development activities. We’re always going to be trying to evaluate this.”

Setting that tone helps perpetuate your long-term strategy. Holthaus adds that DEI has to be part of your culture if you’re a mission-driven organization.

“For associations, nonprofits, and social enterprises, if they are not paying attention to how inclusive they are, they’re probably not fulfilling their mission in the way that they need to,” Holthaus said. “Nonprofits and associations specifically often have a focus on people, communities and engaging in relationships. Having an inclusive and equitable environment is required for achieving that focus and to allows them to authentically engage with communities, members and individuals.”

Saurez says associations have the power to create lasting change in their culture. “We see people use that phrase, ‘Racism is baked into the DNA of the organization,’” Suarez said. “Well, DEI can be baked into the DNA of the organization, too. It just takes time and consistently doing these things we’ve been talking about.”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

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