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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace | Starting a DEI Committee

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Yejin Lee

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Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is becoming an increasingly valued part of the workplace conversation. As a result, many mission-driven organizations are signaling their desire to institutionalize workplace DEI practices by launching staff-led task forces, working groups, and committees.

Perhaps you're even thinking about starting a DEI committee at your own organization. If so, consider the following tips to ensure your group is consistently effective and enduring.

Include a diverse group of employees

Those who are most passionate about an issue are often the most generous with their time, energy, and talent. However, it is also of vital importance to be proactively inclusive of different types of staff members. A diversity of identities leads to the inclusion of various viewpoints—and ultimately a more thoughtful and equitable approach.

Consider the following questions:

  • Are there any types of identities that are present in the office, but not represented in the DEI committee? These identities can be based on any way that social difference is understood.
  • Does everyone understand exactly what a DEI working group is committed to doing?
  • Are there position levels and/or types that are over- or under-represented? Be mindful to include assistant- and associate-level staff, as well as employees from facilities and security.
  • What else may be keeping more staff members from volunteering?

Establish clear goals, roles, and relationships

It is important to think about some institutional context before setting goals for the committee. The questions below can help inform your approach to the creation of the DEI committee’s scope of work:

  • What are the most glaring DEI issues that people have experienced or witnessed? This conversation can start at the committee level, but the group should ultimately engage with employees outside the group to collect stories and experiences related to DEI.
  • Of these issues, what is the one that this group could influence the most?
  • To what degree is organizational leadership committed to DEI work? How do we know this to be true?
  • What expertise do we have on this committee, and how can it be leveraged in service of this work? 
  • What is our individual and collective capacity to do this work?

Set boundaries

Sometimes, institutions end up relying too heavily on internal volunteer groups. When resources are tight, the work can be draining to committee members. By anticipating this fatigue, you can create some boundaries and define the terms of your working group. Ask yourselves:

  • Where does the DEI committee’s work end and leadership’s work begin?
  • Exactly what is this group responsible for (and not responsible for)?
  • How can the work of the volunteer group become institutionalized as a part of the organization’s operations?

Secure an ally with decision-making power

While participation in something like a DEI committee can be empowering, it is also important to note that most organizational power is granted to those with decision-making influence.

Perhaps your DEI committee wants to make recommendations on how to remove bias from a hiring process. This would be easier to accomplish if someone with hiring-process decision-making power is an ally.

Gather data on DEI experiences

To promote the longevity of this committee, it is important to collect information on people’s DEI experiences. This helps to create a continuous case for why the work matters.

There are multiple ways to gather anonymized data: create and disseminate a survey; acquire a DEI organizational self-assessment tool like D5; or purchase a platform that tracks DEI metrics and offers anonymous reporting (such as Pluto).

It can be powerful to compound this data with some stories. The committee can organize focus groups or interviews with staff and other stakeholders, or create a form for people to offer anonymized stories and experiences. The information gathered from these efforts will not only make a strong case around the need to operationalize a DEI framework, but also to help inform the goals and strategies of the committee.

Co-create and commit to group agreements

Because a DEI committee will inevitably broach challenging topics, it can be helpful to establish group agreements:

  • One diva, one mic. One person speaks at a time.
  • Avoid generalizations and speak from the “I” perspective. When people universalize their experiences, it becomes easy to accidentally exclude and erase many other experiences.
  • Oops, ouch. Encourage folks to say “ouch” when something hurts them, and “oops” in order to acknowledge pain was caused. This gives people an easy way to express their feelings without disrupting the flow of a discussion.
  • Take space, make space. If folks can exercise self-awareness around how much they are sharing, it can help them to make space for others who are participating less.
  • Sit in discomfort. It is okay to be uncomfortable. Many things that emerge when doing authentic DEI work may feel challenging. Moving through this discomfort is an important part of this work—don’t shy away from it!

Secure third-party support

Certain conversations may be particularly hard for any one staff member or internal group to facilitate. It can be challenging to gently hold someone accountable if that person has more power (whether it's hierarchical or social). Hiring a third-party facilitator to lead certain conversations can help everyone to more actively and comfortably participate.

Iteration is your best friend! As you dive into this important work, your DEI committee will inevitably become better acquainted with why certain initiatives stick and others do not. By staying plugged into critical feedback from all staff, your DEI committee will be set up to remain resilient through organizational change and transition.


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Yejin Lee profile image

Yejin Lee

Yejin Lee is a nonprofit professional and career coach based in New York City. She is most passionate about supporting nonprofits in operationalizing a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) framework, and assisting individuals in thoughtfully identifying and strategically pursuing professional goals. Yejin also loves cooking, eating, annotating TV shows, and hanging out with her husband and sassy shiba inu.

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