Blue Rock Search

Shades of a Conversation: DEI Past, Present, and Future

Blue Rock Search recently sat down with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leader and Subject Matter Expert, Kim Adams. Kim has over 20 years of experience building strong company cultures, leading DEI efforts professionally, and advocating for equity and community empowerment by serving on the board of non-profit and civic organizations committed to enabling more inclusive and sustainable communities. Her extensive experience includes building and rebuilding DEI strategies and elevating the conversation to a global enterprise level, as well as success in launching programs focused on open dialogues about complex topics.


Defining DEI in Today’s World

One of the biggest conversations around DEI focuses on what DEI should include and what it really is — is it a value set? A culture? A commitment to certain practices? A little of everything?


“DEI is just so personal to all of us; it means something different to everybody. I would say it’s both a practice and a set of values,” says Adams. “When we define culture, essentially what we’re talking about are those customary beliefs and values, social norms and practices, and particular traits of any group. When you bring those practices, norms, values, and traits together under the banner of DEI, it’s all about culture.”


In Win from Within: Build Organizational Culture for Competitive Advantage, James Heskett defines culture as “the shared assumptions, values, behaviors, and artifacts that determine ‘how we do things around here.’”


Depending on their unique culture, organizations may need to focus on different aspects of DEI (or DEI&B).  The terminology they use, then, will reflect those priorities. Part of the self-evaluations that organizations must do is around what psychologist and social scientist Aarti Iyer describes as “advantaged groups” who benefit from the status quo. Iyer posits that those groups may oppose DEI based on three types of threats: “resource threat (concern about losing access to outcomes and opportunities), symbolic threat (concern about the introduction of new values and expectations in a changing organization), and ingroup morality threat (concern about their group’s immoral role in creating or perpetuating inequality).”


Each organization’s DEI focal point, then, must consider these potential avenues for pushback. They must evaluate where their strategy can address these concerns and where their current approach is—or isn’t—succeeding in achieving their overall goals for uplifting underrepresented groups.


“Some organizations might need to focus on the diversity aspects, and if that’s where they are in their journey, they probably need to lead with the title of diversity, equity, and inclusion. If you are an organization that really needs to strengthen your culture to attract, retain, and engage talent in a way where they feel like they belong, you probably should lean into more, calling it inclusion and diversity,” Adams explains.


Whatever it’s called, DEI remains significant and influential in today’s business world – especially when it comes to getting results. Today’s customer base is more diverse than ever: for instance, Black buying power is projected to hit $1.7 trillion by 2030; the Latino economy would have a GDP of 5th in the world if American Latinos were their own country. Connecting with these growing demographics is critical to any organization looking to succeed today and tomorrow.


“At the end of the day, organizations need to understand the line of sight that DEI has to results in the bottom line, and you need to be able to articulate that and make that vision clear for leaders in your organization,” Adams says.


Changing the Narrative

 Fundamentally, DEI is about how stories are told, consumed, and leveraged: highlighting the stories of communities that are not typically represented, correcting inaccurate narratives, and empowering new narratives for the future.


“DEI is about changing the narrative about who is capable, who is qualified, and who belongs. So it’s empowering, but we must also understand that some narratives are rooted in fear and anger,” Adams says. Those latter emotions have certainly been on display recently as backlash forms from some corners to push back against the rise of DEI in business, education, and other spaces. In response, Adams observes, more companies are looking for ways to continue their DEI commitments while minimizing backlash.


“The way that companies are showing up in the moment looks different… It’s still embedded in their talent practices, hiring practices, and succession planning. Business or employee resource groups are still high engagement drivers and tools for attracting and retaining employees. Companies are still aligning with diverse collegiate and university institutions, including HBCUs,” she says. “However, at the end of the day… companies must manage and mitigate their risk. And given the environment that we’re in, you’re not seeing many companies boldly proclaiming the DEI message.”


Some companies have already built what Adams calls “cultural deposits” by consistently doing the work. Those organizations may have more breathing room when it comes to facing this moment, while those being more reactive will have to show up with a stronger narrative to demonstrate their genuine commitments. While it might be challenging at times, Adams says it’s important to respect all these different points where companies might be.


“Organizations are on different journeys from a maturity level, but people are on a different journey when it comes to DEI as well, and you have to meet people where they are as a practitioner. And this is one thing it took me a while to learn. It’s so important to extend people grace.”


Looking Ahead: The Future of DEI

 When Adams thinks about the future and the challenges of DEI work, it’s much more than theoretical or purely professional.


“It is absolutely personal to me, and these moments cause me to pause and reflect on whether I want to have success in this space or whether I want to be significant. I absolutely do want to be significant or have significance in this space. I get to see people at their very best, and sometimes at their very worst, in this space.


“I want to have a significant impact on making everyone feel that they are capable to navigate whether they’re doing good or whether there’s something they need help with. Having a two-year-old, being a relatively new mother, has absolutely changed my perspective as well. And honestly, sometimes, I don’t know: is it worth the emotional and mental strain? Or do I want to channel all of that into my son? But then I go back to, I want to be significant and create a world for him that’s different fifteen, twenty years down the line, so it does have a personal impact.”


To achieve that future, Adams says, DEI has to go beyond what it currently is.


“You can have representation; you can create some equitable practices, policies, and benefit programs. You can create a more inclusive culture with things like your employee resource groups. But are we delivering justice to those populations and groups who have been historically left out and have experienced injustice? … Are we talking about something that’s going to drive some step change for the organization, our students, and our employees? Let’s also commit to those conversations as we engage our stakeholders on these journeys.”


Even in an environment with some organized hostility against DEI, those anti-DEI court cases aren’t always finding success. It’s something of a mixed bag: for instance, Florida’s controversial law against DEI training was struck down by the 11th Circuit, but a district court stymied the US Minority Business Development Agency by striking down a “presumption of disadvantage” in determining eligibility. The Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education admissions, but the downstream effects of that have yet to be fully seen. However, Adams says the corporate sector will play a pivotal role in that future.


“Corporations have a bigger responsibility to stay true and hold true to DEI, especially if they’re not directly being impacted by regulation … You don’t have to wave a big red banner and bring attention to what you’re doing, but at the core, the bare minimum, stay true to your core values and don’t let these things shake you as an organization.”


We conducted this interview during Celebrate Diversity Month in April, and Adams’s final thought is very much in line with the foundation of the month’s observance: celebrate more, fear less.


“My only hope is that we do more celebrating,” she concludes. “Diversity is just so beautiful to me. People love their families; people want to feel safe and people want to be seen. That’s what we all have in common no matter where you go in the world, so let’s embrace that and celebrate that and fear diversity less.”


About the Author

After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben Moreno and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.”  Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR & Diversity Executive Search practice specializing in the identification, assessment, recruitment, and onboarding of Chief HR Officers and Chief Diversity Officers and their respective teams — inclusive of leaders in Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, HRBP’s, Learning & OD, HR Technology, HR Operations, and HR Analytics. Ruben has helped place hundreds of HR Executives and built deep relationships within the CHRO community across multiple industry verticals. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their business and add value beyond executive search.

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