This year marks the 20th anniversary of Logos Consulting Group. Last month, Logos’ founder Helio Fred Garcia reflected on leading through the turmoil we have seen in the world over the past 20 years, and how we have helped our clients do the same. Among the turmoil that has racked the world is how to reckon with historic and ongoing injustice and inequity.
Although most visible in the past two years, we have seen a drastic evolution in the field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) over the past two decades. This evolution was driven by a shift in societal expectations, which has now led to an urgent demand for organizations and society to do DE&I work better and faster.
How can we understand this evolution in DE&I? And what does it mean for organizations grappling with DE&I work today?
A Focus on Compliance: The Beginnings of DE&I
Modern Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) in the United States arose out of the civil rights movements in the 1960s. These civil rights movements, as well as societal expectations around DE&I, largely focused on legal rights, specifically securing legislation that would interrupt various forms segregation and discrimination and grant historically marginalized groups greater rights, protection, and access to opportunities. Those civil rights movements resulted in the passage of series of laws in the 1960s and 1970s that outlawed discrimination based on color, race, sex, religion, national origin, and age. Discrimination based on disability was also made illegal in 1990, while work on establishing legal rights and protection for LGBTQIA+ people was just beginning to build a new momentum and focus.
The establishment of legal protection for various marginalized groups at the federal, state, and local level in the last decades of the 20th century set the tone for DE&I work at the beginning of the 21st century.
In the early 2000s, the creation of organizational DE&I work was primarily focused on ensuring compliance with these various laws and regulations, as well as to reduce discrimination lawsuits. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a few high-profile lawsuits shook the finance industry. Specifically, three major Wall Street firms paid between $50 million to $100 million each to settle sex discrimination lawsuits. Another major bank spent nearly half a billion dollars to settle multiple race discrimination lawsuits over a 15-year period.
Organizations began to invest in diversity training as a way to minimize the increasing threat of discrimination lawsuits. However, studies quickly showed that diversity trainings rarely created a more inclusive or diverse workplace. In some cases, diversity trainings made matters worse.
Why? Because trainings focused preventing lawsuits – rather than promoting true diversity and inclusion – can unintentionally otherize marginalized groups, play into existing biases, and solidify prejudice. In some ways, the failure of diversity trainings reflects the shortfalls of the legislative victories in the 20th century – while new laws were enacted to protect marginalized groups from segregation and discrimination, the underlying oppressions and prejudices that necessitated those laws being enacted were never fully addressed. As a result, while most marginalized groups have some form of legal protection against discrimination, many people from those groups experience ongoing oppression, aggression, and inequity in their daily lives, including at work.
Despite the evidence that diversity trainings often failed to promote diversity or inclusion, companies double-downed on the same compliance-based, diversity-focused approach as the world headed into the 2010s.
But that would soon change. Over the course of the 2010s, several social justice movements began to build new momentum, evolving and expanding in their reach. As Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other social justice movements were created, and societal expectations began to shift. For example, after the #MeToo movement gained traction, organizations were now expected to take seriously and actively address allegations of workplace sexual harassment or abuse.
As societal expectations around DE&I began to shift, workplaces began to recognize the need to change with times. A passive, compliance-focused approach to DE&I did not seem to be enough to meet these new expectations. DE&I practitioners shifted their focus from achieving diversity to creating truly inclusive workplaces.
And then 2020 happened.
2020: An Inflection Point in DE&I
It’s fair to say that 2020 was a year like no other. Amid devastation and dismay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 fundamentally changed the landscape of DE&I in the United States.
A series of brutal events against black and brown Americans, in particular the murder of George Floyd, put the Black Lives Matter movement front and center of the national conversation. Ten of thousands of people protested in cities across the country, calling for the government to take seriously the police brutality faced by African Americans. 2020 also saw a sharp rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the country due to rhetoric around the pandemic. As the violence against Asians and Asian Americans escalated over the next year, particularly after the horrific shooting spree in Atlanta targeting Asian women, the #StopAsianHate movement was created. Moreover, the pandemic itself highlighted the disparities that exist in our society, as people of color, women, and people with disabilities were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The events of 2020 put a blinding spotlight on historic and ongoing injustice and inequity. As a result, a new, urgent expectation formed. There was now an expectation that governments and institutions needed to correct the wrongs too long faced by marginalized groups. And those wrongs needed to be corrected now.
Moreover, organizations also had a role to play. People expected organizations to commit to advancing DE&I in society at large and to fully living that commitment within their organization. This included directly addressing any practices or dynamics that enabled bias, exclusion, or inequity internally.
Organizations very quickly felt the effects of these shifted expectations. Many organizations saw their stakeholders directly asking what those organizations were doing to eliminate systemic barriers for marginalized groups and to promote social justice at large. Organizations slow to respond to these shifting expectations saw their reputation put at risk, trust fall, and some stakeholders decide to disassociate from that organization altogether. For example, according to a 2021 study, 70% Americans are ready to cancel a brand if it does anything offensive related to racial justice issues.
Leaders of organizations were also examined even more critically than before. If those leaders were found to be discriminatory or biased in any way, now or historically, those leaders were called out – sometimes very publicly. And people expected those leaders to be held accountable for problematic that behavior.
2020 solidified shifts in societal expectations that had begun to form a decade before. Now, organizations across industries were expected to foster safe, inclusive work environments. Existing DE&I efforts were scrutinized with amplified impatience, and any perception of performative allyship – grand statements of support followed by either inaction or surface-level action – was no longer tolerated. Long-standing behaviors or dynamics once considered ‘perfectly fine’ were now regularly called out, with a clear call for change.
As a result, organizations recognized the need to commit to advancing DE&I, both within their organizations and beyond. Organizational DE&I trainings quickly went into high demand. However, successfully calibrating DE&I efforts to create a truly inclusive work environment continues to be a struggle for many organizations.
What’s Next: The Future of DE&I
Since Logos was founded 20 years ago, societal expectations of DE&I have moved away from simply ensuring for “equal access” to opportunities to ensuring that all people “thrive and belong” once they have access to those opportunities. That is why the terminology shifted away from a sole focus on ‘Diversity’ to ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.’
Today, the bar is much higher for organizations than it was 20 years ago when it comes to expectations around DE&I. Multiple studies have found that Generation Z, the future of our workforce and consumer base, are much more value- and identity-driven when deciding which brand to buy from and which company to work for. Specifically, Gen Z cares more deeply about organizational ethics, diversity and inclusion practices, and social impact than previous generations. Gen Z is more likely to expect a brand to “take a stand” on justice issues. And they are also quick to gather information and call out any seeming contradiction or inconsistency in an organization’s DE&I practice.
Creating an inclusive work culture – where everyone feels valued, respected, and like they belong – is key for successful DE&I work based on current societal expectations. Many organizations are still trying to figure out how to clear this higher bar.
And yet the world we live in is constantly evolving. That bar may shift again, especially given the changing demographics within the United States. The 2020 Census indicates that the U.S. population is the most racially and ethnically diverse in history. Nearly half of Generation Z are minorities in terms of race or ethnicity. Moreover, the United States Census Bureau predicted that the U.S population will continue to become more racially and ethnically pluralistic. As demographics shift, so too may the focus of DE&I shift as well. Therefore, leaders need to regularly inspect their organization’s DE&I initiatives through the lens of current societal expectations and adapt based on those expectations.
As we look to the future, the question for leaders to ask when it comes to DE&I is: “Is my organization’s DE&I work ready to meet the expectations of today and tomorrow?”
This reflective piece is part of our 20th anniversary celebration. Throughout this anniversary year, we will be sharing a series of reflections on the shifts and trends we have been following in business and in the world over the past twenty years, as well as advice to leaders and organizations navigating through the challenges we see today.