Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Gloria Johns headshot

Why DEI Programs Too Often Fail and How Companies Can Respond

By Gloria Johns

The unfortunate reality for many employees is that corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs exist along a spectrum, from award-winning to somewhat effective to a total waste of time. It isn’t that failure is a particular vulnerability for DEI programs — by any other name, employee engagement programs have always been a tough prospect. And so, it was helpful to hear two DEI program specialists discuss the reasons why some programs fail and how to avoid the pitfalls. 

Alberto Jaen, the CEO and executive creative director for Plus305, and Nadja Scherrer, a partner, vice president and sustainability communications strategist within the firm, are in the business of helping organizations with purpose branding and creativity for sustainability in which value-based communication replaces, or at least complements, product-based communication.

The difference would be the emphasis one would place on the value of the written word, for example, as opposed to just the pens you manufacture. 

Plus305 bills itself as a social impact boutique, and one that won three awards from the American Marketing Association South Florida during the pre-COVID era: Best CSR Agency of the Year 2019, Gold for their World Aids Day MTV campaign, and Silver for their Voices for Children Foundation campaign with Peyton Witch.

Scherrer indicated several areas of vulnerability that cause DEI programs to fail, one being the discomfort that often accompanies frank discussions relative to race or gender equity, or even the discovery of our own unconscious biases. 

“DEI stirs up questions of identity,” Scherrer said. “And identity is almost entirely based on unconscious brain processes. Questions of identity are fundamental to how we communicate with each other. And there are layers of identity (intersectionality) which can make certain topics even more complex. Businesses have to create a culture where failure — getting it wrong sometimes — is welcome and accepted.” 

Also, some corporations assume that due to size or budget they just cannot afford to implement new programs. The financial deterrent might include the prohibitive cost of an employee to manage a program or giving employees time away from production to participate. The question ultimately becomes, how much is the company willing to spend to accommodate needed cultural change?

In the broadest sense, there must be a willingness to adopt a change in culture for a DEI program to be successful. Jaen and Scherrer emphasized that, starting with the CEO, there must be a willingness to dispense with old ways of doing business.

For example, for decades American business has been based on the siloed structure of individual departments with their own sets of goals. The sales department might be singularly focused on the bottom line to the exclusion of concerns from employees regarding long hours on the job that interfere with family life and even health. Or, a company may be satisfied with favorable minority representation based on department numbers and fail to recognize that there has been no advancement among certain marginalized groups above a certain job function level. 

“I believe in a more holistic approach to sustainability that trickles down into all areas to become part of the DNA and integrated into the overall mission and brand. We follow the triple bottom line (people, planet and prosperity) with a strong focus on people,” Scherrer said.

Based on their extensive experience in the field, Jaen and Scherrer have a positive outlook on the future being ripe for compromise. 

“Studies show that 80 percent of consumers want to purchase a brand that reflects their values, and points to a corporate shift of emphasis from the appreciation and value of tangible assets to intangible assets,” Jaen said. Intangible assets can be divided into two categories: intellectual property and goodwill. Tangible assets would be land, inventory, property and cash. 

According to the July 2020 Intangible Asset Market Value Study, in 1975 only 17 percent of all assets in the S&P 500 were considered intangible. As of 2020, 90 percent of all assets within the oft cited stock market index are intangible. In other words, relationships matter more than ever. 

With regard to those cultural differences, said Jaen and Scherrer: “Culture is shaped by many different layers. Wherever you find values you will likely find overlap between people who may on the surface appear ‘different.’ At the end of the day, there is commonality to be found in human rights. It isn’t about trying to make everyone agree. It is about finding a place of empathy where dialogue can take place. We find each other in consensus.”

Image credit: Keenan Beasley via Unsplash

Gloria Johns headshot

Gloria Johns' career has included her work as a columnist for Scripps-Howard, Gannett and Tribune News Service. She writes for the San Angelo Standard Times and the West Texas Angelus. Previously she was a special features reporter for San Angelo LIVE! Gloria also has nearly thirty years of award-winning grant writing experience for federal, state and county funds to support social, medical, educational and arts projects. She has enjoyed a successful career in telecommunications and nonprofit management. "Gloria is a Purdue University graduate. She has also attended Angelo State University for graduate courses and studied Texas Family Law at Sam Houston State University. She lives just on the edge of the Chihuahua desert in west Texas.

Read more stories by Gloria Johns