I have read Dr. Cheryl Thompson’s opinion piece in the Toronto Star, Why equity, diversity and inclusion offices are failing us, in which she argues that EDI offices at post-secondary institutions “are taking the joy out of education because they resist collaborative, restorative approaches to conflict and instead cling to approaches that are too bureaucratic, dehumanizing, and almost solely focused on the document trail.”
The opinion piece suggests that EDI offices should focus on inclusion rather than diversity and equity. While EDI encompasses three concepts that need to be considered separately (equity, diversity, and inclusion), the focus is often on promoting inclusion (and now belonging) and cultivating "joy” among employees from diverse backgrounds. Focusing efforts on achieving a sense of inclusion is often easier than creating diverse and equitable organizations, a process that requires tougher conversations.
It is tougher for leaders to reflect on their organization’s lack of diversity and lack of equitable human resource and operational policies and practices. Doing so requires an organization to invest resources in conducting a staff census that analyzes and compares the representation of the equity-seeking groups in the labour market with the groups’ representation at all levels of the organization. A staff census forces an organization to establish targets and strategies to close the identified gaps in representation. While many organizations claim to want to build a workforce that reflects the diversity of the community they serve, few organizations are willing to engage in the tough work to make this happen. An equity audit would also require the organization to take a closer look at its human resource and operational policies and practices to identify the existence of barriers for equity-seeking groups and would require a commitment to actively remove those barriers.
Leaders focused on the diversity of their organizations must pause and reflect on tough questions: Why have they hired so few (or even no) Indigenous peoples? Or why are they hired and don't remain with the organization for long? Why are racialized people well represented in frontline positions, or even in the IT and finance departments, but not in policy or management positions? Why, in an organization whose workforce is predominately female, do men make up a significantly larger proportion of those in management positions? Why do they not hire and support persons with disabilities?
And yes, although diversity is a given in society, it is not a given in organizations. One non-profit that comes to mind is located in downtown Toronto, but has a workforce that is 95% White. Discussing their hiring practices and the unexamined biases of hiring managers who have excluded racialized people from the workforce, in a city that is 50% racialized, is a much harder conversation to have than one about cultivating joy.
In order for employees to feel joy at work, they must first feel psychologically safe. Creating psychological safety for employees from equity-seeking groups requires human rights policies and processes to address issues when they do occur. This requires bureaucratic processes to address human rights violations.
In our consulting work, we regularly hear of horrific daily experiences that “joy” will not fix. These incidents include death threats directed at a racialized person who got a job (based on merit) that was promised to a White person (based on relationships); women who have been sexually assaulted at work by a colleague who they continue to work with; isolation of Indigenous and 2SLGBTQ+ employees because of the anti-Indigenous racism, homophobia, and transphobia directed at them by their colleagues; employees that face the brunt of religious-based discrimination and harassment like Islamophobia and antisemitism; employees whose disabilities are worsened because they cannot get a straightforward accommodation or those who are yelled at by human resources staff when they ask for accommodation.
Sadly, we also often hear from employees that they have no faith in the organization’s complaint process or they fear reprisal for making a complaint, so they continue to live with the harassment and discrimination rather than make a complaint, putting their physical safety as well as physical and mental health at risk. When they do risk coming forward, employees’ concerns are often dismissed by their managers or they experience reprisal for making a complaint.
An organization must have formal processes in place, as required by the Human Rights Code, to ensure that harassment and discrimination are appropriately dealt with. Yes, they can be “too bureaucratic, dehumanizing, and almost solely focused on the document trail.” But they are needed to ensure due process for both the complainant and the respondent. “Igniting joy” does not stop harassment and discrimination, nor does it create equitable policies and practices.
Yes, there is a place for the informal resolution of issues, something that many organizations fail to incorporate into their complaint resolution processes. But many cases of harassment and discrimination can’t be resolved informally. This can arise from a number of factors such as the systemic nature of the discrimination, the severity of the behaviour, or the power imbalances between the parties.
While Dr. Thompson made some good points, I don't think that her arguments consider that EDI offices are often underfunded and understaffed, and expected to make change throughout the organization without the appropriate authority to do so. EDI offices are also tasked with complex situations of competing rights, which also need to be resolved through a careful human rights analysis.
No one wins when EDI departments focus solely on igniting joy. If EDI offices are not working towards creating systemic change within organizations, in approaches rooted in upholding the human rights of all employees, then they are doing it wrong. “Igniting joy” without also engaging in the hard work of diversity and equity ultimately feeds into the hands of racists, homophobic and transphobic hate in organizations. It also sends the message that Indigenous peoples, Black people, other racialized people; persons with disabilities; 2SLGBTQ+ individuals; people from faith communities; women; and other marginalized peoples are expected to live with the hate and harm they experience in the workplace.
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Tana Turner is Principal of Turner Consulting Group Inc. She has over 30+ years of experience in the area of equity, diversity and inclusion.