James D. White: Boards Must Resist Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Backlash

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The veteran director says boards will need to be 'unrelenting' about DEI strategy, 'even if they're less vocal publicly.'

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies have been under fire this year, sparking debates on the effectiveness and even the legality of such efforts. James D. White, the former CEO of Jamba Juice, current board chair of The Honest Company, director of Cava Group and author of Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World, recently sat down with Corporate Board Member columnist Matthew Scott to share his views on how corporate boards should handle the continuing backlash against diversity, equity and inclusion in America.

How would you say the boards of companies should be reacting to the current environment of backlash against diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the U.S.?

JAMES D. WHITE: In a world that is very divided, we have to build companies that, from a leadership perspective, unify our organizations. The best companies, even in the face of pushback, need to find real ways to continue to be aware of and recognize that there is a generational change happening in this country. The demographics of the country are changing, and we’ve got to create more space for every single employee to do their very best work, no matter where they’re coming to us from.

To do that will require more thoughtful leadership. The pushback against diversity, equity and inclusion that we’ve seen includes the recent Supreme Court rulings and some significant legislative changes we’ve seen in certain states. Companies are going to have to stay really diligent and very focused on the march forward to building better companies, and that means boards will need to be unrelenting around their organization’s DEI space, even if they’re less vocal publicly. They’ve got to be about the action and the work of building more inclusive environments, and if they are, they’re going to be advantaged over the long term.

Another point I’d make around this generational change is that we’ve got three or four generations in our workforce today. We’ve got some of the most diverse folks now in the workforce — millennials, who are starting to move into leadership roles, Gen Z, and then, Gen Alpha is on the way.  So, we’re going to have to create different environments that will accommodate that workforce. Moving forward, the best companies will need to figure out thoughtful ways to do that. There’s been so much public backlash, that people are picking and choosing how they communicate externally, but the best companies are moving forward in a thoughtful way internally.

When you say diversity, equity and inclusion, are you talking about diversity, only from a race and ethnicity standpoint? Or are you talking about DEI from other aspects as well?

WHITE: We’ve got to talk about diversity from every dimension, including folks that come to us with all different kinds of abilities. Race and gender will always play a role. But it’s really about creating an environment where all humans can fairly and equitably do their very best work inside our companies. Companies should be creating the space for all employees to bring their full selves to the workplace and be able to do their very best work. You want to unlock that potential.

From a leadership perspective, we should be mindful to remove biases and barriers in our policies every place that we can. One of the things that my daughter Kristin, who wrote my most recent book with me often says, “If we can build policies and programs for the most underrepresented among us, that is likely going to work pretty well for everybody else.” And that takes away the argument that if companies pursue DEI policies someone else is going to lose something in the process.

Leaders understand that DEI is about having empathy for others and leveling the playing field so everyone can do their best work. I ask people to personalize empathy because sometimes people can’t appreciate things until they personalize it.

This idea of empathy is critically important to building great companies. To the extent that leaders can do more of that versus less of that, they will build more inclusive and productive organizations. Empathy transcends race, gender and ethnicity. And to the extent that we can lead in that way and find the things that we have in common and the places that we can agree, we can then use that as a lens to build better processes, better practices, and better spaces where people can do their best work, which will build better companies.

So how can boards create systems that bring this empathy concept you’ve discussed into reality? Since there is backlash against DEI training programs, how do we do this?

WHITE: Think about this from an operational perspective. Every company is going to be different, but each company can put in place policies, in the context of the industry that they operate in, the kind of business that they are and what works inside of their own organization. But companies must be diligent about it.

For example, a large retailer I consult with mandates training for every single employee, down to associates in their stores, that happens on a quarterly basis to ensure that everyone is being educated in the same way ongoing. I sit on another board and that company that has virtual and live town hall meetings on an annual basis where they reaffirm their DEI commitments. These sessions are led by their CEO and leadership team, and they make it available throughout their stores.

But that requires work and commitment. You can’t separate the work of diversity equity and inclusion from the work of building a great company culture. In fact, the best companies know that this work gives them the greatest potential to execute more effectively their strategy, if they can have all the humans in the organization more linked to the strategy moving forward.

Is there anything else you want to add in terms of your perspective on the current state of DEI and what boards can do to improve their companies?

WHITE: I just think the main thing is for boards to live up to the values and stated missions of their companies. We’re in the midst of generational change, so accept that change is going to happen.

I think the best companies are going to continue with the work of building more inclusive environments and they’re going to win. They’re going to be rewarded for that focus by being able to retain more the best employees, by being able to attract more the best employees in the future and in my estimation, they’re going to solve problems more completely for more of their consumers, because they’re going to bring a variety of different views to how they build products and to how they solve problems.

Boards should stay optimistic about this topic. There are many reasons to be pessimistic, but I’m optimistic with what I see as good leaders putting in the good effort and the real work to make progress.

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