Weeks before the Supreme Court banned affirmative action for higher education institutions, Amira Barger, EVP/Head of Health Communications & DEI Advisory at Edelman, published a piece in Fast Company that argued DE&I should not fall under the purview of HR.
“While the number of DEI positions has increased significantly, many organizations have struggled with where such positions fit into their corporate structure,” wrote Barger. “Often, these roles are relegated to the confines of Human Resources (HR). I believe this is a mistake. The head of DEI should not report to HR.”
Barger’s piece sent ripples through LinkedIn, where she responded to support and criticisms alike. Its timing, along with a piece Barger authored this past spring explaining how an imminent ruling would affect Black women’s standing in corporate leadership, may have felt prescient to some. But it’s been a long time coming.
“An added train of thought regarding the recent SCOTUS ruling on Affirmative Action for me was not speaking solely of or about the decision, but also about the things it might have an impact on or may be tangential to,” Barger said. “Because this is not a new conversation. This is a refresh on a conversation my DEI practitioner peers have been having for over 30 years.”
That said, DE&I is currently at a juncture. It’s clear that siloing the work to HR, a department primarily concerned with regulation and compliance won’t cut it. But in the absence of DE&I sitting in HR, how can comms continue to be an advocate for streamlining and aligning this work across enterprise business?
A partner in provocation
Barger continues to advocate for a dedicated DE&I title, stressing that it will take someone whose work can partner with all departments.
“The position and the role design matter in terms of how people interact with you, how people perceive you, and the actions they will or won’t take,” she said. “It needs to be a partner in terms of provocation, thinking, policy and practice design. It needs to be a partner to operations, to comms, to HR, to the office of the CEO.”
After publishing the second piece in Fast Company, Barger heard some critiques that most organizations are not large enough to have a separate individual owning DE&I.
“I actually don’t think that’s a detriment,” she said, “because at the end of the day, we want DEI to be embedded in everyone’s role. So, in a smaller organization, you need to upskill and train each of your functional leaders to understand the role that they play in DEI and empower them to shape or reshape policies, practices, behaviors and beliefs. Empowered and informed individuals that embed DEI within their sphere of influence is the structure we are ultimately working towards.”
This points to a larger operational opportunity — people don’t know how to vet DEI, causing shepherds of the work to emerge.
Are communicators the right shepherds?
When asked if communicators are in the best position to act as shepherds for operationalizing DE&I work across the business, Barger emphasized that there is no singular ideal skillset. She shared a framework by Russell Reynolds Associates that captures the skill sets these practitioners most often have and aim to work toward.
“We draw on a multitude of methodologies and bodies of knowledge: sociology, psychology, design thinking, communication theory, etc,” Barger said. “DEI is a way of thinking, a way of being. There is an emergent body of knowledge and set of competencies that practitioners must understand and apprentice in.”
Of course, there many skill sets are present among practitioners — Barger sees lawyers, academics, communications consultants, management consultants, counselors, social workers and many more enter the field. Many of these skills overlap with marketing and communications functions.
“Part of that is because we understand and innately influence behavior change and calls to action, how to really motivate people who don’t have a deep understanding of DEI,” she explained. “As communicators and marketers we understand how to influence people to still take actions and at least give them enough to change some sort of behavior, even if they’re not an expert. That’s what we do every day.”
Managers tether DE&I work to employee experience
Because middle managers interact with people every day, Barger reminds us that they are also the frontline in terms of how employees experience the workplace—and that managers often shape employee experience more than the C-suite.
“Those day-to-day interactions are what make up the culture, those norms and agreements we make with one another,” she said. To that end, middle managers are shepherds because they set the pace at which this work is carried out. This also requires them to be mindful of when conversations about DE&I happen.
Thinking carefully about when these conversations happen is key in making sure the work doesn’t take a backseat to workload or burnout issues. When managers time these conversations properly, it can help employees consider what individual work they must do to honor these commitments.
“In DEI there is this individual level of work beyond the interpersonal in terms of cultural norms, agreements in the workplace, and then the institutional policies and practices,” said Barger. “There’s a level of individual work that has to happen outside of your profession, that’s just about who you are as a person and how you show up in the world, the individual work that you’re doing to understand DEI and the part that you play.”
Making the case
The individual component of this, and the need for managers to help operationalize it, ultimately makes the strongest case for having a dedicated individual lead DE&I at your organization. Though everyone should co-own it, enterprise business simply isn’t there yet.
“It’s hard to motivate people to dig in and prioritize their individual journey because part of DEI is understanding the way that we’re all complicit at some level,” Barger acknowledges. “That’s part of the work of mitigating our biases. I tell people all the time, we’re all biased. Having bias doesn’t make you a good or bad person — it simply means you’re human. But the onus and the work is for each of us individually to understand our biases, and to mitigate them each day.”
Justin Joffe is the editor-in-chief at Ragan Communications. Before joining Ragan, Joffe worked as a freelance journalist and communications writer specializing in the arts and culture, media and technology PR, and ad tech beats. His writing has appeared in several publications including Vulture, Newsweek, Vice, Relix, Flaunt, and many more. You can find him on Twitter @joffaloff.