Big Companies Are Finding Out They Need Help With Diversity Messaging NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with DEI consultant Lily Zheng about how the diversity, equity and inclusion industry has changed after 2020's racial injustice protests and how companies are responding.

Big Companies Are Finding Out They Need Help With Diversity Messaging

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After George Floyd's murder and the massive protests that followed, we saw a lot of companies that felt like they needed to say something. I mean, do you remember what commercials were like in the summer of 2020?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It wasn't made for everybody.

CORNISH: The seemingly widespread embrace of Black voiceovers...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They forgot about one very important detail - Black America.

CORNISH: ...Then there might be a 60-second capsule history of racism in America, crossfade to footage of the summer's protests...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Black dreams matter. Black voices matter. Black lives matter.

CORNISH: ...And then at some point, maybe you notice a discreet copyright 2020, the Coca-Cola Company watermark at the bottom of the screen. In this case, a commercial for Sprite.

Now, that need to be out front of a national social movement, it meant suddenly companies were proclaiming themselves allies and making pledges and promises and bulleted list of goals. As a diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, consultant Lily Zheng has had a front row seat to the wide range of approaches that companies have taken in response to last summer's racial justice protests, from the purely performative to commitments to structural change. So we wanted to talk to Zheng about what they've seen, what to avoid and whether things are really changing. Zheng says you have to start in early 2020, when COVID hit and the economy sputtered. People working in DEI were let go in droves. And then came the killings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota, the national media attention and the protests that spread from coast to coast.

LILY ZHENG: So a lot of corporations that talk to me - and I can only really talk about those experiences - said Lily, we're getting a lot of incoming pressure from our own employees internally and also some pressure from our customers and clients that we've never seen before externally. Can you come in and help us talk about these topics? What I saw from the folks who reached out to me, they didn't wait to hear a response from me to act. I think the pressure was too high. And in fact, some of these companies, which I won't name, put out social media messages, and many of these companies later were, you know, criticized for being performative in their approach.

CORNISH: What are some consistent mistakes you see companies making when they try and work on issues of diversity, on issues of equity?

ZHENG: Well, that's a big question. I think the...

CORNISH: Sounds like there's a lot of mistakes (laughter).

ZHENG: Well, of course, there's a lot of mistakes. I mean, why would my profession exist if companies were doing it right? So one of the biggest ones, I think, is that they will allocate a laughably small amount of money where they will put the burden of change on unfunded volunteer groups like DEI councils. And they find that the same challenges keep cropping up. The same critiques keep cropping up. They are consistently accused of performative diversity. But the consistent failure across all of this is to treat DEI like any other major primary business function deserving of headcount, deserving of budget, deserving of decision-making authority. And that shift has only happened, I would say, very, very recently.

CORNISH: What about the flip side criticism in that you're hearing more and more people say, you know, this sounds like bringing - just bringing a certain kind of progressive politics into the workplace and indoctrinating people in that politics, kind of - what's your response to that?

ZHENG: Well, companies have never been isolated from politics. And when I talk about politics, I refer to conversation about society, social issues, economic issues. Companies have always weighed in on these things. And this, I think, is a very reasonable shift for companies to take, given all of this movement happening in our broader society.

CORNISH: Where's it going next? And what do you see in terms of - like, is this a turning point?

ZHENG: I can't - I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell you exactly where the field is going to go. What I think is interesting is this question about social justice, about the role of company and society is unlikely to end. I think we're going to see, rather than a unspoken de facto status quo where we don't talk about politics in the workplace, companies being more and more outspoken about whether they are social impact, social justice companies that care about the world or whether they are companies that, on the record, on the books, perhaps proudly, say, we don't talk about these issues here. I don't know what that's going to look like yet, but I think those trends are going to continue playing out the way that they are now.


That was Lily Zheng, diversity, equity and inclusion consultant.


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