Nearing the close of 2022, Jonathan, the CEO of his company, sat in the annual budget review and projection meeting. One slide in particular caught his attention: “Over $500,000 donated to the End Food Instability initiative.” Immediately, his mind began to race with possibilities. The company had faced criticism from employees that year for not doing enough to support the local community; why not counter that narrative by sharing this number internally—and externally, for that matter? Jonathan took a photo of the slide and texted it to the head of communications.
It’s the question simmering under the surface of every corporate social media post about diversity and every LinkedIn manifesto from an executive touting their organization’s latest move to become more inclusive: Is this moving the conversation forward, or is this self-serving?
For every leader who’s ever publicly broadcast their own organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, that question raises another: What happens if someone reads your words and concludes that they’re more virtual-signaling than anything else?
In our DEI consulting work, we often see accusations of virtue signaling—that is, performative but ultimately empty displays of moral goodness—when there is a disconnect, or lack of communication, across ranks within an organization. We know that in most organizations, entry-level employees tend to be the most diverse group. We also know that these employees tend to be the most vocal about things that could change or that the company could do better, and we’ve witnessed how this can ruffle feathers in leadership.
These calls for change often spark anxiety, stress, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions. Leadership might feel the urge to defend efforts taken in the past. Or they might jump to fast-paced problem solving and make a quick phone call to PR asking them to post a Black Lives Matter image on Instagram to publicly state the company’s values. Or they may back away from DEI initiatives altogether for fear of being called out again.
But this scenario—diverse new workers offering critical and fresh perspectives on workplace issues—creates the perfect opportunity for DEI growth. For example, employees with marginalized identities might call for leadership to diversify its board, advocate for mentors of color to help entry-level staff navigate the industry, or demand that the company engage in ongoing diversity training to increase equitable practices. The company that knows how to receive this feedback is well on its way to becoming more effective, welcoming, and sustainable for all employees.
If, however, leadership responds to these calls to action without engaging in dialogue and/or really listening to recommendations, they might engage in “safe” or “cheap” campaigns, like an Instagram post or a company-wide email detailing the donations they’ve made. In the absence of investment in ongoing, sustainable dialogues, trainings, and organizational change, these types of one-off, visible actions will likely come off as ways for the company to “check the box” while attempting to placate the marginalized team members calling for real change.
Before responding to feedback, it’s important to take a step back. Pause. Breathe. Reflect. And consider this: If fixing systemic racism was as simple as posting a black square on Instagram, or organizing a diversity training, we would have ended it long ago. We know that a single workshop, social media post, or company-wide statement will not make lasting change.
So instead of thinking fast, aim for endurance. In the spirit of a well-known fable: Emulate the tortoise, not the hare.
When you receive feedback from employees, that feedback was likely carefully thought out and thoughtfully prepared. Honor the time they spent on it and the risk they took in delivering it. Meet their investment with deep thought, conversations, proposed action, invitations for more input, and a sustained investment of effort.
Here are those steps broken down:
Deep thought: Don’t respond right away. If the message arrives via email, for example, take time alone in your office to read the message a few times. Notice feelings of defensiveness, anger, disbelief, frustration. Drink some water, have a snack, take a 10-minute walk outside, vent to someone that holds the same identities as you. Sleep on it. Return to the email after you’ve regulated your emotions and read it a few more times. Try reading it out loud with a soft tone of voice. With these steps, you might be shocked at how differently it lands.
Remind yourself that when it comes to matters of race and other identities, any form of feedback is a gift. Find and cultivate feelings of gratitude. Recognize that this is your chance to facilitate your employees’ experiences of feeling heard and appreciated. Consider that you have been offered a roadmap to better leadership and organizational change, and it arrived in the form of an email in your inbox.
Conversations: If you have permission, share the feedback with your leadership team. Guide them through the steps above, modeling by leading with expressions of gratitude for the employees who shared their thoughts. Brainstorm ideas regarding what could be changed, and how the company could address these concerns in thoughtful, strategic, and enduring ways.
Propose action: Share the ideas that were generated by leadership with the company more broadly, and invite feedback via anonymous surveys, optional group meetings, and invitations to have 1:1 meetings. If your proposed actions are met with silence, interpret the lack of engagement with caution. Silence may be a sign that your employees are feeling burnt out, hopeless, or skeptical that things will change. (If this is the case, we recommend investing in ongoing dialogue facilitation with the help of an outside consultant.)
Invest in sustained effort and evaluation: Construct plans that have an ongoing cadence, whether it's weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Consider a multi-pronged approach including the following:
- Conduct annual DEI and/or climate assessments
- Draft company guidelines for receiving identity-related feedback and having identity-related conversations
- Commit to ongoing required leadership DEI training and company-wide DEI workshops
- Coordinate company reads on DEI topics
Wherever the brainstorming and feedback process leads you, be encouraged and confident that you are pursuing the more promising path of the tortoise. By skillfully avoiding the alluring trap of “one and done” approaches and putting your money where your tweet is, you’ve signaled that your company is prepared to persist, endure, and, ultimately, win.
Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth are Harvard-affiliated licensed clinical psychologists and authors of the top-rated human-resources and business book, Did That Just Happen?! Beyond Diversity-Creating Sustainable and Inclusive Organizations. They co-founded Twin Star Diversity Intersectional Trainers, through which they consult globally to organizations seeking practical solutions to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.