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Breaking the invisible wall: Barriers to DEI program implementation

The workforce demographics are becoming more diverse making it crucial to recognize and address workplace inequities. Since the death of George Floyd in 2020, there has been an increased attention on the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. In response to the public outcry for more diverse, equitable and inclusive workspaces, DEI, which was considered a sub-function of the human resources department, has now evolved into a core business function that both large and small businesses aggressively invest in (Arif et al., 2022). The demand for equitable work environment has led to the rapid expansion of corporate DEI programs in many organizations.

There is a growing recognition of the importance of DEI in the workplace. The benefits include increased organizational productivity and reputation, employee performance and creativity, talent retention, broader perspective and understanding of the customer base, etc. (Levine, 2021). Many organizations desire to build a diverse workplace with an inclusive culture and view the implementation of DEI programs as a means of doing so. Arif et al. (2022) noted that DEI programs not only promote collaboration among individuals of various backgrounds, but also fight against prejudice and discrimination.

While organizations have made their DEI programs more robust, it has not always resulted in creating an equitable and inclusive environment. Many organizations with DEI programs find building an inclusive culture challenging. Organizations continue to lack diversity in management roles, hire diverse employs at a lower rate into management roles, and find that diverse employees are more likely to receive a poor performance rating, and have a higher attrition rate (McCoy, 2021; Milian & Wijesingha, 2023). Velasco and Sansone (2019) found that while 71% of North American companies aspire to build inclusive work cultures, only 11% were successful. The low success rate of DEI implementation illuminates the need for research to understand the barriers to DEI implementation in organizations and what organizations can do to overcome the uncovered barriers.

Some of the barriers to effective DEI implementation include;

DEI solutions that do not align with organizational DEI needs: Designing and implementing programs that do not align with the DEI needs of the organization often leads to employee frustrations, diminished trust, backlash, resistance, and failure (Buttner et al., 2012; Cassell et al., 2021; Celik et al., 2008; Duong et al., 2023; Velasco & Sansone, 2019). Providing a solution before understanding the problem does not often yield effective results.

Before DEI program implementation, it is essential for organizations to first invest in a comprehensive review of their current DEI status and the structures that have contributed to the current state (Celik et al., 2008; Milian & Wijesingha, 2023; Velasco & Sansone, 2019). A comprehensive review of the current DEI status allows the organization to see what is lacking, what needs to be improved and what needs to stop so the organization can tailor the DEI strategy to specific needs that create targeted benefits.

No pre-mortem to minimize implementation challenges: Pre-mortem is important because it aims to detect vulnerabilities in the DEI plan, allowing for those weaknesses to be addressed before implementation. Addressing potential pitfalls before they arise increases the chances of a successful DEI implementation. Some of the potential pitfalls of DEI implementation include a lack of leadership commitment, a lack of funding for the program, resistance from employees, ineffective communication, over reliance on diverse employees to lead DEI efforts, and relying on the wrong metrics

Organizational Culture (OC) at odds with DEI strategy: DEI initiatives do not exist in isolation and are rooted in employee behavior, employee interaction, and the consequences for unacceptable behavior. DEI programs aim to create or reinforce an OC where all are respected, valued, and accepted- (Buttner et al., 2012; Cassell et al., 2021; Celik et al., 2008; Duong et al., 2023; Oud, 2019; Stanley et al., 2019). OC has a direct influence on DEI implementation and can determine its success or failure (Milian & Wijesingha, 2023; Oud, 2019; Stanley et al., 2019; Velasco & Sansone, 2019). OC can have a positive or negative effect on an organization’s change management process. OCs that have rigid policies, processes, and practices that are not inclusive, and resistant to change will have difficulties implementing DEI.

Wondering how to increase the effectiveness of DEI program implementation? Here are some tips

1. Hire a DEI consultant to provide expert guidance to the organization on how to craft and effectively navigate the implementation process of a DEI plan.

2. Conduct a DEI audit. A DEI audit evaluates the existing workplace data, policies, OC, and practices to identify existing DEI gaps and systemic issues that either created or contributed to the gap (Cassell et al., 2021; Celik et al., 2008; Oud, 2019). The knowledge uncovered can be used to create DEI goals, design a DEI plan, and determine metrics for tracking and measuring success.

3. Set DEI goals based on the DEI audit discoveries. DEI goals should reflect what the organization is looking to accomplish and will also ensure the organization is purposeful and focused on their efforts to achieve the desired inclusive workspace

4. Build an internal web page dedicated to communicating all DEI-related activities and data for easy access to employees. Transparency in communicating DEI information allows all employees to learn more about the importance of DEI, the existing gaps, organizational goals, and employee expectations

By no means are these recommendations exhaustive of all that is required to overcome the barriers of DEI implementation, but they represent a good start.


Arif, S. A., Butler, L. M., Gettig, J. P., Purnell, M. C., Rosenberg, E., Truong, H., Wade, L., & Grundmann, O. (2022). Taking action towards equity, diversity, and inclusion in the pharmacy curriculum and continuing professional development. The American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 87(2), ajpe8902.

Buttner, E. H., & Lowe, K. B. (2017). Addressing internal stakeholders’ concerns: The interactive effect of perceived pay equity and diversity climate on turnover intentions. Journal of Business Ethics, 143(3), 621–633.

Cassell, C., Watson, K., Ford, J., & Kele, J. (2021). Understanding inclusion in the retail industry: incorporating the majority perspective. Personnel Review, 51(1), 230–250.

Celik, H., Abma, T. A., Widdershoven, G., Van Wijmen, F. C. B., & Klinge, I. (2008). Implementation of diversity in healthcare practices: Barriers and opportunities. Patient Education and Counseling, 71(1), 65–71.

Duong, J., McIntosh, S., Attia, J., Michener, J. L., Cottler, L. B., & Aguilar-Gaxiola, S. (2023). Attitudes towards diversity, equity and inclusion across the CTSA programs: Strong but not uniform support and commitment. Journal of Clinical and Translational Science, 1–34.

Levine, A. G. (2021). How to begin building a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in your research group. (2021). Science, 374(6568), 773–776.

MCcoy, Z. (2021). Workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion programs: Inclusive environments and diversity promotion programs. University of San Francisco Law Review, 55(2), 153–178.

Milian, R. P., & Wijesingha, R. (2023). Why do EDI policies fail? An inhabited institutions perspective. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 42(3), 449–464.

Oud, J. (2019). Systemic workplace barriers for academic librarians with disabilities. College & Research Libraries, 80(2), 169–194.

Stanley, C. A., Watson, K., Reyes, J., & Varela, K. S. (2019). Organizational change and the chief diversity officer: A case study of institutionalizing a diversity plan. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 12(3), 255–265.

Velasco, M., & Sansone, C. (2019). Resistance to diversity and inclusion change initiatives: Strategies for transformational leaders. Organization Development Journal, 37(3), 9–20.

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