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Leading Diversity & Inclusion Work with Optimism during Uncertainty

February 1, 2022
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As we enter 2022, our lives continue to be disrupted and it can be difficult to maintain optimism during uncertainty.

Almost every Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) practitioner I have spoken is just as passionate about the work as they were three years ago. It’s not a job, but a way of life. Our empathy, compassion and thirst for equality doesn’t wane. Our work makes people safe, happy, included, like they belong. Our work is never on hold. 

So, how do we lead with optimism during uncertainty? For any long-term human rights activist, advocate, or ally trying to dismantle systemic and structural barriers that allow exclusion and discrimination to persist, is endless.

We have been hearing with more frequency that there is no end date to Diversity Equity and Inclusion work, especially in workplaces.  However, after 5, 10, 15, 20 or 25 years in workplaces, doubts creep in about whether change is possible? How many years is it going to take? 200 or 400? Does my work make a difference? Do I make a difference?

DEI practitioners haven’t stopped planning in the past three years, where it feels like other’s have. Maintaining optimism during uncertainty, they are mobilised and know where we need to go. We have continued to look for ways to do the work effectively and bring people together when it seems impossible to do so, and while we are continually pushed into a virtual world/way of working.

For me, using a number of strategies (that come from radically rethinking diversity and inclusion) and stories of success, has helped me keep focused over the long haul and during this time of uncertainty – believing it is possible. 

Optimism during uncertainty

One of the most successful initiatives I have been involved with has been with a large employment sector’s Enablers Network. Comprising approximately 700 members, including allies, the network is run by people with disability for people with disability. They were founded in approximately 2018 and we run by a group of volunteers across the sector. 

The network had a governance structure, a clear vision and excellent terms of reference. It had already established an annual meet the CEOs event, where employees at every level of the organisation could personally meet and speak with numerous CEO in a speed networking style event. The work was aligned with a larger sector wide strategy. 

Having worked as an ally with the executive group of the network, the founders and I approached one of the Executives to talk about long term sustainability of the network that would require centralised expertise and an operational budget.  

It was suggested by the Executive that we write a sharp paper that will go to a sector wide CEOs group.  In this paper, we outlined the plan for a dedicated senior position (senior advisor) to work across the sector, as a shared resource to support the network’s executive group. We were conservative in our request.

We outlined the process of selection of an advisor which included the use of alternative recruitment processes and wrote in the selection criteria that lived experience of disability was essential. The weighting of the selection process was interview plus written test that given to all applicants to complete over a few days. Interview questions were given to all candidates just before interview.  

The paper resulted in endorsement by every CEO, who contributed funds totalling one million dollars over seven years. This resulted in the establishment of the inaugural Senior Advisor, Enables Network and an operational budget. This is one of the most successful initiatives and actions I have ever been involved with, making such a difference to so many people’s lives. I speak about it at every opportunity. 

In 2008, a proposal was prepared by a small team with a vision, for the Vice-Chancellor of a large Victorian university, to establish an independent Equity and Diversity Unit. It proposed the removal of the Staff DEI function from Human Resources and join up with the Disability Resource Centre and Student Equity. It would operate as a cohesive unit with a direct reporting line to the Vice-Chancellor. 

When I commended as the Manager, Staff Equity in 2009, I was two steps away from the Vice-Chancellor, had three staff and a budget of $10,000. After the first year the Director of the Unit said, “I like what you’re doing! Continue what you are doing. And here’s an additional $15,000 operational budget for the following year.” By 2012, my operational budget was $60,000. 

Compares this to another organisation, where I paid out of my own pocket to fund catering for an event for 70 people. I had enough of asking for money and couldn’t face the embarrassment of organising an event without any catering.

This level of autonomy in this university opened my world and allowed me to do exciting things and contribute to major achievements, including areas of research and engaging international experts. At its peak, this Equity and Diversity Unit had 27 employees covering 3500 staff and approximately 45,000 students.

The proposal paper was supported by two visionary female and successive Vice-Chancellors. 

Diversity was enshrined in the Strategic Plan. 

We require… “A diversity-savvy workforce to understand and align with the diversity in the global marketplace. Diversity will be a critical competency for leaders and employees.”

Still to this day, this is the one of the best environments I have ever worked in and will probably never happen again. The team were dedicated the work flourished and so much was achieved.

There are many astounding stories we can share to keep us motivated, such as 

  • The University of Western Sydney gender equity work, which has seen it achieve WGEA’s employer of choice for gender equality for 17 years in a row. The university has an extensive body of work on their website, gender equity action plans and publication of their pay equity gaps. There’s an understanding that achieving gender equality is not a liner trajectory and getting to zero per cent pay gap isn’t the only end game.  

There have also been some moments of discovery and affirmation. Like the time I heard Jack Noble’s presentation on Making Organisations Stronger Through Diversity & Inclusion which included breakthrough work on the Diversity DNA Helix and nine stages of maturity, which to the best of my knowledge, was never published. 

Or the time heard a presentation by Glenn Singleton, founder of Courageous Conversations about Race. It was a life changing moment. When he asked an audience of around 200 people to write on a piece of paper from 0% to 100%, “How much does race impact your life”? After everyone revealed their score, I then saw him turn a room full of people in a matter of minutes to reach 100%. I use his compass and protocols for talking about race all the time.  

All these changes, for example a policy, a practice or a workplace adjustment can make someone’s life significantly better. Time and time again, we hear these astounding stories and these help us believe change is possible. 

What are you going to do that’s ‘radically’ different?

Show up

If you want to change to happen, then you need to show up. A few years ago, I was looking to host a forum on Human Rights Day about anti-racism and racial equity. I wanted to engage a race expert with a very modest agreed speaking fee. This was an area of work that required attention, with the organisation having low racial consciousness. 

I spent more time and energy trying and convince my managers to support the event, than time required organising it. They didn’t think people would come to it. I was confident that we would fill the two hundred room theatre that I proposed to book (for free). After reluctantly getting a green light, I developed an invitation, a call to action, and cast the net wide. In three days, we received 70 RSVPs and the room fully booked in two weeks. 

The story doesn’t end here. When it came to the day of the event only eighty people showed. There were 120 empty seats. I started to think that there was something that was stopping people coming to this forum. Was a competing work priority, a meeting that had been booked over the forum, or people being asked if they really needed to go to the forum? Or was it complacency? I don’t really need to go to this, maybe it will be recorded? We couldn’t have had 120 people sick on the day. This has not been an uncommon experience over the years. It was a good lesson for me. I should have worked harder on the engagement piece. I should have written to leaders to encourage their staff to attend and also written to all our RSVPs. If you want to change to happen, then you need to show up. Otherwise, you end up preaching to the choir. And, as my colleague used to say, in this circumstance, the choir is in practice.

Identify resistance 

I attended an online forum in 2020 with Michael Carter on his brilliant 30 minute presentation on Making Diversity and Inclusion Work in Resistant Organizations. Michael was able to put a name to the types of resistance he had seen and experienced in his working life. He gave a list which I jotted down on my conference brochure. I won’t explain each form of resistance in detail, but when you read these, they may sound familiar. These include:

  • excessive data
  • excessive wordsmithing
  • continuous great request for more evidence
  • not being able to find time to meet with leaders
  • passive aggressive responses
  • diversity fatigue 
  • low participation  
  • resource issues
  • inaction
  • and the classic, “We’re not ready yet”. 

There are ways to overcome resistance. As Faith Irving once told me at the start of my career:

“Be the river that flows around the rocks and the branches (the protruding as well as hidden ones)”. 

Being able to identify the subtle and covert forms of resistance means that you can strategically map or prepare areas where you may anticipate resistance and overcome one at a time.

A mental checklist should help you identify areas of resistance when you join a workplace in your new DEI role, or even if you are coming in as a consultant to survey the landscape. Is it easy to do DEI work here? Do you have centralised D&I expertise in your organisation? Are you the first DEI person ever employed there? Do you have more than one or two people in your team?  Do you have appropriate operational funds? What is the distance of your reporting line to the CEO? Do you have a lengthy or bureaucratic approval process? Do you have discretionary funds for workshops, programs and speaker fees?  Are you more operational in your role than strategic? Can you walk into your CEOs office (without approval) to discuss D&I? Is it an open-door policy? Do your stretch proposals continually get knocked back? Do you find yourself continually explaining the basics? Is your organization nervous about what people might find in surveys? Are you asked to sanitize the messaging?  Are some conversations just too difficult to have? Organisations that enable work and unblock resistant actions and processes will progress quicky and see good outcomes.  I wish I had attended this presentation at the start of my career.

Write it in

One of the ways I have had some great success in seeing change is to find places embed actions that have clear accountabilities and timelines for completion and that are linked with the values of the organisation. I try to write these into DEI Frameworks and Action Plans, Organisation’s Strategic Pillars or Plans, Values or into Business Area’s Operational Plans. 

You may consider being quite prescriptive in your actions, that for example, allow you to work closely with your CEO and executives to their build competency around inclusive practice. Contemplate writing into your Plan, every executive or executive sponsor/champion drives a handful of strategies or champions an area that they are passionate about. Write communications for your leaders.  Simplify and streamline actions. Being inclusive in every setting doesn’t always cost money. Some changes to make workplaces more inclusive may just require a change in mindset. Consider writing a proposal to boost resourcing or the introduction of new areas work. And if that is not successful in one organisation, then take it to the next one.  I usually have five A5 notepads on the go; one for new ideas, one for actions (including personal), one for people I meet, one for great articles, reports and books I read, and one that is blank for meetings and workings.

Make your time count

The best advice I’ve heard from a CEO very early on in my career was, “If you don’t have the respect of your supervisor in a year, leave”. From my own experience, it’s getting harder to find long term DEI practitioners. It’s rare to see a DEI practitioner work for more than five years in one place. You can’t always choose your employment circumstances but also don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you are stuck, burn out, get burnt or get emotionally spent.

Most of the large D&I programs that I have started up in the last twenty-four years have usually taken three to four years to gain real traction, and we usually don’t have the luxury of working in an organisation that long. Building relationships, trust and respect takes time. So, for organisations that expect too much in a short time, you either have to look for ways to be effective and efficient in a short period of time or look to leave quicky in order not to waste your time. 

Some might find excitement in starting a new DEI function in a ‘Greenfields’ position. I have gravitated towards organisations that have a higher level of maturity, where you can really challenge yourself. There’s nothing better than to be able to talk frequently with your CEO about DEI and hear the workplace buzzing with conversations about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It keeps your alive and fresh. Now, that’s a place we want to work in.

The future of optimism during uncertainty

It’s great to see significant growth in the DEI profession globally in the past few years. More people in the profession will help to reinvigorate those who have been on the long haul. It will give us critical mass, fresh thinking and new voices to usher the change we want to see.

For me, using these strategies and stories of success, have helped me keep focused over the long haul and during this time of uncertainty – believing it is possible. I speak about these stories, and others, at every opportunity. They reaffirm that changes possible and to keep going. 

About the author

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Roman Ruzbacky is Cultural Infusion's Cultural Infuser.
His storied career has spanned numerous industries and sectors, working most recently for a number of Victorian Public Sector entities , tertiary education institutions such as RMIT and Deakin University, as well as having a career as an analytical chemist at CSIRO for 14 years.
His compassionate and inquiring approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, alongside his work as President of the not-for-profit Equal Employment Opportunity Network (established in 1989), has allowed him to navigate the world of DEI work for more than 20 years.

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