Ernest Owens headshot.
Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas

Outside Consultant: What Are the Best Practices for Auditing DEI Initiatives?

This "Outside Consultant" column by Ernest Owens, an assistant professor of management in the Opus College of Business, ran in the Star Tribune on Oct. 3, 2021.

If you burden the department in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) with an inability to audit the process, you assure its failure. Without defining a workflow and baseline for the process, you end up with continuously changing requirements and definitions. With such a process, it becomes nearly impossible to define clear accountability for delivering outcomes. DEI, as all processes, mandates a clear strategic goal from which it must derive. What is DEI creating and what new system will be enacted? A project without a baseline cannot be determined to improve anything. You need a baseline from which a set of improvements can be narrated. Such a narration is essential for a qualitative set of measurable goals, lessons learned and organizational growth.  

Too often DEI is stated in terms of social justice and aspiration for inclusion without a system to make it possible. Resources are hired and named, then left to their own devices to achieve an outcome that will run into a torrent of established resistance. Simply naming the issue and sporadically attaching funding — without clear actions — becomes a comfortable substitute for change. A clear definition of the problem and a well-defined project plan is essential. These artifacts will help the team navigate continuously changing contexts and effectively engage with hands-off leadership. Ultimately, this positions the team to take on the vast set of deliverables required for lasting transformation.   

Annual audits of DEI efforts without clear streams of accountability and definitions of tasks can never be supplanted by thought leaders or top clients delivering lip service to success. An audit should demonstrate a clear sequence of planned actions, expected outcomes and the variances observed. The variances should be assessed beyond data, facts and insights to applicable lessons learned. These lessons become the basis of an organization’s strategic filters for growth. Decisions from corporate strategy to product development to hiring should be made through this filtering system. This allows teams to scale with intention as they navigate changes with scope, resource, risk and schedule, maintaining alignment to strategic DEI imperatives. Managing these changes brings all stakeholders to the table for methodical decision making. Such actions will enrich organizational intelligence and improve a shared comprehension of DEI strategies and actions. Creating structure without strategic outcomes and clear workflows is simply creating chaos. 

Ernest Owens is an assistant professor of management at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.