DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right by Lily Zheng

DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right

By Lily Zheng

Intentions do not equal impact. DEI work backfires if poorly executed. Any statement or fix backed by accountable action. Studies find there’s often a backlash effect after DEI is implemented. People often do the opposite of what they’re told. Or applying different standards in different situations.

DEI training is important. It may seem like an expensive step that can be skipped but it’s crucial everyone has an understanding of its value, especially at the leadership level. But training is often too short to be effective. It’s hard to change people’s behaviour!

Impact metrics can (and probably should) be collected post-training but not all training facilitators do this.

DEI surveys to collect self-reported data on fairness, engagement and well-being can be useful (especially when disaggregated by demographics like race, gender, sexuality, age, etc) to guide which programs and interventions are like to succeed. But this also requires people to be vulnerable (and may be against the law to collect in some countries). It’s also not really private in a small company where it’s easy to identify from answers alone. So this can reduce trust. Answers to surveys may also be easily tied to an individual (eg, if I’m the only gay person, it’s pretty obvious it’s me responding to a question about being gay). Surveys also only measure one point in time and doesn’t prove any sort of causation (eg, diversity leads to more productivity). Note, don’t administer surveys internally. This should be done by an external company to protect anonymity and so employees can trust leadership.

If you hire a DEI consultant, look into the company. Due diligence! Make sure they have a track record of success backed up by data. But note that DEI training currently only has limited impact (esp considering how much money is spent on DEI).

Diversity is the workforce composition that all stakeholders, especially underserved and marginalized populations, trust to be representative and accountable. Diversity is achieved through actions that explicitly counter present-day and historical inequities and meet the unique needs of all populations.

Equity is the measured experience of individual, interpersonal, and organizational success and well-being across all stakeholder populations and the absence of discrimination, mistreatment, or abuse for all. Equity is achieved by eliminating structural barriers resulting from historical and present-day inequities and meeting individuals’, groups’, and organizations’ unique needs.

Inclusion is the achievement of an environment that all stake-holders, especially underserved and marginalized populations, trust to be respectful and accountable. Inclusion is achieved through actions that explicitly counter present-day and historical inequities and meet the unique needs of all populations.

Know how things go wrong so you can get them right (negative expertise)

• DEI definitions should be centred on outcomes, not intentions. Aspirational outcomes rooted in intentions are too abstract and vague for shared interpretation or, more importantly, consistent execution to achieve outcomes.
•DEI, defined in terms of outcomes, refers to an organization’s demographic composition, structural success, and built environment. Achieving DEI in any form requires a strategy that dismantles historical inequities and meets people’s unique needs, building, leveraging, and maintaining stakeholder trust.
• All DEI concepts can be contextualized in relation to these core definitions. If the broader objective is to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion, other concepts outline challenges to doing so, detail specifics concerning these objectives, and describe stakeholders involved in achieving them.
•Knowing what not to do is key. To become an effective DEI practitioner, the most valuable piece of learning is not just what works but also what doesn’t work and why. This negative expertise is gained by experience, especially firsthand experience.
• Five questions encompass many of the common failure modes that impede effective DEI work. These questions are: “What are we trying to achieve through DEI work?” “What ought we do for our employees, customers, and the world?” “What is the role of power and the powerful in making a change?” “How should we approach identity and difference?” and “What does the work look like when it’s done effectively?”

Avoid performative allyship. People are cynical and will see right through your BS. If people trust you, they may believe you’re not just being performative but you have to back promises up with action and accountability.

Power is held by people and systems. It’s the potential to influence or compel people or events and how we engage with it. To achieve DEI, we need to engage intentionally with it, know it, use it, and cede it.

Types of power: formal (right to request behaviour from someone), reward (compensation), coercive (punishment or threat), expert (have expertise or ability), informational (have more info), referent (charisma).

Power can be used to achieve DEI outcomes (or hinder!)

Change-makers must take identity seriously if only because many people, especially marginalized populations, already do so. Social identities on dimensions including race, gender, sexuality, religion, age, class, and more can often be deeply important to the individuals that hold them and heavily inform peoples’ choices and decision-making. Denying or ignoring these identities can be more harmful than productive.

Many DEI practitioners default to discussing socially advantaged identities in purely negative terms. People with socially advantaged identities can feel like existing in DEI spaces requires either relegating themselves to the back or publicly apologizing for having their identities- neither of which are particularly empowering, especially compared to far more unsavoury movements that offer better options for maintaining a “positive” self-image. This approach may contribute to defensiveness and backlash from people whose contributions are important to successful movements.

Efforts to pursue non-identity-related proxies for outcomes have yet to succeed. Some, like “unconscious bias,” aim to establish impartial metrics to gauge prejudice and inclusion. Others, like “antiracist as a status symbol,” aim to tie certain perspectives or behaviours to valued status designations. These efforts lack the consistency and accountability to make the change they promise.

We can avoid the pitfalls of past proxies with responsibility, positivity, and accountability. Connecting inclusive behavior in organizations to personal and professional responsibility avoids tying it to status designations. Thinking of all social identities as value-neutral or positive by default avoids blaming and shaming privileged identities. Centring accountability on individual and organizational responses to harm focuses on an important outcome rather than the proxy of identity or status.

Identity is a language that leaders can build fluency in. By approaching identity as a language to learn and become competent in (without mandating that it be the only language leaders speak), deploying identity-related interventions among a larger toolbox of DEI tools, and being humble with their incomplete knowledge, leaders can better reach their stakeholders and navigate identity-related issues.

Change requires movements of people playing different roles to succeed. Advocates (they break the ice and inject momentum), educators (provide info), organizers (help attain critical mass), strategists (big picture and facilitate decision making), backers (support, resources, legitimacy), builders (create new policies, processes, practices), reformers (change and improve existing).

Your formal role in an organization can guide your movement role. Individual contributors (ICs) are most effective as advocates and organizers, senior ICs effective as backers and reformers. Managers are most effective as key backers and short-term builders. Senior leaders are most effective as strategists and backers, with activist leaders occasionally able to be effective as advocates. DEI professionals and DEI groups are most effective as educators, builders, and reformers.

Coalitions are powerful ways to organize effective DEI movements. The interconnectedness of DEI roles requires that movements not only engage many people but actively create coalitions of folks that may not agree on every aspect of a movement but endorse its core goals. Movements composed of informal coalitions are imperfect by design but can be highly effective if united behind achieving the same outcome.

Trust is the currency of change. Levels of trust can determine how effective DEI initiatives will be. High trust environments are more easily changed than low trust.

Strategies should be based on how much trust there is (high, medium, low)

Be sure to celebrate wins, even small ones

Create specific targets and have consequences if they’re not met (eg, have gender equity within 2 years; if it doesn’t happen, execs don’t get bonuses)

Achieving DEI in high-trust environments can involve relatively linear effort. Phases: priming organizations for change, assessing the present, telling a story, experimenting carefully, and iterating, celebrating, and reiterating.

Achieving DEI in medium-trust environments involves carefully maintaining enough trust to implement a nonlinear path to change. Process: tying success to the success of DEI, creating additional accountability groups like DEI councils, empowering stakeholders without leadership titles to participate, and taking a small wins approach that scales to larger initiatives as stakeholder trust grows.

Achieving DEI in low trust environments requires rebuilding enough trust to become medium-trust environments first.
Leaders must dedicate their efforts to becoming a medium-trust environment as quickly as possible — whether through achieving DEI or making other organizational changes. Allowing disadvantaged stakeholders to make the first move, ceding power, and taking advantage of windows of opportunity to make big moves can all accelerate this process.

To develop you DEI vision:

  • Identify any outcome already known to be successfully integrated and achieved consistently across the organization. For example, high levels of productivity.
  • Analyze how that outcome was achieved to identify as many factors that led to that outcome as possible. For example, through charismatic leadership, a culture that rewards results, clear work processes, and shared expectations of collaboration and asking for help.
  • Create a vision for DEI that complements these existing successes and can be achieved in somewhat similar ways. For example, “Diversity, equity, and inclusion will ensure that everyone’s hard work will be rewarded and what makes our company such a great place to work, achieve, and collaborate is further strengthened.”
  • Activate factors for success to integrate DEI based on what you know about the organization. For example, through charismatic leadership, a culture that rewards results, clear work processes, and shared expectations of collaboration and asking for help.

DEI Accountability:

  • positive or negative consequences
  • Formal or informal
  • Could tie to key decision makers (eg, pay or bonuses)
  • Legitimacy or trust could be the incentive


  • how much data is collected and shared (internal/external)
  • Learning, growth, successes and failures


  • DEI expertise in leadership team
  • Managers are responsible for DEI teams; department heads for DEI departments, etc
  • Organizational functions and processes are influenced by DEI
  • Accountability groups (top down, bottom up)


  • be transparent and honest (people are skeptical and distrust when they’re being marketed to)
  • Treat candidates like stakeholders rather than hot commodities
  • Be aware of network effects; we hire people we know, we know people like us!
  • Standardize processes to avoid bias
  • Handle identity with intention not anonymity. Removing identifying info can backfire. Hiring managers can be trained to handle identity with intentionality. This way, you don’t lose the human element in hiring!
  • Allocate time and resources to achieve accountable DEI

In the same way you standardize hiring, standardize advancement:

  • Standardize stretch assignments and office housework.
  • Support and proactively engage employees to help achieve advancement.
  • Provide transparent, job level matrices that make it clear what you need to do to advance in your career.
  • Standardize rules for advancement in the same way you do for hiring
  • Sponsor and mentor

For feedback and conflict resolution:

  • Regularly give proactive and actionable feedback
  • Frame feedback as constructive not punitive; celebrate feedback as an organization!
  • Balance safety with accountability

Employee well-being:

  • “floating” holidays, support mental health, accessible/inclusive facilities, inclusive healthcare benefits
  • Flexibility and accountability for getting work done. Trust employees will do their work.
  • Expand and revise benefits over time; make case-by-case accommodations; update standards
  • Incentivize healthy work (like taking vacation) and disincentivize overwork; have an unplugging policy, celebrate non work aspects of employees lives; reward workers that set good boundaries
  • Model healthy boundaries (if a boss is sending emails at 2am, that’s not healthy)
  • Support the autonomy of employee-organized communities (eg, offer resources for an employee run exercise group)

Environmental Impact:

  • environmental impact cannot be considered separately from DEI because organizations’ impacts on their environments disproportionately affect marginalized communities
  • efforts to address an organization’s environmental impact must be driven by both environmentalism and environmental justice (which centers on people and communities disproportionately harmed).
  • understand, analyze, and capture negative environmental externalities and their disparate impacts on marginalized groups.
  • Track macro-level sustainability but centre outcomes on health and well-being
  • Be aware of environmental impact in decision-making
  • Design systems with environmental impact in mind

Also consider your social impact; you can no longer be apolitical as a company:

  • Make sure your stakeholders are aligned
  • Use your position for social equity
  • Accountability
  • Internal/external communications use same standards for inclusive language


  • builds on social justice and civil rights movements to create organizations e can perceive as trustworthy, safe, representative, respectful, accountable
  • Outcomes: success, stability, health, well-being
  • Changes structure, culture, strategy, policy, process, practice of orgs
  • Expectation that companies take on responsibility for their stakeholders and the general public. That they take care of employees and customers, and that they own their problems, and provide solutions
  • Identity can provide valuable insight, and through intersectionality, orgs can better understand interconnectedness of stakeholder experiences
  • DEI requires a clear vision, accountable through transparency, integration, scale, supportive culture, choices that move away from inequity
  • All the work put in feeds the larger context of organizational change

When hiring a DEI consultant:

  • hold DEI practitioners (educators, integrators, advisors) accountable; ask: “How did your work succeed, and how do you know that?" “How can we know that your work will succeed with us, and how will we know when it has?” Insist on these questions, no matter how large or small the DEI firm you’re working with or how well-known the practitioner or expert.
  • Refer to: Global DEI Benchmarks and the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 30415:2021, Human Resource Management —Diversity & Inclusion.
  • You can’t expect to achieve DEI with one consultant. What your company might need might not be within the scope of a single consultant. (eg, surveys, audits, leadership or management training, coaching, consulting, policy guidance, job levelling guidance, hiring process, mediation, etc)
1 Like

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend reading it. It has a lot of great insights into DEI, including practical advice and concrete actions. I’ve tried to summarize above. If anyone else wants to read it, I can bring it to Fissioncamp.

I am not super clear on what this means. Can you expand? Or provide examples?

Lots of good stuff in here. I actually follow Lily Zheng on LinkedIn (I just realized!). This book seems pretty good. Putting it on the To Read list.

So Fission is at Level 0 on this. We have done a few things written about above, but have a lot more work to do than I thought. Thanks for digging in.

One question: did she discuss impacts of company lifecycle and/or company size on DEI work? Many of these things make sense for big companies or stable companies. Did she talk about early companies or startups?

The general consensus in all the reading I’ve done is that starting this work early is best. So even if it’s just one person running the company, to start DEI planning right from the start. The bigger a company gets, the harder it is to change the culture.

Efforts to pursue non-identity-related proxies for outcomes have yet to succeed

I think what they’re talking about here is that we need to say what we mean for DEI to work. And that it’s hard and messy. Everyone has an identity. You take identity out of the work and it all falls apart. For example, if we say we want a diverse company, what does it mean? I think that’s the proxy – “diverse” is a proxy for something specific. And often that specific is “no more straight white men” or “we want to hire more people of colour” which is the opposite of identifying. It’s saying what we don’t want or too broadly identifying a category. The opposite of identity. Naming an identity has power. It’s also complicated. There’s a whole chapter about identity and my summary is definitely not doing it justice.

Right, I get this for sure. What I am wondering is: what are policies (ie on that Four Levels diagram) recommended to tackle first for a growth company that might not be around forever (ie. has the clock of runway always ticking down). The answer could be of course: you gotta sit down and figure that out yourself :thinking:

Good question: my take-away from most of my research, including from this book, is that there is no “first, best” but just to start doing something, anything. How small a company is doesn’t matter since a lot of it is stuff we should be working on as individuals (unconscious bias, identity, climate action, actively being antiracist, education, etc) and that it’s easier to course-correct a small company than a bigger one. Essentially, build a strong DEI foundation as you build your company and it becomes part of your corporate culture. You might not be able to afford a DEI expert at first but leadership can educate themselves and start enacting policies. It’s better to try something, anything, and that, even if it fails, you can learn from it. A lot of attempts will fail. Take ownership of the failure, try again.