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Using stakeholder mapping as a tool to navigate the thorny political environment around DEI

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Organizations should use "stakeholder mapping" methods to assess how all their involved constituencies feel about critical topics like diversity & inclusion

In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the use of race in college admissions, significantly limiting how colleges consider race as a factor in the admissions process, (often referred to as affirmative action.) The ruling was considered a win in the movement against diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); and now, the same claimant who spurred the litigation against affirmative action in higher education is moving on to private businesses by suing two major U.S. law firms over fellowships they offered to promote diversity.

Stalwart DEI advocates and practitioners are disappointed but not deterred, according to Shane Lloyd, chief diversity officer at tax & accounting firm Baker Tilly. “DEI has always been scrutinized since the early days, with certain individuals feeling like they are being forced to operate their businesses in certain ways because of having to comply with affirmative action rules,” Lloyd states.

Growth in DEI over long term

Yet, there are reasons for optimism among DEI practitioners and champions, most specifically that they have momentum on their side. Members of the Gen Z and Millennial generations are the most diverse generations in United States history; and combined, comprise of the biggest segment of employees in the present workforce. These younger generations value diversity and make their buying decisions as consumers and employment decision as workers with brands and companies that align with their values.

In addition, DEI strategies that focus on analyzing the talent lifecycle to better change the systems of recruitment, talent management, and advancement, as well as improve representation and remove barriers for promotion only emerged as mainstream best practices in recent decades. In addition, embedding DEI principles into leadership development, manager development, and other enterprise-wide learning programs to in-grain inclusion and belonging behaviors into the culture of the organization is a fairly recent top priority. Indeed, these investments take years to bear sustainable change.

On the flip side, companies appointing chief DEI officers wrongly assumed this position was a panacea to change the systems and culture of an entire organization. Culture is the accumulation of active experiences as a daily manifestation of an organization’s explicit performance expectations and its implicit behavioral norms. Further, these expectations and norms are delivered through employees’ day-to-day interactions, mostly with their peers and manager, through one-on-one conversations about work projects and is experienced through community in group settings. Therefore, inclusion and belonging are the responsibility of all employees.

Inclusion is a dynamic state within organizations and can be impacted by the internal policies, protocols, various ways of working, or events that occur outside the organization. While it used to be the case that employees left their full selves at the front door of the office, more and more companies are embracing the concept of cultivating an environment that allows all employees to bring their authentic selves to the workplace. As such, authenticity includes acknowledging the impact the external local, national, and societal events have on our employees internally. This creates a challenge for organizations to figure out how to navigate societal issues with an increasingly diverse set of internal and external stakeholders.

Map stakeholders to promote better understanding

To cope with and navigate the current thorny rhetoric around DEI, heads of DEI functions are having to work even harder to safeguard inclusion and belonging within their organizations given the increasing polarization of the function. Nimble leaders must work diligently with team members across all layers of the organization, from entry-level employees to executives, to help them understand what role they can play in the DEI ecosystem, according to Lloyd.

Lloyd advises practitioners to invest the time to engage leaders in stakeholder mapping exercises to promote more rigorous thinking and engagement around publicized DEI issues. Baker Tilly recently did so in the wake of the spike of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation on the state and national levels as part of the firm’s process to analyze the impact on those employees identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Regardless of one’s political view, whether proposed or passed, these pieces of legislation can increase the potential for violence against those individuals who are out or perceived to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Lloyd employed a stakeholder-mapping tool framed within the concept of multi-partiality, a practice that gives equal attention to multiple identities and experiences, on the parental rights and education bill passed in Florida that’s known as the “Don’t say gay” bill. The stakeholder map included 11 different stakeholder groups, including i) state government members, with an acknowledgement that this category includes Democrats, Republicans and Independents, as well as the education department; ii) school districts, teachers, and students from kindergarten through 12th grade; iii) conservative, liberal, and neutral news media; iv) LGBTQ+ organizations; and v) mental health organizations.

The stakeholder map helped the Baker Tilly’s leadership understand that politicians are not the only stakeholders with whom the firm aims to maintain good relations. Additionally, leaders examined how the conversation surrounding the bill did not have uniform impact across all stakeholder groups, enriching the depth of the conversation and informing a response that was appropriate for the firm, its employees, and the larger business continuity. The exercise demonstrated to Lloyd and the firm that regardless of stakeholders’ political affiliation or how a specific person feels about social issues (or the particular issues at play), most team members appreciated that a cross-functional group was investing time and putting really careful thought into how the firm could address these circumstances.

All employees may not always be happy with the decision, but when they hear that there was a robust conversation that explored many positions, perspectives, and options, they are at least satisfied that there has been a significant effort to tackle some of these prickly issues.

The political rhetoric around DEI is likely to continue into 2024. Using this type of stakeholder-mapping tool is a key method to show leaders and employees the impact of these issues on various stakeholder groups while maintaining an effective working relationship with all groups even when everyone may not be in agreement.