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Tax Talent & Culture

How to address systemic DEI issues through the lens of belonging

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

· 5 minute read

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

· 5 minute read

Law and tax & accounting firms should focus more on "belonging" to address toxic workplace behaviors and develop clearer initiatives around their DEI efforts

About one-third of people in organizations globally are at risk of burnout and toxic behaviors in the workplace is the main cause, according to a McKinsey Health Institute report released in the second quarter of this year.

The issue of toxic behavior in law firms, tax & accounting firms, and corporations is a cause for concern among diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) advocates and other professionals because it means that roughly one-third of employees within these organizations are experiencing a lack of inclusion and belonging.

However, some believe the current paradigm of DEI with its top-down approach and its priority on individuals with a single underrepresented identity will not adequately address this type of systemic exclusion, while others believe in an integrated strategy of all three components with an increased focused on belonging.

Problems with the current ways DEI is framed

Stephanie Felder, Director of Professional Development and Diversity at Groom Law, is a proponent of the combined approach. “I don’t think it’s quite that black & white as the need to focus on diversity versus belonging,” says Felder. “Both are important, but until you level the playing field and eliminate the exclusionary practices, processes, and systems within your organization, you can’t actually build diversity or belonging.”

Helen May, Director of Belonging@Work, is one of those who calls for an overhaul in assessing and addressing issues of belonging and inclusion based on the human experience. Organizations and human resources in the years leading up to the pandemic evolved to emerge as “bureaucratically diluted of the human element, including diversity and inclusion,” she explains, adding that the current DEI paradigm causes greater division because of the prevalence on setting and achieving targets and too much focus on “othering” large sets of people.

By focusing on a single underrepresented identity, many white men feel othered even as those with underrepresented identities already feel othered in the current environment. In addition, the current DEI approach does not sufficiently address intersectional needs of those with more than one underrepresented identity.

Another challenge concerning the current DEI paradigm is that it is driven mainly in a top-down manner rather than from the bottom upward though the organization. When approached primarily through a top-down perspective, the root causes of what is driving a sense of exclusion are difficult to identify, says May. Because a lack of belonging tends to stem from exclusive behaviors by individuals from both majority and minority groups, it is hard to work out exactly where within management the sources of the issues are occurring, she argues.

Pursuing inclusion through a belonging lens

May advocates for a revised approach to inclusion through the lens of belonging and well-being that uses human-focused questions as a starting point. These questions include:

      • What is going to make people perform at their very best?
      • What is going to make everybody create that psychological safety they need?
      • What is going to protect well-being and foster a sense of belonging?

Working through the lens of belonging by default is intersectional because it is human-focused, she explains. “We live in a very intersectional world, and it disincentivizes people with other identities to participate, despite many efforts in the current DEI paradigm to invite ‘allies.’”

Using the belonging and inclusion lens, small networking groups within the overall firm or company are created as a safe place for people to have discussions that focus on people empowering themselves and empowering others. Curiosity is used to explore individuals’ unique qualities and experiences as a way of being within the organization and community that has a responsibility to protect the well-being of everyone, regardless of who they are or into what demographic they fit.

How to execute a belonging strategy

Using belonging and well-being as a fundamental context, May says organizations should start with a future vision of culture that defines a framework to attract the right sort of talent at the board level. Then, once the board is in place, it should then in turn focus on identifying individuals who display these culture framework attributes as part of the board’s succession plan. The board also needs to partner with future board members to outline how to empower employees based on activities and behaviors. Along the way, existing systems of promotion and performance evaluation are left alone.

To demonstrate the positive results from this approach, May describes how one client emerged through this process as an employee-owned business with a four-day work week and unlimited paid time off because it asked employees what they wanted. Those next-in-line for the board have evolved into a hub of the community rather than being seen at the top, directing down.

She says that a key part of the solution is to have first-line and middle managers appoint someone to ask the following questions “until it becomes a habit to ensure inclusion is weaved into every process, including performance evaluation, promotion, recruitment, training, and onboarding system.” These questions include:

      • Who have we forgot to consider while we’re making this decision?
      • Who might we have disadvantaged with the action we’ve just decided upon?
      • Is there anybody else that we should ask about this decision who may be able to give us an alternative perspective?

The result allows law firms, tax & accounting firms, and corporations to build their culture through behavior and habit because people will start skewing their decisions in the in the right way by default without it having to be a formal process.

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