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6 Things We Learned From Lily Zheng About the Unique Role of HR in DEIB

Nicole Klemp

The best and brightest human resources leaders and practitioners in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) recently gathered in Austin, TX, for our Thrive by 15Five event to learn, share, and grow.

Cara Pelletier, 15Five’s Senior Director of DEIB, was joined by Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Strategist and Consultant Lily Zheng for a fireside chat about HR’s role in DEIB. Lily shared some incredible insights and tips from their new book, DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right. Read on for six of our top takeaways from this illuminating conversation. 

1. Like it or not, employees will blame HR for company policies and procedures.

Lily shared how they spend a lot of time in their work as a DEI consultant talking to two groups: HR leaders and employee activists. As you might suspect, these two groups tell very different stories. 

HR leaders tend to talk about the new policies and initiatives the company is currently working on, while employee activists (who may volunteer for employee resource groups or champion DEI initiatives) typically share a negative sentiment about the HR team. From promises of promotions that never come to microaggressions happening in the organization to tone-deaf statements on social media, employees place most of the blame for the company’s missteps on HR.

Whether it’s fair or not, employees often can’t distinguish between the people in HR and the company’s policies and outcomes (or lack thereof). They view HR as the formal stewards of culture, and when things aren’t working, they’re the first team to be blamed. As Lily shares, it’s a heavy burden that many HR leaders just aren’t ready to carry, but they must in order to make real change.

2. Change can’t happen without employee trust, and when it’s broken, HR must help repair it.

HR leaders and practitioners are stewards of employee trust, and when that trust is broken, they must be responsible for the efforts to rebuild it. Lily explained that without trust, getting any information from employees will be very difficult. For example, if employees don’t feel safe sharing honest feedback, a survey may get a 20% response rate—not nearly enough for any real insights.

People expect that when they provide feedback, they’ll get something in return in the form of organizational change (or at least meaningful steps toward change). When that doesn’t happen, and nothing is done with the feedback they provide, the company loses any goodwill it had with employees. 

To earn back their trust, the organization needs to give employees something without expecting anything in return. Another good example of this that Lily shared is giving an employee resource group the resources they need without asking about ROI. Just give them what they need without making them prove some kind of business outcome. 

By rebuilding trust, HR and business leaders can build an effective coalition among employees. Once that trust has been regained, you can start doing employee surveys again and expect a better response rate and more honest feedback.

3. HR hasn’t historically been the right home for DEIB—but it can be.

Cara asked Lily for their thoughts on one of the industry’s most hotly-debated topics: Who should own DEIB? On one side of the argument, many HR teams believe they should own it (DEIB is about people, and people is “what we do”). On the other side, many DEIB advocates don’t trust HR with these critical initiatives. Perhaps they’ve been burned in the past or feel DEIB is too big to fall to an already stretched-thin HR department.

Lily’s personal take is that HR is one of the very few roles in an organization that is truly cross-functional (when done right). DEIB is about making processes fair across groups—another truly cross-functional initiative. So if for no other reason than organizational synergy, HR and DEIB need to work together. Unfortunately, they say, that’s not happening right now.

It makes logistical sense for DEIB to fall under or work very closely with HR. But how do we get there? Lily says the key is to create an HR department that any DEIB practitioner would be thrilled to report into.

4. Being compassionate isn’t enough — HR practitioners must be advocates.

We can probably all agree that most HR practitioners and leaders are “nice people.” But being a nice or compassionate person isn’t enough to be an effective HR leader today. Lily gives a great example of this by asking the audience to think about a really nice person at your company who you’d love to get coffee with but wouldn’t necessarily want to be your manager. Being nice isn’t the same as having all the skills needed to rise to today’s expectations.

In HR, Lily says it’s time for practitioners to move beyond being compassionate policy gatekeepers and become active advocates. There are a lot of new employee needs around DEIB and inclusive cultures, and while many HR professionals don’t have the formal knowledge to fix every problem, it’s critical to work toward gaining the skills needed to become advocates in these areas. 

A big pitfall Lily sees in the industry is well-meaning HR leaders who do their best to help people navigate broken systems instead of working to make those systems better. HR leaders today must be organizational change practitioners. As Lily shares, if the right policies don’t exist for your people, it’s your job to make sure they do.

5. Beware of performative diversity in DEIB leadership opportunities.

During the fireside chat, Cara and Lily took some great questions from the audience, including one from someone concerned about Black women being put into DEIB leadership roles, then not given the resources or authority to make real change. This “performative diversity” is a real problem, and as Lily said, “DEI leader is the one role they’ll hire you for, pay you for, and hope you never do.” 

To avoid being put in a position to help a company “check the box” without giving you any power to make real progress, Lily recommends asking potential employers about headcount, budget, and cross-functional ability to implement change. They should promise you the same resources as other departmental leaders at your level, and the organization should focus on tangible DEIB outcomes. If not, you should see this as a red flag. 

6. Small HR teams don’t have to go it alone. 

An audience member asked how organizations with a small HR team or team of one can prioritize DEIB. Lily says instead of working toward small wins, go big. If your organization doesn’t have a documented mission, vision, and values, that’s a great place to start. 

“If you can get in early and create that [mission, vision, values], you can make a difference for the future,” they said. “Culture building matters, even on a small team.” 

This can seem like a monumental task, especially for an HR team of one, who’s responsible for payroll, hiring, benefits, learning & development, and so much more. But Lily says there’s no need to own DEIB alone. Ask another leader in the business to co-lead the initiative with you. Chances are, you’re being asked to do many things that aren’t necessarily in your job description. This is no different—it’s just you doing the asking this time. 

In a related question, someone asked about ways to persuade executives to care about DEIB. Lily says, rather than building a traditional business case, focus on what happens if you don’t take action. Talk to your exec team about the risks of doing nothing. If they say they don’t have enough information to know what would happen, then you can make the case that you need to find out. Solutions like 15Five can help you get the data you need to prove what you already know: Your people care about DEIB and want to see meaningful change.

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