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DE&I and leadership: Why middle managers are key to a successful strategy


Whenever a company rolls out a new business initiative, middle managers are critical to successful execution. This is because middle managers are the all-important link between executive leadership and lower-level employees.

The implementation of your company’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) program is no exception.

About 80% of U.S. employers have or are planning DE&I initiatives. * Yet, the vast majority of organizational changes fail, often due to managerial resistance and a resulting failure to gain employee support.

How can you prevent this fate for your DE&I program?

Why middle managers are so important to DE&I

How can middle managers make or break DE&I for leadership?

  • Executive leaders establish the company’s goals and overall strategy. But middle managers execute on these goals and often decide how that execution will happen. They are the boots on the ground, the people on the front line working closely with employees.
  • Middle managers work IN the business, rather than ON the business. With direct oversight over employees and a hand in daily operations, they can identify competing priorities and other impediments to the success of DE&I strategies. In this way, they can:
  • Level-set expectations
    • Inject realism into program implementation, when needed
    • Identify alternative ideas or creative workarounds to hurdles
  • From hiring to separation from the company, middle managers are actively engaged in every phase of the employee lifecycle.
  • For their direct reports, middle managers are more visible and present. They are the face of the organization and primary communicator on behalf of the company. During times of change and upheaval, managers provide stability and reassurance, and answer questions.
  • Middle managers are encouraged to lead by example. Whether intentionally or not, they send cues to their team on how they feel about a company initiative through their words and actions. They set the overall tone for their team and may (or may not) demonstrate desired behaviors. If executive leadership wants employees to buy into an initiative, it’s imperative that they see their manager’s acceptance and participation.

How managers make the biggest impact on DE&I in the workplace

1. Recruiting and hiring

Alongside recruiters and human resources (HR) professionals, middle managers play an important role in hiring new employees. They are the people who lead new employees once they join the company, so they have a critical – and often final – say in who gets hired.

Hiring is also an important part of DE&I programs.

Middle managers are involved in reviewing resumes and applications, as well as interviewing candidates. Their actions can directly impact your company’s DE&I efforts when hiring.

As such, it’s important for managers to know how to navigate topics such as:

2. Workplace advancement

So much of the employee experience revolves around their development and career advancement. Managers are in charge of decisions around:

  • Project assignments
  • Development opportunities, including who enjoys the opportunity and what the learning topic is
  • Promotions

Therefore, it’s important for managers to avoid favoritism or discrimination when considering employees for advancement.

They should also avoid making assumptions about what they think an employee wants based on certain characteristics when those assumptions could be viewed as holding an employee back or hindering their potential for advancement. For example, managers should not automatically assume that working parents are unavailable to travel for an assignment or meeting.

3. Team meetings

As the facilitators of team meetings, managers are uniquely positioned to promote inclusivity and, with it, enable some of the strongest benefits of DE&I:

  • Introduction of new ideas and perspectives
  • Innovation
  • Enhanced feelings of connectedness and collaboration

To do this, managers need to understand how to:

4. Everyday communication and interaction with employees

Whether it’s a casual conversation, a weekly check-in, a performance review or a more difficult conversation involving a problem, managers engage with their team members frequently. This communication must be:

  • Free of unintentionally exclusionary or offensive language
  • Free of bias or discrimination
  • As objective as possible
  • Empathetic

Especially for situations involving discipline or even termination, it’s important for every meeting with an employee, policy violations or incidences of poor behavior to be documented in the personnel file to avoid charges of discrimination or bias. The presence of HR witnesses can also be helpful.

And should an employee require special accommodation in the workplace (for example: the Americans with Disabilities Act interactive process), managers need to know how to proceed without creating an exclusive or discriminatory environment.

5. Employee events

From a casual lunch out or an after-work happy hour, to planning holiday parties, managers must understand how to be inclusive of everyone on the team.

6. Team culture

A positive workplace culture is the foundation for a successful DE&I program – and managers have a large degree of control over the team culture.

As we mentioned previously, managers set the tone for their team. It’s vital that they are adept at cultivating an atmosphere of psychological safety in which team members:

  • Trust each other
  • Feel accepted and included
  • Are comfortable being themselves and bringing their authentic selves to work
  • Become inspired to put forth their best work

What middle managers need from executive leadership to be successful

1. The business case

Give managers a clear understanding of the why behind your company’s DEI strategy. For example, tell them how DE&I will:

  • Enhance team performance
  • Improve business operations
  • Boost the bottom line
  • Better serve customers

If you can’t articulate to your managers why you’re adopting a certain course of action and why it matters to them and the overall business, you won’t convince them to get on board – and they won’t be able to persuade their direct reports either.

After all, change is hard and people naturally prefer stability. To shake up peoples’ processes and way of thinking requires a compelling reason.

2. Clear goals

Paint a picture of success for your managers.

  • What does DE&I mean at your organization?
  • What targets are you trying to reach?
  • Are your goals measurable and quantifiable?
  • How will you know when success has been accomplished, if the goals are more qualitative versus quantitative?
  • How will you determine the success of managers’ own performance and that of their team? Which processes and modes of analysis will be used? (These could include regular check-ins, 360-degree reviews or employee surveys.)

3. Freedom to execute – with some parameters in place

Managers crave autonomy – the freedom to execute on goals and establish tactical measures as they see fit for their team. Often, managers are ambitious and eager to differentiate themselves from their peers as they climb the leadership ladder.

However, an important part of DE&I is mitigating the unconscious bias of individuals – including managers – against other employees and job candidates. For any strategy, it’s also important to standardize some processes and procedures to ensure consistency and reduce risks and liabilities.

The challenge is striking the right balance between total autonomy and overly strict safeguards.

4. Communication

Regular communication with your middle managers is one of the biggest pieces of a DE&I program’s success.

Initially, schedule a manager townhall meeting or Q&A where they can discuss the DE&I program and ask questions.

On an ongoing basis, give managers a space to come together to discuss how things are going with DE&I, including:

  • Personal successes and failures
  • Opportunities for the program
  • Ideas to help and support each other

There should also be regular individual check-ins between middle managers and the leaders to whom they report, with the progress of the DE&I program among the topics discussed.

5. Education and training

At first, some managers may not understand DE&I programs or the concepts and terms associated with them – for example, the difference between equality and equity, or what an inclusive workplace means. They may even be confused as to why DE&I applies to them or how their day-to-day role is impacted.

Equip managers with the education they need to:

  • Contribute to the program’s ongoing success
  • Achieve goals
  • Best support their teams

Explain that this is a continuous learning journey.

With any professional development and training, the best approach is a tailored approach. Meaning, you’ll need to first understand the existing level of knowledge within your organization and then identify where gaps exist. An internal DE&I assessment or DE&I survey can help to determine your organizational baseline.

6. Budget

Before managers can make concrete plans of action to support DE&I goals, they need to know what the company is willing to commit in terms of resources, including financial backing.

So, how much money do managers have to allocate toward actions to improve workforce diversity and enhance the DE&I program? Examples of costs incurred may include:

  • Posting open positions on job boards with more diverse members
  • Attending more school or career fairs
  • Participating at conferences about DE&I-related topics
  • Hosting team training on DE&I

Summing it all up

Middle managers play an incredibly important role in the implementation of DE&I programs. Whether it’s recruiting and hiring, advancing employees’ career development, facilitating meetings, communicating with employees, planning company or team events, or guiding the team culture, managers carry a high degree of influence over the deployment of DE&I programs and employee acceptance. After all, they have direct oversight of daily business operations and the most interaction with their team members over the employee lifecycle.

To get managers on board and set them up for success, executive leadership needs to provide them with the business rationale, clear goals, training and budget, as well as regular communications and allowance of a certain degree of autonomy in executing on DE&I goals.

Want to learn more about why DE&I is so important to creating a great culture, in addition to helping businesses grow faster and boost revenue? Download our free e-book: The future of business is culture.

*WorldatWork. 2021. Trends in DEI Practices and Policies. Scottsdale, AZ.