Dr. Johnson is the creator and executive producer of Insufferable Academics LLC. The globally broadcasted podcast takes listeners beyond research and safe spaces and into the lived experiences behind the data. As a conference presenter, keynote, and author, she has contributed to her field for several decades. Her contributions include several noted studies and research presentations for many organizations such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities, American Association of University Women: Forum on Diversity and Inclusiveness, Association of California School Administrators, and many more. Johnson’s work in publications includes the National Center for Institutional Diversity, where she is a Diversity Scholars Network member; The International Journal of Diversity in Education where you will find her Experience Context & Perspective (ECP) framework, the ‘Looking at Leadership’ series; and various international conference publications, where she also serves as a Review Board member. Throughout the years, she has maintained an active dedication to community service and volunteer work in various not-for-profit and charitable organizations. Through these efforts, she continues to mentor youth and service members transitioning back into civilian life. She is focused on life-long learning, community enrichment, ‘service to all mankind,’ and advocating for equity.
Across the higher education landscape, news of closing DEI offices has spread quickly among Diversity Officers (DOs). Related discussions surrounding the DO role in the private sector and among members of the academy, shared two central themes which caught my attention – job security and the value of this work. While some leaders and managers look for ways to encourage inclusion-driven best practices in IHE spaces, others are also seeking ways to support their DOs and the important work that we do. Below are five attainable action steps leaders and managers can implement in support of DOs who facilitate Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) centered efforts.
Pay Attention – The results speak for themselves.
These are but two of many things that the public has learned about highly functioning organizations that execute a business model which embraces J.E.D.I. principles:
1 – The culture of the organization is directly impacted by the work of DEI offices. Revelio Labs in a study they conducted alongside the Washington Post and Reuters (2023) found that “Companies with DEI teams experience higher levels of employee satisfaction with culture and values, diversity and inclusion, and [with] the company overall.”
2 – There is a correlation between positive financial performance and having diverse executive leadership & diverse executive board membership. After five years, the results of a longitudinal study conducted by McKinsey & Company (2020) showed a “positive, statistically significant correlation between company financial outperformance and diversity, on the dimensions of both gender and ethnicity. This is evident at different levels of the organization, particularly on executive teams” from the 1000 large companies surveyed, that spanned across 15 countries.
With a positive impact on global business continuing to set trends, imagine the gains your institution will attain when J.E.D.I. efforts are centered, supported, and invested in.
Ask questions and consider your DO’s well-being.
When was the last time you asked your Diversity Officer “How are you doing?” Across the nation, DOs are suffering in silence or with little fanfare. Russell Reynolds, among other US-based firms, has been tracking the professional experience of the Diversity Officer since 2018. In 2021, they noted that “the very nature of the role lends itself to emotional fatigue.” They noted that DOs who are also focused on improving organizational welfare, often are at risk of setting aside their wellness, mental health, and other personal needs while they spend long hours addressing challenges that meet them at their doorstep.
While it may be easy for some to say, “Just refer them elsewhere,” (a comment that I candidly acknowledge I hear several times a month), it is another thing to have this ‘shared DO lived experience’ of being asked for support. One thing leaders and managers will learn when they check in with their DOs is that they are often the only people at the institution, those who seek them out claim to feel comfortable talking to.
This phenomenon contributes to a term I originated: emotional currency. The emotional toll we exert, (the “withdrawal” that we make), to support others who feel they have no place to turn, is an uncompensated transaction. And yet, despite the emotional currency withdrawn from us, we don’t generally turn folx away, because it is often the case that we “understand” their lived experience. We have been where they are.
Listen to Learn and to Unlearn.
Prior to becoming a Full Professor of Business & Organizational Leadership, I was asked to offer a rough estimate of how many students and employees I mentored throughout my tenure as a full-time faculty member. Due in part to my ongoing consulting work with management from various organizations, and with higher ed-based leadership teams, about how to recognize and acknowledge when an employee is taking on invisible labor, I had an answer to this question. Some of the invisible labor I took on involved the mentoring of students and employees. None of these efforts were a part of my job description and often occurred beyond my control.
As a Black Woman, working at a predominately white institution (PWI), I was often “the first” or “the only.” Per student and employee admission, my mere existence was (and is still) a draw to those who identify with one or more of my own intersectionalities. I encourage those who, like me, have embodied enlightened exceptionalism, who have experienced invisible labor, and/or whose emotional currency has been withdrawn, in support of student success and colleague development, to share this with their leaders and managers.
In turn, leaders and managers will benefit from listening. Learn about the lived experiences of the DOs at your institution. Allow for learning and unlearning to take place. Often, long-held biases can be barriers to how we listen and what we hear.
Choose Action over Adjectives.
Saying nice things about the work your DO and their offices are doing, is nice. Consider taking it a step further. At the next convening of leadership, add two related items to the agenda:
1 – How are we as an organization benefiting from the work of the DEI office?
2 – How are we advocating for them?
This includes valuing their time and their (seen and invisible) labor. It also includes showing appreciation for the positive outcome of their ongoing efforts, through organizational action and investment. Journalist Terry Gross once said, “The problem is that those of us who are lucky enough to do work that we love are sometimes cursed with too damn much of it.”
Now that you’ve asked your DO how they are doing, ask them about the labor of love that is advocacy. This work is not for the faint of heart. It is, however, a calling to those who wish to offer a voice to the often marginalized, unseen, and unheard.
Advocate for equity with J.E.D.I.-centered participation.
My experiences as an inaugural diversity officer were marked with many milestones. One came during the end of my second year as SDO. This original idea sprouted as an attempt to share the work our Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) was doing in collaboration and partnership with internal and external community members. What I dubbed “OEI J.E.D.I. Day” (2022) held each year on May the 4th, is an open house of sorts that the entire university community can participate in.
The support of leadership, managers, and supervisors from across the university makes employee and student participation possible.
Advocacy is on display. During this annual event, our 50+ advisory groups, strategic initiative implementation & planning committees, our affinity groups, and community equity initiative partners share their many efforts to thread justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion across all institutional efforts. Likewise, leaders have an opportunity to participate in community-based work that centers on J.E.D.I. principles.
Attainable Action Steps for Leaders and Managers
By paying attention to the DO experience, asking them important questions, allowing yourself to learn and unlearn, choosing action over adjectives, and advocating for equity while engaging in J.E.D.I. centered participation, leaders and managers can take the first steps towards positively supporting their Diversity Officers.