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The work of embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion into company culture isn’t easy or perfect. You or someone else in the organization will undoubtedly say the wrong thing at some point. There are ways to recover. Every mistake or hiccup is a learning experience, so don’t make it out to be a catastrophic situation. A perspective of continuous learning and growth will get you over the hump and back on track.

Recover, Don’t React

Social missteps occur in the DEI landscape. It’s one thing for an employee to say something distasteful, it’s another for it to come from a leader in the organization. Let’s start with missteps from management levels (managers to executives). For example, an executive leader or a manager can make an inappropriate or off-handed comment that has a harmful impact. Perhaps you said it or someone reported the hurtful words of a leader to you. Rather than responding by squelching the discomfort of the moment, start by asking yourself or the leader following questions:

  • Do you understand why the comment was wrong?
  • Do you genuinely have remorse about the statement?
  • Are you willing to lean into your vulnerability by leading with transparency?

Company leaders aren’t the only ones who are fallible. Employees, educators, politicians, and even family members will inevitably say something offensive. Everyone can benefit from a framework to help move forward from their misstep. These actions are a great way for corporate leaders and others to move forward from a fumble.

  • Educate yourself to understand what went wrong so you can articulate it well.
  • Anchor the situation in a company or DEI value that you have established.
  • Talk about the misstep openly, clearly, and humbly during a company-wide meeting (such as a town hall). Use this as an opportunity to model the behavior you want to see employees exhibit.
  • Catch future missteps on the spot by following the RAC framework:
    • R (Recognize the wrong). Use simple language to recognize the incident that occurred and the part you played in it.
    • A (Apologize for the impact). Apologize for the impact this misstep had. Do not focus on your intention. When impact and intention are at odds, it’s essential to focus and act around impact.
    • C (Commit to change). Commit to changed behavior and continuous education. Remember, you are committing in a public place – you will be held accountable. Make sure you follow through on changed behavior and continuous growth.

(Example: “I recognize that I just gave Billy credit for a suggestion that Mary made at the beginning of this discussion, which was wrong. Mary, I apologize for the impact of this action, and it won’t happen again”).

We will all say the wrong thing, eventually. It’s how we address it that defines the integrity of programs and the people behind them. Use these points to help address verbal missteps that occur as you implement and execute your DEI initiatives.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile