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We are at the end of a busy quarter full of DEI observances. In April many companies observed Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Jewish American Heritage Month.  While I noticed companies post messages of celebration and support for these observances, these messages felt overshadowed by the recent tragic shootings that seem to be happening all too often now (read about how to channel this bad news into meaningful action).

This month is LGBTQ pride month – and my LinkedIn timeline is full of companies that have rainbow-fied their logos to symbolize allyship. This is no surprise.  More and more data shows that the LGBTQ community is here to stay, and consumer trends show that younger consumers identify as LGBTQ in greater numbers.  While it’s business-savvy marketing,  consumers and employees are not so easily convinced by this gesture, as many have flagged this act as “rainbow washing.”  Rainbow Washing is when an organization posts a rainbow brand, but maintains a toxic internal culture and supports policies that are hostile to the LGBTQ community. This is an example of performative allyship, evident by a surface-level gesture, with no real authentic action by the company to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community.

June is also Juneteenth, another observation with an increasing amount of performative gestures. Juneteenth occurs on June 19th and is now an observed federal holiday commemorating African American Emancipation Day.  Already, a major company has been called out for using the holiday to increase sales, instead of using it to further meaningful DEI goals internally or within its business practices.  These marketing stunts and revenue-driven actions are part of the performative allyship that lands companies in hot water.

Organizations must understand that posting a rainbow logo or adding Juneteenth content to their product is not itself an authentic gesture.  It does not mean they have made internal DEI progress or that they have a positive impact on underrepresented communities. It’s marketing – and employees and consumers know it.

Real or Not?

My recommendation is not that companies stop their diversity marketing strategies altogether, it’s that they ensure that their marketing reflects progress toward the inclusion of the groups that they are marketing to. In a sea of rainbow logos and Juneteenth posts, the true differentiator for companies is quickly becoming authenticity.  Words and logos should match a company’s actions. Here’s how to know if your DEI efforts are authentic:

  1. Your marketing matches your culture.  You acknowledge your underrepresented communities and create spaces for them internally. You have employee resource groups (ERGs) specific to the communities that your marketing caters to.  You empower and invest in your ERGs and company leaders attend events and act as executive sponsors
  2. You engage with your internal communities on external messaging. Before switching to that rainbow logo, you connect with your LGBTQ ERG or LGBTQ employees who are out and vocal about whether they feel like that action is appropriate and a true representation of the internal climate. Communicate your desire to be authentic in your action. Your employees shouldn’t be surprised by your public displays of allyship and support. At some companies that do this well, the marketing team partners with the DEI team, who can reach out to or recommend internal team members to review the content or plan. These employees should feel empowered to respond honestly and should also be recognized for their contribution to company work outside of their core roles. Embedding this review system as part of the project plan will ensure that you don’t forget this step in future marketing campaigns. (A major fast-food chain has received backlash in its Pride campaign that may have been avoided if more LGBTQ employees and consumers were included in the decision.)
  3. You equip your workforce to become allies in the collective journey toward greater inclusion. Your organization provides a foundational understanding of inequity and helps employees understand that systemic inequity means that your organization is innately inequitable. It’s not a matter of whether there’s inequity for underrepresented groups, it’s a matter of how those inequities show up. This position on equity should come from the CEO and executive leadership during company discussions on DEI so your DEI practitioner isn’t responsible for constantly justifying the stance. You provide opportunities for employees to share their pronouns and employees understand why sharing and using employees’ pronouns are important. Your workforce, including leaders, is committed to lifelong learning.
  4. You can track improvement for groups.  You track improvement in the representation of the underrepresented groups.  You look at your workforce metrics to see growth in the percentage of LGBTQ employees over the last several years, or a growth in the Black managers promoted at your organization.  These are data-driven signs that your company is moving in the right direction. members can visit the replays & transcripts of our DEI workshop series for practical guidance on how to do this.
  5. You assess your workforce representation.  A recent report estimates that 8% of the US population identifies as part of the LGBTQ community.  If there are very few or no employees that identify as LGBTQ in your workforce, it probably isn’t a coincidence.  They may be leaving your workforce, may not feel that they can be themselves, or perhaps there’s no community for them to participate in. You assess your representation – and if you aren’t seeing representation in your workforce, you get to the root of the issue.
  6. You educate your employee base.  You provide training that helps all levels of employees better understand the issues that impact their marginalized colleagues, business partners, and customers. Provide training on relevant topics such as LGBTQ history, the importance of Juneteenth, how to be an ally at work, and cultural humility, among others. Ensuring your internal culture reflects your external marketing plans is a great way to steer clear of accusations of Rainbow Washing or performative allyship.

As we celebrate Pride and Juneteenth this month, the ultimate goal is not to look like an ally, but to be a true ally. Corporate leaders at all levels can do that by going deeper than the surface. This allyship makes a real difference in the representation and experiences of marginalized groups in your organization and in your community.

The contours of these issues are evolving every day. At our “1st Annual Practical ESG Conference” – being held virtually on October 11th – our session on “DEI Trends in the Midst of Rapid Change” will further unpack LGBTQ issues and other DEI topics that you and your board need to navigate. Register before this Friday, June 17th, to get the best rate. You can sign up online, email, or call 1-800-737-1271.

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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