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What Do DEI Consultants Do?

DEI – which stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion – describes policies and programs that help facilitate the representation and participation of diverse groups. Many people think of ethnicity when they hear the word “diversity,” but it also applies to gender, abilities, religion, culture, age, sexuality and more. In a workplace setting, diversity comes with many benefits but only if equity and inclusion are part of the process. DEI consultants spearhead these efforts. What do they do exactly? In this article, we’ll go over what DEI consultants do, when organizations could benefit from DEI, the most common challenges and how to become a DEI consultant.

DEI consultants help organizations install policies and strategies regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. Consultants accomplish this through performing audits, helping clients refine their goals, developing monitoring and evaluation tools and much more.

What does a DEI consultant do?

When organizations want to develop or improve their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, it’s common to seek out DEI consultants. These experts take an objective look at the organization, analyze the client’s current policies and suggest new strategies or ways to improve the old ones. They’re valuable to organizations that want a roadmap for DEI success. Here are five examples of what a good DEI consultant does:

#1. Consultants audit an organization’s current state of DEI

Some organizations hire DEI consultants to run a diversity training or two, but good consultants have so much more to offer. To benefit the most, organizations need to get an extensive audit. The goal is to get a comprehensive picture of the organization’s current state regarding DEI. That includes demographic information, HR policies, disciplinary procedures and so on. The consultant will review any relevant documents, and meet with leaders, employees and other stakeholders. If the organization is concerned about confidentiality and there’s no contract in place yet, it may ask the consultant to sign an NDA. That’s a better option than withholding information the consultant needs to give the most accurate assessment.

#2. Consultants help refine an organization’s DEI goals and strategies

The vast majority of the time, organizations that hire DEI consultants want to improve their DEI strategies, but how exactly? What policies aren’t working? What new procedures can improve things? Defining an organization’s DEI goals are a big part of a consultant’s role. When talking with the client, they’ll ask questions like, “What is your biggest concern right now?” and “What does success look like for this organization?” A good consultant will develop strategies that address each concern and present a plan of action based on the organization’s vision. Consultants should know DEI is not one-size-fits-all. As an example, if an organization has done extensive employee training with no real improvements, a DEI consultant should understand more training is likely not the right strategy.

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#3. Consultants help organizations evaluate and assess their efforts

How will an organization know if a DEI consultant was worth it? A good one will have tools that evaluate and assess progress. That means understanding and implementing quantitative and qualitative evaluation methods. These should be included in the contract. A good DEI consultant will also provide recommendations and specific next steps. If it’s a long-term contract, the consultant is responsible for guiding and supporting the client through the changes required to install DEI strategies within the organization. Activities can include writing reports that track and measure progress, and collecting feedback from employees and other stakeholders. As an organization evolves, so will its DEI strategies. Consultants should be prepared for this.

#4. Consultants help organizations retain and engage employees

When employees don’t feel included or valued at their jobs, they’re more likely to leave. Systemic issues with DEI increase employee turnover. On the other hand, when DEI efforts are successful, employees are more likely to feel satisfied at their jobs and stay longer. DEI consultants can help organizations retain a more talented and more diverse workforce. Clients also typically need help figuring out how to engage their employees in their DEI efforts. New policies and procedures can create conflict, so good DEI consultants can help address resistance and create a culture where everyone feels included. Activities can include offering training programs, workshops and seminars, as well as designing inclusive recruitment and hiring practices. Open communication is also very important, so consultants can help create opportunities for communication, employee resource groups and affinity networks.

Diversity activities can help improve employee engagement. This article provides 13 examples.

#5. Consultants make sure organizations comply with DEI laws and regulations

DEI can be a great thing for an organization, but it can create legal issues if not handled properly. Consultants help clients work through these concerns and work within the law. As an example, collecting DEI-related information can bump up against data privacy laws. Good consultants must fully account for these laws, as well as all employment and nondiscrimination laws, when developing DEI strategies. The tension between DEI and the law is complex, and in some places, it’s become an especially fraught battle. According to NPR, conservative legal activists in the United States have been increasing attacks against corporate DEI programs, which grew significantly after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. With affirmative action essentially banned in American colleges and universities, legal action against corporate DEI could be next. This is just one compliance issue DEI consultants need to be watching closely.

What should everyone know about being a DEI consultant?

Evan Soken, an educator & social worker with 10 years of experience in urban public education and equity initiatives, recommends not doing DEI work alone, even if you’re technically an independent consultant. “Find others doing this kind of work and connect with them regularly for support and accountability,” he says. “DEI can be heavy and complex; it often requires you to navigate relationships with communities and experiences you are unfamiliar with. Finding a diverse network of people who will push you, encourage you and call you out when necessary is vital to doing this work well.”

When do organizations need DEI?

Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are often discussed in the context of corporate DEI, but any organization can benefit from a DEI consultant, including schools, nonprofits, government agencies, law firms, hospitals and so on. Here are five signs an organization might need a consultant:

#1. They don’t currently have a DEI strategy in place

Organizations that lack a clear vision for DEI or policies that monitor the success of DEI strategies could benefit from a consultant. Trying to create a plan from scratch without the help of an expert could create lots of issues, including legal ones.

#2. They’re having trouble building (or retaining) a diverse workforce

Research shows diverse workforces are more productive, innovative and better at problem-solving. However, many organizations struggle to diversify their workplaces. There are lots of concerns to account for, and without the guidance of an expert, employees and potential employees can become frustrated and disillusioned.

#3. There’s resistance to change

Organizations often try to implement DEI strategies with DEI officers or other in-house work, but employees may resist change. This isn’t necessarily because they oppose DEI, but because there’s disagreement about what methods are best. Whatever the reason, resistance can be hard to address. A qualified DEI consultant can serve as a mediator through this challenging process.

#4. The organization uses outdated language

An organization’s communication materials, which include job postings, employee handbooks, reports, newsletters, memos, websites, and videos, can either support or contradict the organization’s DEI vision. If the materials use outdated language, a DEI consultant can help rewrite everything into a more inclusive form.

Making an organization’s language more inclusive is just one part of creating an inclusive work environment. This article describes seven important steps.

#5. They’re getting discrimination or bias complaints

Many organizations don’t realize their efforts at DEI fall short until there’s a specific incident that rattles the company culture. If discrimination or bias complaints start piling up, and existing systems aren’t addressing them adequately, it could be time to call a DEI consultant.

What are the most common challenges regarding DEI?

There are several reasons why DEI efforts might fail. DEI consultants need to account for these challenges. Here are three examples:

#1. The root problems were never identified

DEI can fail right at the beginning if the root problems aren’t identified. How could an organization possibly make this mistake? They didn’t go deep enough. As an example, an organization might have a general idea of its issues – its leadership is too homogenous and employees are leaving frequently – but if it fails to identify the specific reasons why, its efforts can only be so effective. Like weeds, the problems will keep returning until the organization deals with the roots.

#2. Leadership wasn’t truly committed

Organizations are usually aware of DEI’s positive impact on their reputations, but leadership may not be fully committed to making real change. Instead of creating and implementing comprehensive changes, they may apply surface-level policies or make promises they have no way of keeping. They’re only interested in DEI because it makes them look good, but when it comes to doing the hard work of transformation, there’s a lack of motivation. This type of DEI can’t create sustainable change.

#3. Leadership has misunderstood how much work and time real change takes

According to Evan Soken, organizations often underestimate the scale of the task and how much time it takes to make meaningful change. In the three years he’s worked as an independent DEI consultant, he’s found many clients hope they can solve their issues with just a few policy changes and some extra trainings. “Because the change they want often requires deep, uncomfortable relational work between colleagues and significant organizational culture shifts,” Soken says, “Leaders can get frustrated when the process is slow or nonlinear. In my experience, leaders will leap to make big, well-intentioned promises to their staff and other stakeholders without doing thorough consultation with those stakeholders to fully understand what will be required to deliver on those promises.”

How do you become a DEI consultant?

There isn’t a single educational pathway to becoming a DEI consultant. You will need at least an undergrad degree in a field like human rights, social justice, communication, gender studies, history, social science, psychology, or other interdisciplinary studies, though many organizations care less about the specific degree and more about your other experiences and qualifications. Soken first got curious about DEI work because of his personal experiences as a queer, multiracial person, and because he worked in mission-driven organizations, he received lots of opportunities for education and DEI-focused task forces. Some organizations require consultants to have a master’s degree in organizational development, instructional technology, or human resource management. Others accept professional certificates in DEI.

If you’re interested in developing your DEI skills, check out our list of 10 top-rated courses on DEI

The best consultants regularly attend workshops, seminars, and classes to stay updated on the most current strategies and terminology. Knowing how to navigate difficult conversations while remaining professional is also essential. The best DEI consultants possess a high level of emotional intelligence and a commitment to being inclusive in their own lives. With these skills, a consultant helps an organization develop a strong, long-term DEI strategy that protects employees and sets the organization apart from the crowd.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.