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Updated: September 18, 2023 Viewpoint

Viewpoint: Worcester's DEI project and the transformative power of transparency

My team consulted with the City of Worcester on a racial equity audit and strategic implementation for 15 months. Despite significant disruption, this diversity, equity, and inclusion culture-change project was successful. Your DEI project can be too, if leaders pay attention to three details.

A photo of Susan Letterman White
Susan Letterman White, managing partner at Letterman White Consulting

A substantial financial and time commitment

Worcester did not seek out the lowest cost provider and instead committed a significant budget to a racial equity audit. Budget size signals leadership’s commitment, messages the project is not merely performative, and motivates people to devote their time. Budget size builds in accountability for results. Without change, legitimate criticism of the return on investment follows. While leaders of a minimally financed project may be inclined to delay or halt a project after a disruption, leaders of a well-financed project know delays mean a reduced ROI.

Launched in January 2022, Worcester experienced a significant and public disruption when the project’s internal leader – Stephanie Williams, Worcester’s then chief diversity officer – resigned from the City in March 2022, citing the administration of then-City Manager Edward Augustus as one of the reasons. Following her departure, Augustus left in May 2022 to become chancellor of Dean College in Franklin. Instead of causing a delay to the project, these high-profile incidents caused a heightened awareness of the problems and action by City leaders.

Following Williams resignation, her duties as CDO fell to Eric Batista, who eventually became city manager as well, succeeding Augustus. Despite the turnover, Batista still prioritized the DEI project, and our weekly project management meetings continued uninterrupted. Espoused values of diversity quickly became real when Batista selected Hung Nguyen to serve as assistant city manager and promoted Amy Peterson to be his chief of staff. This early win motivated others to meet project deadlines.

First drafts of the audit report, strategic blueprint, and recommendations, and an employee resource group toolkit were delivered on June 24, 2022. The final report was delivered at the beginning of August 2022. Energy for more culture change and a budgetary commitment to continue the work led to Worcester’s first anonymous employee-engagement survey. Then using the survey data, Batista and his leadership team created a DEI vision statement, objectives, and measurable criteria. During this time, the DEI function was restructured under a new Executive Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion with leadership in a new role of chief equity officer and responsibilities for human rights, investigations, and training and development.

A narrow focus on human resources

Worcester focused the racial equity audit on HR. These processes determine who is recruited, hired, developed, engaged, and promoted, and whether this be a diverse group of people. Narrowly focusing on HR means evaluating the talent cycle processes with the strongest effect on creating diversity and a culture of inclusion. Evaluations of a person’s ability to do a job can be adjusted to eliminate biases and infuse equity. Decisions about who gets an empowered mentor affect people’s sense of belonging, ability to succeed at their jobs, and engagement in their work.

Bold transparency and a data-driven DEI project

Data-based decisions about problems and solutions make intentional changes possible. Worcester’s data suggested a lack of racial diversity, equity, and inclusion in city government. The data were not hidden or explained away. Instead, the entire report was shared publicly. The benefits of such transparency are:

• An awareness of the problem, which fosters a sense of urgency and collective responsibility for improvements.

• Encouraging stakeholders to rectify the identified racial inequities.

• Community engagement and participation in discussions about experiences, leading to solutions and initiatives.

• Increased confidence in leaders who demonstrate vulnerability by sharing unfavorable results.

Overall, publicizing unfavorable audit results can serve as a catalyst for change, promote equity, and foster a more inclusive and just workplace. If shared with the public in a thoughtful fashion, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Susan Letterman White leads Letterman White Consulting, an organization development consultancy in Quincy.

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