A lot has changed since organizational psychologist Ella F. Washington wrote her first book in 2022, The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had gripped the nation, accelerating the Black Lives Matter movement and sending companies scrambling to figure out diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Four years later, DEI is facing a backlash. More than 30 states have introduced laws banning or limiting DEI initiatives, and many firms are cutting their DEI teams, including the newly added role of chief diversity officer.

“People who are very anti-DEI have a very loud megaphone and are amplifying messages that suggest this journey isn’t one that we should be on,” Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary said to Washington. “If you were to add another chapter that acknowledged where we are now, what would that chapter be about?”

Washington, a practice professor at Georgetown University and founder of Ellavate Solutions, said she would write a chapter on how organizations can navigate those “sticky moments” when stakeholders express concern over the changing political environment.

“There should be more transparency through the whole process,” she said. “Sometimes businesses do have to pivot and shift for different reasons. Though we don’t encourage that, we know it happens. But that level of transparency still should be had if you want your employees to trust you for the long term.”

“People who are very anti-DEI have a very loud megaphone.…”— Stephanie Creary

Being Authentic in the Corporate World

Washington spoke to Creary during a recent episode Creary’s podcast series, Leading Diversity at Work. (Listen to the podcast.) The women have known each other since they were doctoral student members of The PhD Project, a nonprofit effort to increase the diversity of business school faculty.

Washington’s early experiences with this nonprofit were part of the inspiration for her new book, Unspoken: A Guide to Cracking the Hidden Corporate Code. It’s a practical guide for unpacking the many unwritten rules of the workplace that employees from underrepresented groups are not always privy to. Written with success in mind, Unspoken is a resource for people of all backgrounds looking to succeed without sacrificing elements of their identity.

“This is not about diminishing your identity or authenticity. It’s about better discerning how your authenticity can best be highlighted and nurtured in the workplace,” she said. “And in some moments, recognizing when there is an unhealthy work environment that you may need to pivot away from.”

What Does It Mean to Be Authentic at Work?

Washington said many businesses want to support the notion of “bringing your whole self” to work, but it’s increasingly difficult for employees to decipher that.

“I don’t think organizations mean be your fully cranky self. They mean be your best professional selves, and they should be clear about what that means,” she said. “And we, as employees, have to evaluate the organization based on their actions and what they are allowing in their culture.”

If there is a misalignment between words and actions, and no way to reconcile the difference, perhaps those employees should find new jobs in companies that value them, she said.

“We are not new to this resistance around DEI, and we know that the pendulum will continue to swing.”— Ella F. Washington

Washington also invited employees of underrepresented backgrounds to “craft their own narrative” by thinking ahead about what details of their lives they want to share with their colleagues. Relevant personal stories help bring people closer and break down barriers and stereotypes.

“I talk about having a professional elevator pitch that just focuses on your role and your goals, but also having a personal elevator pitch, which is your personal narrative. Who are you? Where did you grow up?” she said. “Maybe you’re the daughter of veterans. Maybe you’re super proud that you went to a historically Black institution for college. Maybe you’re very engaged with your outside-of-work hobbies, and you feel like they’re connected to some way that you’re showing up in the workplace.”

As scholars who work closely with businesses, both women said the value of DEI is indisputable. Mountains of research and years of practice prove it.

“We’ve found that when you don’t have diversity, equity, and inclusion practices in place, everyone’s experience of the workplace is less positive and/or more negative,” Creary said.

She asked Washington whether she’s feeling optimistic as the latest assault on DEI ramps up across the country. Washington’s answer was unequivocal.

“We are not new to this resistance around DEI, and we know that the pendulum will continue to swing,” she said. “I have to be optimistic to do this work, Stephanie. Because I think if I wasn’t, I don’t know how I could get up every day.”