How to Start DEI Conversations in the Workplace

When it comes to advancing DEI initiatives, dialogue is critical. “SWIM Masters” podcast guest Hilary B. Jones shows us how to foster the right conversations, right now.


You and I both know that it’s important to shift the cultures in our workplace towards greater diversity, equity, and inclusion* (DEI). 

But, unfortunately, other folks (potentially your boss or coworkers) might not have received the memo.

I get it and I have been there. 

As your company is growing as fast as possible and everyone is doing 10 jobs, the default as a person with privilege is to prioritize growth, productivity, and pretty much everything else first. If your company is worried about making your next payroll or if you are 6 months behind on orders, you probably don’t believe you have time to slow down to be intentional around your culture, even if it is something you value.

Or, perhaps your boss or coworkers simply don’t see a need to focus on DEI because they think that we are post-racism or post-sexism, because it doesn’t directly affect them, or because they grew up in a different time™.

How do you bring up the topic of DEI when it isn’t a priority in your workplace– or worse yet– when you think it will be met with hostility?

Instead of asking about ways to start a DEI program in your workplace, start with this question: 

How do we create a productive workplace where all employees are happy and excited to come to work?

This is a question that most folks can get behind– regardless of how busy they are or their political affiliation. It neutralizes the issue, makes it practical, and keeps folks from getting defensive**.

Once you’ve brought up this question in your workplace, then you can start to operationalize it. What does it mean to create a happy workplace? A productive workplace? What makes employees excited to go to work?

That’s when you can really start to dig in.

Let’s connect the dots here.

Workers are happy when they feel like their employers trust them, when they feel connected to their coworkers, when they feel psychologically safe to bring up concerns, and when they feel like they can be authentic

They feel excited to come to work when they are doing work that challenges them and their professional development, when their employers support them, and when they are well-compensated.

A happy workplace where employees are excited to go to work is, inherently, more productive. If the company’s policies create space for employees to feel like they are a part of its growth, like they are respected, and that allow them to fully lead their lives— both inside and outside the workplace– that is a good start. Diverse workplaces also make better decisions and are more profitable.

Here’s how we connect the dots between our goals and our policies and practices:

  • Trust, connection, psychological safety, authenticity

Policy and practice examples:

  • → regular 1:1s with our staff
  • → formal and informal opportunities get to know our coworkers
  • → recognition of life (and the multitude of living our lives) outside of workplace, sans assumptions related to our gender, sexuality, race, religion, or other identities
  • Challenged, supported, well-compensated

Policy and practice examples:

  • → clear individualized professional development and growth plan and collective learning opportunities
  • → recognition for accomplishments
  • → pay transparency, equitable pay, cost-of-living increases, benefits
  • Respect, full lives, diversity

Policy and practice examples:

  • → input into decision-making, adding pronouns to email signatures
  • → PTO, parental leave supports, flex time, opportunities for unpaid leave or sabbatical for family care, artistic pursuits, or professional development
  • → job descriptions recognize commitment to and actions toward DEI, recruitment beyond friends/people you know, weighing personal experiences and potential growth vs. hard skills in hiring decisions
  • → using our company mission and values as a filter for all of our policies, practices, and decisions

DEI is a holistic endeavor— unfortunately one implicit bias training isn’t going to magically transform your company. You will have to address it via all of your policies, hiring practices, workplace culture, products, marketing, partnerships, and more.

But! You will have to start somewhere. If you are in a position of power, you will have more control of the conversation. But even if you aren’t in a position of power, you do have the power to start the conversation.

*DEI is sometimes accompanied by B for belonging or J for justice

**while fighting systemic oppression is the goal, if we are starting at our workplace, engaging our coworkers’ defensiveness probably won’t lead to change



Hilary B. Jones is a consultant supporting companies in the music products industry to create awesome, inclusive workplaces holistically through workshops, policies, and values alignment. She is an adjunct professor of Gender Studies and Psychology and the former Executive Director of RIOT (formerly Girls Rock! Rhode Island). Hilary has played guitar and bass in bands for one million years and currently hosts the podcast Mid-Riff about gender, music, and music gear.

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