One barometer for gauging how much your organization embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is by looking at who makes the rules. In both the majority of organizations and our culture, the people who make the rules tend to represent a limited number of groups and perspectives. Typically, this group includes people who are white, male, college-educated, upper-class, able-bodied, assertive, and career-oriented.

This is not an indictment of any particular group. Unfortunately, however, by default, people of any group tend to make rules, decisions, and policies that serve their own personal interests and benefit those who are like them. Thus, when looking to create a culture of DEI, we need to ask the question: who makes the rules?

The Impact of Homogeneous Rule-Makers

I recently saw a post from a major company proudly announcing their company’s guidelines around how they communicate, both internally and with their customers. These guidelines were rather rigid and primarily focused on syntax and style, leaving little room for one’s personal style, creativity, or depth. Clearly, there was a clear “right” and “wrong” way to communicate in this organization.

In organizations like this, people who may communicate quite differently (but just as, if not more, effectively) have two primary choices: conform or leave. Hardly “diverse” options. Companies then become stifled, robotic, and lifeless. Interestingly, the comments on this post reflected these kinds of sentiments about the organization.

Looking at rules within other systems, consider those within our legal system, government, law enforcement, service agencies, and large-scale industries such as real estate and manufacturing. The rules of such agencies can literally mean the difference between life and death, imprisonment or freedom, employment or unemployment, or housing or homelessness.

Again, in many cases these outcomes are unintentional. In other cases, rules are created to maintain power and control over other people. In either case, however, the impact is the same.

The Spectrum of Rules

Too many rules, strict rules, rules aimed towards particular groups of people, black-and-white rules, and subjective rules are the antithesis of DEI. They punish some people while rewarding others. They enforce norms that people must comply with, or else. This doesn’t just apply to rules; it applies to decisions, policies, initiatives, programs, and systems.

Questioning rules isn’t about advocating for anarchy or that there shouldn’t be any rules at all. It’s about asking a few questions to determine the effectiveness and benevolence of the rules. Questions such as:

  • Who gets to make these rules (and who doesn’t)?
  • Why do certain people have the authority to make them and others don’t?
  • Who do the rules benefit (and who don’t they benefit)?
  • What is the impact on those who don’t have a say in creating the rules?

When we can take the time to explore the answers to these questions in-depth, we can create rules that are equitable, just, and supportive instead of punitive, divisive, and harmful.

Changing the Rules

As you answer the above questions, it becomes more obvious who benefits from the rules and who suffers from them. This becomes even clearer by noticing who feels threatened at the idea of changing the rules when they are brought into question.

Charts such as these can help you evaluate just how diverse the decision-makers and rule-makers are. Tools, such as the City of Seattle’s Racial Equity Toolkit, can also help with this process. From there, you can start seeing who is not included in making decisions and rules and find ways to include them. This could look like everything from asking for feedback, taking polls, conducting surveys, holding focus groups, or simply revamping the decision-making and rule-making process to directly include other people.

Good rules are more liberating than confining. They establish baseline expectations and boundaries that don’t discriminate or exclude any particular group. Good rules are behavior-based instead of subjective, consistent in their application, clearly understandable by everyone, and well-communicated. They emphasize bottom-line needs while allowing for different approaches by focusing on the “what,” or desired outcome, and less on the “how.

Fortunately, when we include diverse groups, perspectives, and approaches in the process, the end result will naturally achieve these goals. We just need to take that step instead of going through the motions.