DEI Boundaries and Client Autonomy

DEI work is never linear. People and organizations rarely move from Point A to Point B in a neat or simple way. Instead, we go slowly, then quickly, then slowly again. We grow and we resist. We take risks and we retreat. We progress, we stall, and we surprise ourselves. Along the way, the Leverage to Lead team marvels at the challenging and amazing humanity. 

As a team, part of our own self-actualization work involves managing our emotions and reflecting on our biases. It’s something we check in about and discuss regularly, striving to stay transparent about what’s going on with us so that it doesn’t interfere with our clients’ journeys. 

Ultimately, our role is helping people design and build inclusive and equitable cultures where everyone can thrive. But how organizations accomplish their goals can differ widely. We’re human too, with our own biases and opinions and experiences. Sometimes those conflict with what our clients want or choose.

This week, we’re talking about what happens when we believe clients are acting against their own best interest, refusing to take important action, or making decisions we might not recommend. 

Autonomy Means Freedom to Choose

Real equity and inclusion can’t be forced upon any organization. It has to come from people desiring and choosing to create safety and value differences. In the same way, we can empower clients, help them make deeper connections, create safe containers for them to show up authentically, facilitate holding and processing difficult conversations—but we can’t desire or create a new company culture for them.

For Aubrey in Talent Management, this means sometimes accompanying a client whose decision could potentially be a career setback. “I’m not here to tell people what to do. I give them information and my expertise and help them develop their own solutions,” Aubrey reflects. 

So, when a candidate chose to decline a highly competitive offer, Aubrey gave her the best insights and advice she had. “I told her what I knew about firms’ hiring seasons and strategic moves. I could look down the road and see that this firm would not be offering such a position again, despite this candidate’s hopes that she could work somewhere else for a few years and then reach out again later.” 

While being open and direct about opinions, Aubrey takes care to keep in mind that candidates are the ones putting themselves out there and taking risks. In the end, she knows every job search is about the candidate and that they’re the one who has to live with every decision. “After checking in with the candidate, who chose a very different kind of role than the offer she turned down, I could tell she was happy.”

For MJ in Organizational Change and Individual Coaching, client autonomy is vital to DEI work and requires that she fully trust the Leverage to Lead framework. “We honor the client’s process and recognize it’s not always linear. There is no set timeframe for when everyone will be at any particular stage.”

It’s often near the end of a values excavation that autonomy becomes a point of discussion. For the first five meetings or so, organizations are feeling eager and enthusiastic about the work. When the discomfort level rises, perhaps when it comes time to share a new diversity statement with the wider organization, sometimes she encounters resistance. 

“When stress levels go up, we fall back into our default culture,” MJ explains. “At that point, our role is to hold up a mirror to behaviors we see not aligning with the stated values. We remind them of their stated desires and goals, and we offer some accountability when we see a disconnect in their actions.”

Organizational change requires us to be partners, coaches, guides, and honest mirrors. We don’t see our role as sparing anyone discomfort or preventing mistakes. It’s not about finding the fastest or easiest path forward. Sometimes our job is to just sit with clients through the difficult parts of this work, acknowledging and affirming and helping them discover a way forward. 

“We know from experience that when clients can sit with the discomfort and take the risk of being vulnerable, they do succeed in building new cultures,” MJ reassures. “We’ve seen it happen and we trust in our process. Our job is to be with each client as they go through it in their own way.”

Setting Boundaries and Establishing What’s Reasonable

What’s reasonable in Talent Management?

For Aubrey, it’s mutual respect, honesty, and transparency. “I need candidates to be honest with me about their salary expectations, willingness to relocate, and the kind of organization they want to work for, so that I can best represent and support them.” 

Things like lying on their resume, failing to respect someone’s time—by being consistently late or ghosting the recruiter or the company—are clear dealbreakers, as is anything that risks anyone’s reputation. “I’m always upfront about expectations and when I no longer think I’m the right person to be working with a candidate,” Aubrey admits. 

“But just because I might not be a good fit for a candidate doesn’t mean I can’t help them. We have a strong network and love acting as a resource for candidates’ needs, whether for referrals, recommendations, tools, whatever we may know about to help them get the best job possible.”

In organizational DEI work, boundaries and expectations are set both by the client and the Leverage to Lead team. Before beginning an engagement, we’re clear about what organizations need in order to be ready to do this work. When inquiring clients ask us to help them assess their need for DEI work, we decline, assuring them even without an assessment, we can say that racism, white supremacy culture, and bias all indeed exist in their culture. We tell organizations who only want help hiring for diversity that without a culture of inclusion and equity, any new hiring won’t be sustainable.

“We’ve also had clients tell us that they aren’t ready or don’t want to move from Phase 1 of building cultural competency and excavating organizational values to Phase 2 of mapping the way forward,” MJ explains. “Or we’ve heard that, despite some incredible progress and teamwork, a CEO simply isn’t onboard. We respect those boundaries and offer other resources that can help them with their goals.”

Redefining Success

There are no perfect protocols or structures. Nothing can guarantee the outcomes an organization wants. In fact, goals tend to shift as learning happens. 

“One big success is an increased tolerance for discomfort,” says MJ. “It may not feel like something to celebrate, but trust us, it is an accomplishment.” 

This is why our work is highly customized, tailored specifically for each organization’s goals, people, and values. For candidates, success is not always the highest paying or most prestigious job. It might be a job with more autonomy, creative power, or flexibility. 

What success looks like may vary for those we work with, but a successful relationship with our clients and candidates always involves trust and the ability to show up authentically. 

Once, MJ recalls, she was eager to meet a new client with a redesigned PowerPoint deck. Even after Jennifer reassured her that it wasn’t necessary, MJ felt pressure to arrive at their first meeting with something highly polished and sleek. Jennifer’s words at the time resonated deeply and have long been the foundation of Leverage to Lead’s work: “You’re trying to fit into their culture, which is exactly what needs to be examined and probably changed. We have to show up as ourselves or we can’t do this work well.”

If you or your organization is ready to build cultural competency, take an honest look at your values, and work together with support and autonomy, contact our team today.

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