How to Spot a Bad Diversity Client

A history of expecting free labor from Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) is the reason we need Antiracist education and support in the first place. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend of businesses reaching out to Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) practitioners expecting free advice and free, or cheap, labor. Nothing about this is acceptable.
I’ve been running my diversity consultancy for 17 years and have systems and structures in place to weed that nonsense out very quickly and efficiently. Even before the popular Antiracist uprisings, I offered guidance to JEDI workers and aspiring JEDI consultants. This is a critical follow-up with more of what I’ve learned (often the hard way) about taking on clients after spotting and sometimes ignoring red flags.
Hopefully, this will prevent you from dealing with bad client acquisitions by raising your awareness of potential landmines. Perhaps a few business representatives will read this and chill with the patriarchal, delusional white supremacist behavior reflected in the warning signs below. Engaging in one of the following behaviors when interacting with a BIPOC professional is a problematic subtle act of exclusion. If someone employs more than one of these tactics, even after you clarify your expectations and boundaries — run.

1. BIPOC Labor is No Longer Free

It is perfectly ethical to offer a “paid consultation.” As in, every time you take that 30–60-minute intro call where people want to extract your wisdom for free — you can charge for that time. I have white, male, cishet mentors to thank for alerting me to this reality and many others. I resisted the idea at first, but it’s still your time, even if it’s an introduction. Introductory JEDI calls are often laden with valuable advice. JEDI practitioners field dozens of these calls a week, and that time is precious. At the height of the daily Black Lives Matter protests, we experienced a tenfold increase in inbound requests per day. This would have been utterly overwhelming in the early years. I have a business development team that screens my calls and emails these days, but if callers insist on bypassing the screening to access me immediately, there’s a fee. Charge your standard hourly rate. Get clients used to paying for your time so they value your work. Anyone who doesn’t want to pay you — red flag. Slavery is illegal in America (except in the US prison system). Reticence to compensate Black and brown people is evidence of a lack of respect and cultural awareness. Shame on imposter clients who make overburdened small JEDI businesses write proposals that they have no intention of contracting. Some folks will request a proposal just to extract your methodology and get someone else to deploy it on the cheap or ‘handle it’ internally. These are bad actors. Steer clear of them by asking the right questions. Ask for their budget upfront so they neither waste your time nor use the budget as an excuse to take your proposal IP and run.
Ask for their budget up front so they neither waste your time nor use budget as an excuse to take your proposal IP and run.

2. The Bully

Maya Angelou said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” If a company rep is impatient, unrealistic, and bullying in the initial exploratory phase — what makes you think they will be fun to work with for the long haul? Heads up: They won’t. Don’t reward bad behavior. Just like in romantic relationships, if they don’t respect you in the beginning, they won’t in the end either. Always ask to speak with the people you will be working with. Avoid taking a contract out of desperation. There’s more work for JEDI workers than ever before. Hold out for good clients who respect your rates and boundaries.
Hold out for good clients who respect your rates and boundaries.

3. The Bad Listener

If the client ignores your advice on the initial calls — red flag. If a client tells you they don’t know anything about diversity work and have never had a real initiative of any kind, then they proceed to tell you exactly what they expect you to do — be forewarned. You are the expert, so why would you allow them to tell you how it’s going to work? Do you tell your dentist, mechanic, or lawyer how to do their jobs? Test the client for flexibility. Make suggestions about your unique process and what you’ve seen work, and see whether they are open to input. If all they want is someone to check some boxes so they can claim to have done something, take note. If your business is just you, or otherwise small, maybe you are ok doing one-off training or being deployed as a JEDI tool instead of a professional strategist. Either way, know the difference so you can manage your expectations and theirs. Don’t be suckered into agreeing to “fix” their diversity issues using solutions you haven’t tested and proven. If all they want is training, make sure you tell them that’s all they are getting — versus perpetuating the delusion that training alone, will fix a culture. It will not.

4. The Disengaged Executive Team

My company received a handful of calls during this JEDI tsunami season — from folks declaring that their board or executive team “…diddon't need JEDI interventions. This is just for employees.” Red flag. Unless the organization has invested in and is currently implementing a robust long term inclusion and Antiracism strategy, then the work should actually start with leadership. We generally do not accept clients with boards and leadership who are against the work of attempting to opt-out of engagement. Failure to secure senior leadership buy-in is the number one reason JEDI efforts fail. Failure to set clear measurable goals and embed data-driven accountability are the other two variables that send diversity work the way of the Titanic. Guess who establishes those critical standards? The executive team. If executives don’t create the goals and accountability, then you run the risk of having leadership scuttle the whole effort. Why? They will wake up and object to the direction just when the work gets hard, as it inevitably does. Bypassing the leadership work guarantees an unsustainable effort. Change is challenging and you cannot be successful at JEDI work without full leadership participation for the long haul.
Failure to secure senior leadership buy-in is the number one reason JEDI efforts fail.

5. The Speed Demon

These folks want a callback today, a proposal tomorrow, and start date next week. Everyone’s Antiracist JEDI work is urgent, but watch out for clients with unrealistic expectations. After George Floyd’s public lynching, companies around the world scrambled to post Black Lives Matter Statements. Presumably in an attempt to avoid the specter of corporate Blackwashing, many began the mad dash to secure their very own JEDI consultants, hire a Chief Diversity Officer, or promote an internal JEDI lead. Even if you are one of the lucky consultants to get a call, their failure to plan is not your emergency. That stress can kill you, so don’t take it on. Unless you plan to jump through fiery hoops like an abused circus animal, I suggest you pace yourself professionally and manage expectations. Communicate what is realistic because, as you know, speed is not your friend in JEDI work. Doing it well takes time and careful planning.

Dr. Tiffany Jana (they/them) is the author of four books published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers: Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships across Differences , Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion, the IPPY Award winning second edition of The B Corp Handbook, and Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions. Follow their YouTube docuseries Life With Doc Jana for a more personal journey, including a children’s inclusion storytelling series “StoryTime with Doc Jana”.
Dr. Jana is an international public speaker and the founder of the TMI Portfolio of Companies — a collection of socially responsible and interconnected brands working to advance more culturally inclusive and equitable workforces. Now offering 100% virtual JEDI support. TMI Consulting, a portfolio company, is a Benefit Corporation as well as a certified B Corporation and earned 2016, 2018, and 2019 Best for the World honor from the nonprofit B Lab that certifies B Corps worldwide.
They have been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Psychology Today, Fast Company, SXSW, and Forbes. Dr. Jana gave a TEDx talk in December 2012 as part of TEDxRVAWomen. They earned the 2017 Enterprising Women of the Year Award from Enterprising Women Magazine. They were named one of 2018 Top 100 Leadership Speakers by Inc.com and are a columnist for CEO World Magazine.