The backlash to DEI is here and it’s becoming harder to ignore.
Prominent US figures including Elon Musk, Bill Ackman and, of course, former President Donald Trump, have vocally and in some cases, vociferously, criticized both the intentions and effects of DEI strategies in professional and personal environments.
While it may be easy to shrug off these criticisms as the egos of the rich, white elite that view their positions of power being threatened, it will land true for others and victories for the movement in the US higher education system will only entrench this further.
“Elon and his DEI must DIE tweet were just the tip of the anti-DEI iceberg,” Sheryl Miller, founder and director of diversity training consultancy Reboot Global, tells UNLEASH.
DEI must DIE.
The point was to end discrimination, not replace it with different discrimination.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 15, 2023
Miller highlights that Musk’s provocative anti-DEIB statements will resonate with some individuals within the workplace, who may then cite “reserve discrimination” as their reasoning.
“Others may attack DEI because they fear that it will result in them (or people like them) losing opportunities they rightfully deserve. Others want to defend freedom of speech which they feel DEI restricts.”
Whatever the motivation behind anti-DEIB sentiments, HR leaders must be aware of the ramifications. The ongoing culture wars, stoked by governments and public figures on both sides in the US, Europe and beyond, will likely drive this issue onto the desks of HR leaders sooner rather than later.
Josh Bersin, global industry analyst and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company, tells UNLEASH that the anti-DEIB attacks are a “significant problem” for HR leaders and DEI executives.
“Yet despite the ‘anti-woke’ movement, political debates, and inability for Harvard, Penn, and other universities to speak clearly on these topics, businesses are not going to stop focusing on DEI.”
Regardless of the current political winds, I believe that DEI leaders have one of the toughest jobs in business.”
“As corporate investments in DEI decline, it’s time to do away with the “DEI police” in HR and focus on embedding the principles of inclusion, fair pay, and open-minded discussions in every business unit.”
Indeed, this perception of DEIB as a form of ‘morality police’ within the workplace only serves to increase tensions and undermine initiatives, particularly if led by inexperienced practitioners or self-appointed activists acting as a judge, jury and executioner.
Miller adds that HR leaders must be very careful who they appoint to “facilitate and represent DEIB” within their organizations, while learning from the mistakes of others.
“Unleashing untrained but willing volunteer colleagues in this area can be problematic. I’ve recently been told by a client that staff members of color are running sessions where they are making white participants say the n-word.”
The workplace is a reflection of society and culture
Criticism of DEIB, either on a higher or daily level, is often thrown in with the wider ‘anti-woke’ sentiments aimed at social and culture issues.
However, disillusionment with workplace DEIB initiatives has been growing since 2020 when attention on the topic heightened, according to Chandra Robinson, VP, Team Manager in the Gartner HR Practice.
An increased focus on individual strategies at an organizational level has resulted in increased pushback, she explains to UNLEASH.
“While it might seem that anti-DEI movements have developed as a result of ‘too much’ DEI, research suggests that pushback stems from two types of perceived threat: threat to individual identity and threat to social identity.
Employees, especially from traditionally dominant social groups, may resist DEI efforts if they perceive them as a threat to their positive self-views.”
This can result in individuals resisting perceived discrimination against them, particularly those from “traditionally dominant social groups”, defensively pushing back if they feel “blamed or shamed” for workplace DEIB challenges.
However, this is often because of “miscommunication and misunderstanding” says Robinson, resulting in anxieties about ongoing DEIB efforts.
“In response, HR leaders must be front and center in efforts to communicate the overall organizational benefits of DEI while underscoring the core principle that DEI aims to ensure that every individual within an organization can achieve success, particularly those who are often overlooked”.
For DEIB to take hold, you need committed individuals to lead on it
Like so many other people-focused strategies, DEIB efforts require buy-in from senior management beyond that of a designated DEI officer or executive.
While different sources paint differing pictures of just how many chief diversity officers have been appointed in the last few years to lead DEIB efforts and whether they are still in the same role, experts agree that having such a representation should really be viewed as starting point, not the end goal.
“It is the need of the hour to ‘set the tone from the top’,” Manjuri Sinha, global director of talent success & DEI at OLX Group, tells UNLEASH.
“The commitment to DEI goes beyond HR Leaders. The CEO herself/himself/themselves should re-emphasize the importance of DEI in the organization. Reiterate with data, trends and insights on what initiatives have been taken and what initiatives are planned.”
Sinha explains that the role of the CDO, in her view, is that of a guide providing the context and framework of DEI objectives, meaning that DEIB can instead “live and breathe” through the entire employee lifecycle with functional HR leaders focusing on each area “be it talent acquisition, branding, talent management, development, etc.”
“We also need to bring in more of these functional experts into the arena of dialogue. A lot of DEI conferences today focus only on DEI Leaders; unless we bring in HR functional leaders and business leaders into this realm the topic is endangered to remain in a silo.”
Siloed DEIB initiatives pose a higher risk of being pushed back on with workers more likely to feel that they are personally being targeted negatively or that their colleagues in other areas are being treated differently.
Gartner’s Robinson adds that business leaders will be willing to participate in articulating why inclusion for all employees is important for organizational success, and how, which in turn helps reduce and push back against “initial anxiety, discomfort and misunderstanding.”
“HR leaders should pivot from DEI existing in a silo to having open and honest conversations and bringing DEI into the wider organization fold. This new approach will change how leaders interact with DEI, positioning it not as “what” they do but “how” they achieve high performance in their key objectives”.
Embedding DEIB across an organization should be a priority
Of course, getting buy-in and follow-up is easier said than done, and other c-suite executives will need to show how they are supporting these initiatives with both words and actions.
As Rob Symons, executive vice president EMEA at SmartRecruiters, points out, a lack of belief from leadership that DEIB is a “long-term strategic priority” means it may falter under scrutiny.
“Unfortunately, there have been instances where DEI initiatives were deprioritized due to a perceived lack of direct linkage to return on investment or value creation for the organization,” he tells UNLEASH.
“Those that have integrated DEI into the very fabric of the business, treating it as a crucial aspect across technology, processes, and people, recognize that it is not an area where cost-cutting should be entertained.”
Bersin is another advocate of making DEIB a business strategy to ensure buy-in and long-term commitment from senior decision-makers beyond HR. He highlights Target, Chevron, SAP, Unilever, Schneider Electric and Salesforce as success stories of strategic business benefits from DEIB, pay-equity, or inclusion programs.
“Each of these companies frames DEI as a business strategy, not an HR strategy. Political or not, these strategies are important,” he says.
He added: “It’s not that HR-centric DEI investments are shrinking; I think they’re just migrating into the business where they belong.”
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John Brazier is an experienced and award-winning B2B journalist and editor. Prior to joining UNLEASH, John both led and wrote for a number of global and domestic financial services publications, covering markets such as asset management, trading, insurance, fintech and personal finance.