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Doubling down on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

DEI must not DIE. Because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

We have settled into 2024, a year that many of us predicted would bring with it a whole raft of challenges and headwinds for workplace DEI efforts. It may be early days, but are we witnessing a DEI backlash of unprecedented proportions? Sadly, I think it’s fair to say yes, we are.

Some of us held our breath as DEI steadily climbed up the political agenda, waiting for common sense and humanity to prevail. But with US and UK elections set to collide in 2024, DEI is not only caught in the crosshairs, it is being used as a pawn in the political battleground. And as critique of DEI enters the mainstream, what is the cost for workplace diversity efforts?

Johnny C Taylor Jr., President and Chief Executive of the US Society of HR Management went as far as predicting that US DEI policies would “come under full out attack” in 2024. The reverberations of the July 2023 Supreme Court Affirmative Action ruling are stretching way beyond the walls of the US. Time will tell whether Johnny is right, but power balances are shifting, that’s for sure. How is this playing out?

• Return to office mandates have grown teeth. What’s new for 2024? We’re seeing an increasing number of employers introducing penalties for individuals who fail to meet (often one-size fits all) in-office requirements.

• Commitments once celebrated, now under question. Many employers in the US and beyond are reviewing recently introduced DEI targets, commitments and programmes (and in some cases dialling them down).

• Fear has set in. Even in organisations whose commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion remains steadfast and unshaken, we are witnessing a new level of fear and trepidation in speaking out on diversity issues. Particularly on areas such as trans rights, where employer advocacy has perhaps never been as desperately needed.

• A failure to live up to promises of 2020. All of the above comes hand in hand with a profound sense of despair among some that the DEI window of opportunity that opened after the murder of George Floyd has been closed and locked. What should have been a watershed moment, feels increasingly like a moment.

Through our work, while it may be slow and subtle, we have seen a rise in hostility towards DEI. It’s a deeply uncomfortable reality for many working in this space. Among the complex range of factors that have brought us here is a misinterpretation of DEI as a zero-sum game, or a sense that somehow if diverse talent benefits, those in the privileged majority will miss out. Make no mistake – this sentiment is real, and it’s not a new phenomenon. Some years back, I discussed the concept of contextual recruitment with a senior leader, let’s call him Bob. Contextual recruitment provides employers running large graduate hiring schemes with a fascinating new data set (including the average A-level grades achieved in a candidate’s school or college, during their year of study). It enables employers to review academic performance through an entirely new lens. And let’s face it, to make fairer assessments. From a social mobility standpoint, it’s a game changer. But, hang on a minute. What about Bob’s kids? They’re at an elite (and expensive) independent school. Surely this new innovation will reduce the opportunities open to them and hamper their chances of landing their dream graduate job? All of a sudden, equity and fair treatment doesn’t feel quite as appealing to Bob.

And Bob isn’t alone. Last year, Eric Shuman, Eric Knowles and Amit Goldenberg wrote an article unpacking the psychological threats driving resistance to diversity efforts. They argued that to tackle the resistance, you need to understand what’s driving it. Alongside the “Status Threat” Bob experienced, they describe the “Merit Threat”, where acknowledging the existence of bias and discrimination may call into question the merit of our own success, and the “Moral Threat”, where acknowledging one’s own privilege links you with an unfair system. The shift we are seeing today is those in the majority, like Bob, who felt unable to voice their concerns about DEI back in 2015, 2018 or 2020, now have a platform. And a lot of people are listening.

But all is not lost. In the US, Littler’s annual Inclusion, Equity and Diversity C-Suite Survey found that despite almost 60% of employers indicating that DEI backlash increased post the Supreme Court Affirmative Action ruling, in the last year almost the same percentage of employers increased their DEI efforts. In the UK, we are seeing a steady increase in the focus on non-financial misconduct from the regulators along with a strong movement towards speaking out against instances of institutionalised misogyny. As a senior leader, if culture is not at the top of your strategic agenda, you should be worrying.

Despite Elon Musk’s best efforts, DEI won’t die. And while we can’t sit behind the sofa with our eyes closed, waiting for the bit about DEI resistance and hostility to end, there are things we can do to navigate through this.

• First, we can reframe what’s happening right now – as Shuman, Knowles and Goldenberg remind us, a key to tackling resistance to DEI is to understand what’s driving it. To this end, we may need to set out, very clearly, what Diversity, Equity and Inclusion each mean, and why they each matter. This is about levelling the playing field and removing barriers.

• Second, we can identify strategies and mechanisms to double-down on inclusivity and fair treatment for all. Part of this may involve critically assessing how staff raise concerns if they are treated unfairly, or if they experience counter-inclusive, disrespectful or demeaning treatment. Your people may know what your reporting channels are, but do they trust these channels and feel safe to use them?

• And third, we can do more to support those driving these efforts (including ourselves!). Sometimes, while it can feel counter-intuitive, particularly during a time of crisis, as DEI leaders we really do need to put on our own oxygen mask first. It has never mattered more for organisations to double down on the commitments they have made to diverse talent. Inclusivity, dignity and fair treatment for all are not political concepts, they are among the most basic and essential workplace requirements.

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