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No longer ‘en vogue’? What to do when DEI has fallen out of favor

May 4, 2024
Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity, equity and inclusion have remained a battleground for compliance — largely for public institutions, especially colleges and universities. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott condemned DEI workplace efforts and voiced that disdain to state agencies and public universities early last year, and higher education institutions announced plans to comply with the state’s top-down orders.

As a DEI consultant underscored to HR Dive at the time, the Supreme Court’s higher education ruling in June 2023 created a “chilling effect” on DEI at work.

Because the ruling was on Title VI, not VII, of the Civil Rights Act, nothing has explicitly changed at federal level, Mandy Price, CEO and co-founder of DEI tech company Kanarys said. “But we’ve seen a lot of litigation being brought against private employers, so I think folks are just fearful,” she told HR Dive.

Beyond compliance, workplace culture is experiencing a shift: Diversity is now a dirty word, seemingly, in corporate social responsibility reports, and some HR experts have told Monster that DEI is the first to go when budget cuts are on the table.

Last year, industry experts told HR Dive that DEI wasn’t dead but evolving — with an emphasis on “employee experience,” for example, as a helpful rebrand. This year, in HR Dive’s Identity of HR survey, 16.9% of HR leaders said “racial equity will decrease in importance” over the next three to five years; this is up from 7.6% of respondents last year.

Conversely, 25.5% of HR Dive readers said that racial equity will grow in importance, compared to 38.9% of respondents to last year’s survey.

This raises the question: Are racial equity and other aspects of DEI simply changing names and faces? Or is such programming in veritable trouble?

DEI is evolving, amid political pushback
Due to the changing legal landscape, DEI policies will need to evolve, Price believes.

“We’ve seen organizations start to move away from using the term ‘DEI’ because of the political connotations that have overtaken it,” Price said.

It’s not that her team explicitly advises to remove this language, Price explained. Instead, she recommends that leaders use “concrete” language to skirt mixed-up connotations.

“When [HR leads] actually say, ‘We want to ensure the workplace is fair for all employees; that no matter your age, or background or gender or sexual orientation, you should be treated fairly,’ employees overwhelmingly agree with that,” she said.

Price continued, “We have to really go back to the foundation: the meaning of our DEI programs, how they are tied to the business goals of the organization, and the culture, mission and vision as well.”

She pointed to a Pew Research Center report where the majority of working adults (56%) said, as recently as last year, that increasing focus on DEI at work is “a good thing.”

Is there harm in changing the name?
Experts previously told HR Dive that “employee experience” was a safer rebrand. But that doesn’t come without its qualms or challenges.

Price shared a bit of her experience, wherein her clients — largely chief diversity officers or chief inclusion officers — express concern over changing DEI-related titles. They ask her, “Are we walking away from the work?”

Her rebuttal: “You know your organization best.”

If HR professionals and people officers are facing resistance because certain terms have “different connotations to different individuals,” they should change that, she said.

Getting back on track
Four years removed from the police killing of George Floyd, Donnebra McClendon, global head of DEI at human capital management company Dayforce, said now is the perfect time for companies to begin again.

“Acknowledge that you’re off track. You can’t get back on if you don’t acknowledge when you’re off,” McClendon told HR Dive. “Acknowledge that there has been some backsliding,” she said.

She also recommended reviewing company needs, by asking questions such as: “What are you missing, in terms of meeting employees’ needs around inclusivity and belonging?” and “How can you provide it?”

Top-to-bottom buy-in is also crucial, McClendon believes; from the C-suite to frontline employees, everyone should understand how diversity benefits the bottom line.

“DEI is not the responsibility of one person or one team within any organization,” McClendon said. She often tells her Dayforce workforce that “DEI is a part of our DNA, which means every person in this organization has to own it.”

Owning it means, she said, “we are all empowered to be advocates. And advocating requires action.”

McClendon offered a piece of advice: When a company takes action, celebrate that.

“Make realistic and measurable goals, and celebrate your wins along the way. If we don’t do that right, then we lose momentum,” McClendon said.

Whether HR should change their approach depends on an organization-by-organization basis, Price said. The most important objective is creating an inclusive workplace.

“Culture isn’t some mantra that we put up on a wall, on a mouse pad or a coffee mug,” McClendon said. “It comes down to who we are as people and what we bring to the organization, and our lived experiences.”

In for the long haul
American political pushback against DEI is likely here to stay, at least throughout 2024; Price foresees it lasting through at least the election.

Likewise, Price doesn’t see justice work going anywhere. “It’s important to note that DEI is just a human issue,” Price said. Globally, organizations are “continuing to lean into this work,” she added. The only difference is that “underrepresented groups” differ depending on the locale.

To continue this work, amid DEI backslides, McClendon recommends preparing all employees for “the long haul.”

Early on, the motivation and buy-in was easier to come by.

“Everybody was super excited. You got lots of media coverage. These kinds of things keep you going, keep you energized,” McClendon said. “But when that dies down, there’s still work to be done.”

by Caroline Colvin



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