SAVANNAH, Ga. — For all the progress employers have made in implementing workplace diversity, equity and inclusion strategies, the first half of the 2020s have presented a number of challenges — not the least of which is opposition.
According to a 2021 Gartner survey, 42% of employees said they resented their employers’ DEI efforts, and the same percentage said they viewed those efforts as divisive. A slightly larger share, 44%, said a growing number of their colleagues felt alienated by DEI efforts.
For DEI consultant Eric Ellis, president and CEO of Ohio-based Integrity Development, the backlash is just one of many offshoots of broader negativity in the world beyond work.
“Negativity is what gets attention,” Ellis told attendees Monday at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Inclusion conference. “What I see in the world right now is that we are not as divided as people tell us we are, but if you keep telling us we hate each other, before you know it, we’re fighting in the streets and we don’t even know why.”
But the moment is ripe for DEI professionals, who can adapt to these circumstances in order to ensure their work continues to make a difference, Ellis continued. Part of this is realizing that people want to be unique and bring their authentic selves to work, he said. They also want to be equitably recognized and rewarded and want to be in a workplace where they feel they belong.
“All the people who think it is their purpose to cancel DEI, the only doorway to the future is the one that we’re talking about right now,” Ellis said. “Diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, accessibility, respect and kindness have no credible opponents.”
#1: Listen, learn and lead
To overcome potential opposition, DEI professionals must first be willing to listen to what all employees have to say and show care for all, Ellis said.
“The most effective educators educate to the individual learner,” he continued. “There are different groups and individuals across the organization, and DEIB has to recognize that we have to customize those solutions to deal with those various groups.”
HR can solicit feedback and conduct listening sessions so that employees can be honest about their problems. Because employees may feel hesitant to share their thoughts with supervisors or with HR, a third party may be ideal for hosting such sessions, Ellis said.
#2: Embrace DEI agility
DEI professionals must be adaptable to change, and they have to anticipate obstruction, Ellis said.
“I believe you have to be shrewd enough and agile enough to adjust your targets in order to get the same good work done,” he continued, outlining four elements of an effective response: culture, ownership, respect and engagement.
Ownership is particularly important to keep in mind. “Everybody at every level has to take ownership for what we’re going to achieve,” Ellis said. “We can’t keep sitting back and waiting on [leadership] to have the answers. If you’ve got the answers, let’s have you [apply] those.”
#3: Build trust and confidence
The premise of this point is simple: DEI professionals must deliver on assignments and promises in order to build employee trust in their work, Ellis said.
Organizations can leverage training of managers and supervisors to strengthen trust. Even employees who are initially resistant to DEI training may open up if they know that their leaders have taken the training as well, Ellis said, and this can be even more effective when those leaders are held accountable to that training.
#4: Inclusion must be inclusive
Ellis illustrated this point through his personal background, stating that when he first began working in DEI, he thought of his role as a “diversity ghostbuster.” But he eventually realized that he needed to transition from a “blaming and shaming” approach to one in which he transparently recognizes his own biases and considers others’ perspectives.
This approach allows DEI pros to create environments that are psychologically safe and trusting. “When people can trust you, they will share with you who they are,” Ellis said. “If you stop chasing people, they’ll stop running.”
It also allowed Ellis to realize that the “number one diversity issue in the workplace is that one that affects you.”
“The majority of my training over the last three decades has been with White men,” he continued. “I have learned from White men what it is about DEI that doesn’t work for them, and I’ve incorporated some of that into my approach. You’ve got to understand that no one wants to keep going to a birthday party for somebody else.”
#5: Establish backlash reduction strategies
Employers must be proactive in addressing and reducing potential backlash, Ellis said. They can do this in part by following a “power three” model of inclusion.
The first area contains the DEI issues affecting the organization’s dominant culture; the second area focuses on issues affecting traditionally diverse employees; and the third area focuses on individual supervisor and employee relationships.
The latter is particularly important given the subjectivity of manager-employee relationships, Ellis said; “Wherever there is subjectivity there is bias, so you’ve got to look to reduce the subjectivity of those systems.”
#6: Clarify how DEI adds value
HR will need to demonstrate both the tangible as well as intangible benefits of DEI, Ellis said. Leaders should be able to identify their “why” for focusing on DEI, he added, and should establish personal commitments and actions for advancing DEI.
From there, leaders can record the results of those commitments and report them to the DEI team, which in turn can capture and tell the stories that come out of these results, Ellis said.
#7: Walk the talk and honor the employee
DEI leaders must be open, accountable and supportive, Ellis said. He advised attendees to admit mistakes, take responsibility and give credit to others for good work.
“You do not have to fight against people who oppose what we’re doing,” Ellis said. “When you begin to show them that you will fight for their interest as well, they stop fighting back.”