DEI isn’t dead. It’s just evolving, experts say.
Next to layoffs, talk of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on the cutting room floor has dominated HR discourse. Following the 2020 police murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and police killing of Breonna Taylor, companies jumped to attention and started championing the Black Lives Matter movement. Many Black activists were skeptical of performative allyship, but corporate America kept 2020’s energy alive in 2021.
Then came 2022.
While some reports said employers were narrowing the gap between DEI intention and action, death knells tolled by the year’s end. Published in November 2022, research from Glassdoor indicated that corporate investment in diverse hiring initiatives, pay equity audits and employee resource groups ticked up between 2019 and 2021 — only to fall slightly in 2022. Monster reported that only 5% of recruiters see DEI as one of their top three priorities for 2023. In the same report, 10% of respondents said diversity initiatives are among the “first to go” in bearish economic markets.
Following this turn in tone, HR Dive spoke to two DEI practitioners who made sense of the less-than-stellar 2023 outlook.
Thesis No. 1: DEI may not be dead, but it needs a revival.
“It’s not a priority whatsoever,” Randi Bryant, a self-identified DEI disruptor, told HR Dive when asked about her view of DEI progress reportedly stalling. Her theory: Corporate leaders do not see diversity, equity and inclusion work clearly.
“I believe there are a lot of people — particularly people in power – that are so distant from the real picture of the world for everyday people that [they] don't understand how much of a priority it must be. I believe a lot of leaders see it as a ‘soft area,’” she said. “It’s something that they do to be kind to their employees. And they don't realize that DEI is absolutely necessary for the employees to be kind to each other.”
Bryant also described the need for a DEI revival in the truest sense of the word — “To restore to consciousness or life; to restore from a depressed, inactive, or unused state: bring back; to renew in the mind or memory,” according to Merriam-Webster. In her experience as a DEI consultant, Bryant has found corporate leadership sees DEI as “altruistic, like a social responsibility, or they see it as marketing.”
“I have been involved in so many companies where it is important to them to look like they care about creating diverse, equitable and inclusive environments,” she said, “but not actually creating them.”
Thesis No. 2: DEI is changing faces
DEI is on HR’s “short list” for 2023, according to Cinnamon Clark, McLean and Company’s practice lead of diversity, equity and inclusion services. But notably, Clark and her team have seen an uptick in HR interest in employee experience. “I think that — and there's lots of evidence to prove that — ‘employee experience’ is the new way of saying inclusion without being off-putting to some audiences,” she told HR Dive.
She noted the “polarized environment” in which HR practitioners are to do inclusion and equity work, nodding to the Stop WOKE Act and “don’t say gay” laws. “All of those things play into that discomfort and the negative connotations around saying ‘DEI,’” Clark observed.
In February, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott published anti-DEI memo, following former President Donald Trump’s 2020 executive order restricting diversity training. While Clark doesn’t “necessarily agree with” the idea of rebranding DEI objectives as employee experience initiatives, she understands the importance of it.
“If [the term ‘DEI’ is] going to prevent the work from happening, then we have to take an authentic approach based on our stakeholders and based on our audiences, and be very intentional with that,” Clark said.
Solution No. 1: Revisit the business case — maybe
How can the HR professional who wants to pursue DEI proceed in this climate? While many practitioners have argued that the “business case for DEI” can be hollow, centering the financial gains and ROI may be key in a recession-like era.
A Glassdoor economist previously told HR Dive that as reported interest in DEI falls and leadership re-assesses organizational budgets, HR leads would have to plead “a much stronger” case for diversity and inclusion initiatives.
But diversity, equity and inclusion responsibilities should not be pinned solely on HR, Bryant said. Her belief is two-fold: First, DEI issues touch all parts of a business, from supplier diversity, to accessibility in products to creating inclusive workplaces.
Secondly, in her experience, HR professionals aren’t equipped with the proper training to tackle DEI issues. C-suites should hire chief diversity officers, she recommended, and grant them the same analytical access and powers as CFOs.
Solution No. 2: Know that trust is the real DEI
Both Clark and Bryant underscored the importance of trust for both attracting and retaining talent. If an organization centers trust, the work — be it “DEI” or “employee it experience” — will be carried forward, Clark said. “When you don't feel as though [management has] your back or even more importantly, they understand, then you're reluctant to share those parts of yourself,” she said. Clark added that lack of trust shows up as “lack of engagement, lack of empowerment, lack of innovation,” as well as attrition.
“We think of these things as one thing in a silo, but really, they're all interconnected and they all contribute to that overall employee experience,” she said.
“It comes down to productivity, and what people will give to you if they feel comfortable and safe and protected — if they feel empowered, if they feel as if they can share their opinion without being criticized, if they feel as if they see someone that looks like them, if they feel as if they can move up,” Bryant added. “I mean, how much effort am I going to put towards working my hardest in order to gain mobility in a company in order to reach the highest areas of success if I don't feel like it's possible, right? Why would I do that?”