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Organizations remain committed in the face of DEI backlash

By Xan Daniels

A company’s commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is a solemn vow to ensure each member of today’s diverse and dynamic workforce is afforded the opportunity to succeed. It’s about making sure people are not held back due to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any other identities. It’s about including people from all different backgrounds and life experiences in consideration for job openings, promotions and developmental opportunities. It’s not about providing preferential treatment. Yet misconceptions, half-truths and blatant lies about DEI have led to confusion, skepticism and controversy.

The backlash against DEI has reached a fever pitch as a small but vocal faction has set its sights on putting an end to this crucial work. Last year, when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rolled back decades of precedent by banning race-based admissions in higher education, these detractors were elated. Not only had they succeeded in ending affirmative action in colleges and universities, they viewed the ruling as an opening to challenge corporate DEI programs next

Some even predicted this was the break corporate leaders had been waiting for. They falsely believe companies had been forced into adopting policies and programs that aren’t good for business and the SCOTUS decision provides a legal precedent that would enable them to get rid of DEI programs once and for all. While some DEI consultants predicted a “chilling effect on corporate action on DEI,” that has proven not to be the case, as leaders have not only remained steadfast in their commitments to DEI, they have doubled down on them. 

Staying the course

Nearly 60% of C-suite leaders say their organizations expanded their DEI work in the last year, while about one-third maintained it and just 1% significantly decreased their DEI activity. That’s not to suggest business leaders have been immune to criticism of DEI initiatives. More than half (59%) say they have experienced an increase in backlash toward corporate DEI efforts, yet 91% say the Court’s decision to abolish affirmative action in college admissions hasn’t impacted the priority they place on DEI.

Clearly, business leaders understand that a commitment to DEI is essential to creating a positive and inclusive workplace culture, driving innovation, attracting top talent and fostering long-term success in today's diverse and interconnected world. The richness of experiences, backgrounds, beliefs and perspectives brings diversity in thought to the table, giving the organization a competitive edge. 

According to a recent survey by the Public Private Strategies Institute, 82% of business leaders consider diversity initiatives very important to their business strategy and 67% expect such initiatives will be even more important to their companies in three years than they are today. While the battle over DEI is often portrayed as political, 75% of conservative business leaders agree that such initiatives are critical, with 66% expecting them to grow in importance over the next three years. 

Pushback and perception

How then should business leaders respond to the DEI backlash? After all, the last thing an organization needs is pushback in the form of boycotts, negative publicity or increased attrition. First, it’s important to remember that public perception of DEI remains overwhelmingly positive, with 75% of Americans in support of DEI initiatives. That’s not to suggest the voices of DEI opponents are unimportant. They are incredibly important, and leaders must take the time to listen to them and address their concerns.

While this is certainly a time to dispel some of the misconceptions about DEI, it’s also an opportunity to acknowledge there is a population of people who feel they’ve been displaced in the diversity, equity and inclusion conversation, when they are very much a part of it.

Much of the pushback we get around DEI is about representation in hiring and people feeling that someone else got a job, a promotion or favorable treatment because that someone else is an “other,” rather than because of qualifications. Often, this is because people misunderstand the meaning of affirmative action. It has nothing to do with quotas — that is, having to hire X number of Black, Latino or LGBTQ+ individuals, for example. Affirmative action is simply a matter of casting a wider net and inviting everyone to participate in the process by reaching out to different populations of people and encouraging them to apply.

Employers should never minimize concerns about representation or any other aspects of DEI, but they need to be very specific about the company’s practices. They must stress that the goal is always to get the best person for the opportunity and that includes ensuring that people from all backgrounds, cultures and lived experiences are given consideration, but not preferential treatment. Throughout, it’s crucial to be completely transparent. If an organization is not transparent, people make up their own narrative and generally, that narrative is not going to be favorable.

Review, revisit, revise

As leaders respond to DEI pushback, it’s imperative to revisit policies and practices to ensure they are aligned with the organization’s purpose and values. Many are seeking clarity and guidance as they find the backlash has raised the stakes to develop programs that are compliant with federal and state laws. Thus, it’s crucial to ensure that unfair advantages are not being granted to people because of their gender, skin color or veteran status, but to add a needed perspective or experience to the team.  

Throughout the process, leaders must be frank about what diversity means to the organization, how their DEI strategy ties back to its purpose and values and how they are executing on its goals.  What are they doing to ensure people aren't left out? How are they reporting progress against those goals in a meaningful way and demonstrating that what they are doing has resulted in impactful outcomes for people? Along the way, they must openly, honestly and compassionately address the concerns, fears and anger, for DEI is all about valuing everyone.

Since its inception, DEI has been in a constant state of evolution. The DEI of today — incorporating gender identity, disability, neurodiverse individuals and more — bears little resemblance to the DEI of two decades ago. The current backlash is a clear signal that we need to start preparing for the next impetus of what we are striving to accomplish. Only then will organizations be able to compete in this accelerated growth environment, while leveraging and valuing the most dynamic and diverse workforce in history.

Xan Daniels
Xan Daniels
By Xan Daniels

As global inclusion and diversity leader, Xan Daniels is charged with delivering on Alight’s promise to foster an inclusive culture, drive inclusive behaviors, and improve diverse representation across the organization. In this role, Xan partners with Alight leaders to ensure inclusion and diversity is visible, valued and sustained across the company. She also collaborates with the Integrated Talent teams to develop strategies that attract, rise and retain diverse talent.

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