Diverse stick figures hero

Addressing Resistance to DE&I Work

“DE&I is divisive.”
“We don’t have that problem here.”
“This is distracting us from real business concerns.”

“What about people with other political views?”

If you’ve worked in the DE&I space for any amount of time, you know that there will always be pushback and individuals ready to derail even the most innocuous of efforts to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the workplace.

And while most organizations have moved past continually having to relitigate the well-established business case for DE&I, there are those who continue to downplay the criticality of DE&I as a driver for both corporate culture and, by extension, organizational productivity and performance.

In i4cp’s 2023 Priorities & Predictions report, member’s of i4cp’s Chief Diversity Officer Board are cited as seeing organizational buy-in as a major concern for the year ahead. Due to current and predicted economic turbulence, many organizations are looking to reduce or cut budgets and reprioritize—conditions that have historically put DE&I efforts on the back burner. Coupled with what some are calling empathy burnout brought on by years of COVID response, social unrest, political division, and a brutally grinding news cycle, it’s no wonder that disengagement with diversity efforts was cited as a challenge by over half of those queried for the 2023 report.

However, this is at odds with the fact that finding and retaining talent (particularly diverse talent) was identified as a top concern of senior leaders across all HR functions, as detailed in the report. And while some organizations (particularly in the tech industry) are now engaging in layoffs, many other sectors (such as healthcare and retail) are still desperately seeking to increase headcount and maintain focus on their diverse representation aspirations.

For both groups, there should be acknowledgement that there’s a need to nurture a talent brand now that will be appealing to future talent markets. That means keeping initiatives like DE&I and ESG at the forefront, as both have been shown to be attractors of top talent and signs of a healthy organizational culture, according to i4cp’s latest research. In the U.S., it’s also simply a fact of the trending demographic shift that’s been playing out since the 1970s that inroads with diverse groups will be a necessity in coming decades.

So, how should pushback to DE&I efforts be addressed? Below are some groundwork practices to consider:

  • Establish CEO buy-in
    i4cp’s research on culture renovation established irrefutably that organizational culture is led from the top down. Messaging from the top should be consistent and on a regular cadence. As a CDO, this means working closely with the CEO to ensure a certain comfort level in communicating DE&I-related content. This means more that just selling the business case to the CEO, however, it means developing them as an ally who sees DE&I as both a moral imperative and a key lever for future success.
  • Align DE&I efforts to overarching organizational goals
    It’s important for CEOs to view DE&I as a solution to other organizational issues instead of as a separate problem to be managed. CDOs should be ready to reinforce the ties between their DE&I efforts and employee productivity, well-being, talent attraction and retention, new market development, and culture health.
  • Enshrine DE&I as a cultural value of the organization.
    When in doubt, an organization’s values should be its North Star. By making inclusion and equitable opportunity for all employees a core value, it will let the workforce know that a commitment has been made that is a foundational expectation of your workplace. Demonstrated commitment to these values should also extend to customers and communities served.
  • Listen to and address pushback when it occurs.
    Don’t ignore pushback! Foster psychologically safe listening channels dedicated to surfacing issues and be ready to deal with pushback head on. Focus groups and listening sessions/tours are excellent tools for this, as well as an always on channel and use of social scraping. There will always be detractors and the job isn’t to silence them; and it isn’t realistic to believe they can all be turned into allies, either. But ignoring them isn’t an option, and i4cp research shows that doing so will only allow pockets of toxicity to fester in the culture.
  • Train people managers to surface feedback and address issues
    Have a clear method for determining who addresses what pushback and when. And when that person is not a DE&I office representative, HR business partners, managers, and supervisors will need training and tools to help them address pushback. Make sure they are well grounded in the business case for DE&I and can clearly articulate the messaging that backs your organization’s DE&I initiatives. Don’t assume everyone is onboard and can explain policies without support.
  • Address behaviors, not beliefs
    If employees don’t feel safe expressing a contrary point of view, their resistance will go underground. It’s a given that not all employees will be onboard, and that some will feel alienated or resentful about DE&I efforts. While it’s good to try changing these people into allies, the real accountability should be around workplace expectations of behavior.
  • Communicate with data and stories
    Be ready to confront pushback with relevant data, a sharp eye on bottom-line business results, and by raising the visibility of the positive impact that a more diverse and inclusive culture has on the organization’s long-term competitiveness in the market. And be prepared to communicate clearly that seeking equity for one group doesn’t translate to harm being done to another.

Those arguing reverse discrimination, meritocracy, and “what’s the big deal?” haven’t experienced–and often aren’t even aware of—the systemic barriers in place for decades that women and minorities are striving to overcome in the workplace. Tell those stories; make it real, and put a face to what your DE&I program is trying to achieve.

Eric Davis
Eric received his master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Marshall University in 1996. He has had 20+ years of workforce experience in a variety of fields. Before coming to i4cp, he worked as a laboratory technician for DuPont, a conference planner for Marshall University, the public relations manager for the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Technical Manufacturing, and a graphic designer for COX Communications.