To avoid DEI backlash, focus on changing systems – not people

Perhaps in response to criticism that companies’ efforts to achieve diversity, equality and inclusion are all talk and no action, more and more companies are taking the issue of diagnosing and resolving inequality more seriously. According to a recent survey, more than 40% have already conducted a DEI survey or audit or plan to do so “in the near future.”

But in my own work as a DEI practitioner, who often administers, analyzes, and helps companies conduct these types of assessments, achieving data-driven insights is just the tip of the iceberg. The much more difficult challenge is to address inequalities in the organization without worrying recoil: Strong negative reactions from individuals and groups that undermine or jeopardize the positive outcomes that DEI initiatives seek to create.

Mandatory DEI trainings are linked to lower levels of representation in leadership positions for black, Latin, and Asian workers of all genders, and white women, as a result of resistance from existing leaders. Backlash has been well documented in response to equality efforts by organizations such as affirmative action policies, as well as broader social movements related to equality. In what has since been dubbed the “#MeToo Backlash,” a 2019 survey of the impact of the #MeToo movement found that 19% of men fewer willing to hire attractive women, 21% were fewer willing to hire women for jobs with close interpersonal interactions, and 27% now avoided one-on-one meetings with female co-workers.

Nor are it just people from privileged groups who contribute to the resistance. When the “diversity” of candidates is cited as the reason for their hiring, people judge the qualifications and skills of a candidate from a marginalized group lower – even if they come from the same group themselves. And when marginalized employees are presented with a “business case for diversity” embracing the benefits of diversity for business outcomes, they respond by lower sense of belonging and less interest in joining the organization.

Why is the backlash such a risk when DEI initiatives are put into practice, especially when the vast majority of workers express their support for DEI in the abstract? Because people are highly motivated to protect their own self-esteem, competence and ‘inherent goodness’. When one of these things is challenged, their gut reaction is: resist and reject. When people are told that their language and interactions are biased, it challenges their self-esteem. When people are told that “diversity” and not “skill” played a role in their hiring, or that favoritism played a role in their promotion, it challenges their sense of competence. When people are criticized for being members of a social group that has negative associations, it poses a challenge to ‘inherent goodness’. Regardless of how true these claims are, these framings are at high risk of resistance, rejection and backlash.

A powerful method of preventing backlash is through DEI initiatives to address inequalities as changing systems rather than individuals. By locating an organizational inequality in something less “personal” than an individual or group, such as a process, policy, or normalized set of practices, leaders can empower the workforce while reducing the risk of people feeling personally addressed. Here are some examples of this approach in action, compared to framings that run the risk of triggering kickback.

Play risk: “Biased hiring managers only bring in candidates who are similar to themselves, which is why we have little racial or gender diversity. To address this, we need to train all hiring managers to address their biases.”

Framing systems: “The hiring process lacks consistent guidelines or expectations, which puts an additional burden on hiring managers, creates an inconsistent experience for candidates, and makes it difficult to align our organizational strategy with our hiring strategy. To address this, we need to create initiatives to support hiring managers, such as implementing hiring panels, tracking the overall race and gender makeup of the candidate pool through each stage, and coming together to agree on how to make fair decisions based on resumes and interviews. ”

Play risk: “Workers with disabilities and those who are neurodivergent cannot navigate the workplace as well as their non-disabled or neurotypical peers. To address this, we need to coach disabled and neurodivergent employees and run a campaign to help all employees build empathy for these experiences.”

Framing systems: “The employee experience is built around narrow assumptions about the ‘ideal’ employee that no longer apply to our current workforce, which, among other things, is more disabled and neurodivergent than the workforce of the past. To address this, we need to rethink employee onboarding, job design and the manager-direct-reporter experience to be more accessible, and then integrate these changes into our overall management training.”

Use these five steps to put this approach into practice in your own organization:

1. Collect data to diagnose specific inequalities in your organization.

Use a mix of quantitative and qualitative data, be it research data, focus groups or interview data, network data or HR data, with employee demographics to identify disparities in specific aspects of the employee experience. Try to understand not only “what” inequalities exist, but also “why” and “how” they exist. Qualitative data can be a useful tool in this regard.

2. Communicate initiatives with a systems-oriented framing.

Claim the status quo is unfair, pointing out the specific inequalities you’ve identified, but insist that the things that need to be “fixed” are specific systems, policies, processes, and practices, rather than the people involved . Avoid blaming or shaming individuals or groups and actively resist the fear that DEI initiatives will do so.

3. Appeal to ‘honesty’ when the attempts at change begin.

“Business case” rhetoric tends to alienate members of marginalized groups. “Multiculturalism” rhetoric that focuses largely on supporting marginalized groups can alienate members of privileged groups. Instead, focus on “honesty” and emphasize that DEI efforts require and will benefit members of all groups.

4. Clearly state expectations for change alongside resources and support.

Communicate within the context of each initiative (e.g. building a more inclusive shared language), the goals of the initiative (fewer incidents of micro-aggressions and disrespectful language) and expectations for accountability (by the time of the next annual survey, an improved score to fit in). In particular, emphasize the support available to everyone (learning resources and leadership coaching), while also emphasizing the importance of achieving the initiative’s goals within the expected timeline.

5. Maintain momentum by affirming efforts and celebrating victories.

Regularly identify and celebrate victories and achievements using DEI-related metrics and praise the shared efforts of all stakeholders. Make sure that these celebrations use a similar framework of fairness, universal benefit, and systems improvement as other steps in the process. Finally, regroup the organization around the next goal to be achieved and repeat these steps if necessary.

To truly address and resolve inequality, leaders must first understand the nuances and obstacles that so often stand in the way of the initiatives they take. The backlash is no different, and what at first looks like a reflexive defense, ignorance, or vulnerability, under a more compassionate lens, becomes our universal desire to be seen as dignified, capable, and inherently good. If leaders can protect these core needs while coming together to make change, they can create DEI initiatives that succeed.