In a recent SAP Insights article, Unispace Chief Diversity Officer Chely Wright examines the factors behind DEI pushback and what organizations can do to increase support for these programs.
DEI programs are not only drivers for business success; in the workplace, they can help create welcoming environments for all. However, recent research from Gartner found 42% of employees resent their organizations’ DEI efforts, 42% view them as divisive, and 44% believe they have alienated colleagues.
Why are companies seeing this pushback and what can be done to overcome the negative sentiment?
Common objections to DEI programs
Feeling a loss of control or autonomy –Autonomy is an important psychological factor at work, so if employees are told to change their behaviors or terminology, they may feel a loss of power.
Colorblindness versus multiculturalism – Employees say they don’t pay attention to others’ identities, making it impossible for them to treat colleagues differently based on their identities.
Believing inequalities are resolved – Some believe the social inequalities DEI initiatives aim to assert don’t exist anymore.
Five ways to overcome DEI backlash
Consider these strategies if you're facing negativity with your DEI initiatives:
Take ownership– Research shows that most DEI leaders don’t believe their company’s stakeholders“do their part,”which can make it hard to convince employees to do theirs. To ensure stakeholders honor their DEI commitments,measure their performance against these commitmentsas part of their yearly evaluation.
Communicate the “why”– Clearly explain how DEI goals contribute to the company’s success. Without this understanding, employees are less likely to buy in.
Represent everyone– DEI efforts should consider all employees’ needs. One way to do this is by creating employee resource groups (ERGs) that reflect the composition of your workforce. For example, in response to the number of our employees identifying as fathers, mothers, or caregivers, we created our Parents & Caregivers (PAC) ERG to support these employees’ needs.
“The Parents & Caregivers ERG was a way for us to include people in a conversation about DEIB who may not have otherwise felt it applied to them. Diversity means everyone, not just people of color, or women, or the LGBTQ+ community.” - Chely Wright, Chief Diversity Officer, Unispace
Help detractors gain new perspectives – Rather than writing employees off, try to understand their worldviews, and then help them to better understand the worldviews of others.
Focus on the positive –Make sure you’re creating a culture of belongingand emphasize DEI isn’t about taking things away from people; it’s about making more space so others can participate.Chely adds: “DEIB leaders must consider how to do this work in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel like they are losing something or are maligned as an oppressor, or an inherently bad actor based on their identity.”
Prioritize ongoing communication and education
To achieve lasting success, organizations should monitor how employees feel about DEI initiatives over time. Checking in will encourage people to come forward with their thoughts and concerns, opening the door to important conversations and learning opportunities.
“These are real people with genuine perspectives, and they deserve real, plain-spoken conversation. I sincerely believe that when people know better, they do better.”
When employees associate DEI with good business practice, they’re more willing to support DEI initiatives and become an ally. By making everyone feel seen and heard, organizations can create more inclusive spaces that propel success.
Chely brings a background that fuses advocacy, business, real estate, and communications. She has vast experience advancing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) efforts and partnerships, working with companies and organizations to create more inclusive working environments. Under her leadership, Unispace has established a Global Supplier Diversity Program, created a DEIB learning and training program "We.Belong," and launched Employee Resource Groups—Women@Unispace and Parents & Caregivers@Unispace. All these initiatives aim to create a genuine sense of belonging for all individuals. In 2023, Chely won a GlobeSt. Women of Influence Award in the Diversity Champion category and was recognized as a Crain's New York Notable LGBTQIA+ Leader.