16. January 2024

Why is everyone talking about… the DEI backlash?

Personio Pulse: This Week in HR - 2

Welcome to Personio Pulse: This Week in HR, where each week we take a look at the latest trends in the world of work, what you need to know about them and what they mean for you as an HR professional. 

This week we’re covering the DEI backlash and what that means for your HR team.

What you need to know

It’s been a busy few weeks for billionaires criticising Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Elon Musk, lululemon co-founder Chip Wilson, and hedge fund manager Bill Ackman have each taken aim at the concept of DEI in business, drawing rebukes from civil rights organisations — and in Chip Wilson’s case, lululemon itself.

Unfortunately, this sentiment seems to be reflected in the actions of certain companies with reports of tech giants like Google and Meta making cuts to their DEI programmes in late 2023. With a cost of living crisis in full swing, UK employers are citing growing business costs and calls for higher wages as a reason to reduce their investment in DEI. 

This ‘DEI backlash’ heralds a difficult year ahead for fair treatment in the workplace. But it comes at a time where new research from McKinsey shows diverse companies are more likely than ever to outperform their less diverse counterparts, so cutting DEI initiatives to increase profits may prove to be a false economy. 

What others are saying about it 

Aggie Mutuma, founder of DEI consultancy Mahogany Inclusion Partners, says: “I’ve seen first hand how the likes of Lacoste, Mint Velvet, Unicef and the British Red Cross have prioritised diversity to drive not just financial growth but also holistic success and societal impact. Retracting diversity and inclusion efforts is a step in the wrong direction.”

“It's crucial to maintain the momentum, keeping our foot firmly on the accelerator for sustained progress and a more inclusive future," she added.

What that means for you

Our take is that while some companies reduce DEI efforts, those prioritising DEI will gain an edge in attracting and retaining top talent. Without mincing words: now is not the time to scale back. 

In a recent episode of our podcast Tomorrow’s People, host Perry Timms spoke to Atif Choudhury, CEO and co-founder of Diversity and Ability (D&A). During their conversation, Atif made several inspiring recommendations:

  • Cultivate a culture of “anticipatory welcome”. Rather than relying on employees to ask for adjustments or disclose a diagnosis, consider removing the need for them to ask in the first place. To do this, ensure all employees have access to resources such as assistive technology, wellbeing support or any other tools you may have in place to promote inclusion. 

  • Don’t approach diversity in siloes. An Employee Resource Group that only discusses one characteristic (for instance, a women’s group with no resources for women of colour) is inherently unhelpful. Atif put this clearly: “If we don't have an intersectional understanding of the barriers people face, we don’t have a relevant understanding. What we have is optics.”

  • Think in terms of “disabling situations” rather than in categories of people. Instead of putting one or two supportive policies in place for neurodivergent people, for example, take a continuous approach. When planning an event or an HR initiative, consider all the ways people could be put on the back foot and proactively mitigate them. You won’t always consider everything and get everything right, but you’ll be able to iterate and improve for next time. 

We’ll end on this note: DEI initiatives are not always perfect, and there’s certainly room for debate over which ideas work better than others. But think of this backlash as an incentive to hone your DEI programmes and make them better — your people (and your organisation’s bottom line) will thank you.

What else should I read? 

That's all for this week's edition of Personio Pulse: This Week in HR. Check back next week as we continue to dissect the latest trends impacting the ways we work. 

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Anna Jager-Elliott

Anna Jager-Elliott

Anna Jager-Elliott is a Senior Content Strategist at Personio. She enjoys watching trends emerge in the world of work and writing about how they'll affect our day-to-day experiences.

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