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  • September 28, 2023

DE&I’s Moment of Truth: The Path Forward Requires Transformation

Abstract Illustration for DE&I's Transformation

Editors’ Note: This is Part 1 of a four-part article series on Diversity’s reckoning moment. In this part, I named three priorities we need to address. Each of the next three posts, starting with this one, addresses one of these priorities.

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The Racial Reckoning of 2020 that turned into The Backlash of 2023 can become The Reinvention of the next decade.

Back in 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, for all the justified skepticism accumulated over decades due to dashed expectations, would this time truly be different? And it did feel different. Even CEOs were making denunciations against “systemic racism” and were wading into tackling “equity.”

A critical mass of powers-that-be from corporate executives to politicians to community leaders and even chiefs-of-police were chastened enough that their pollyannish views that “despite pockets of discrimination, overall, we are doing pretty well on this diversity thing,” were blown to smithereens in the wake of an unarmed Black man being asphyxiated for eight minutes, twenty seconds on video until his uttered last words, “I can’t breathe,” presaged his death.

For sure, energy, time, and millions of dollars followed the exhortations and outrage. Townhalls with “courageous conversations” popped up everywhere. Chief Diversity Officer roles proliferated in companies of all sizes in all industries. Diversity budgets got a pop and many DE&I leadership roles were created where there hadn’t been any.

So many promises were made. They sure sounded good and sincere and game-changing.

So many promises were made. They sure sounded good and sincere and game-changing.

Then the counterforces of backlash roared back in rage. Affirmative Action in universities has been struck down by the US Supreme Court. Corporations are being attacked by certain politicians by name for their commitments to DE&I. This has served to make some companies back off because the publicity was not worth it and those who had been skeptical and resistant within corporations who had not embraced the program in the midst of the reckoning began to say no, this is enough.

Fears of recession in 2022-2023 accentuated the resistance. While in 2000 and 2008 Diversity survived the cutbacks induced by the financial crises of those years by remaining among the top 2-3 priorities as companies pruned back their usual four to six strategies, in 2023 DE&I did not have the same staying power across the board partly because so much had already been invested in DE&I in the urgent response of the previous couple of years.

So, a good number of DE&I budgets tightened up or implementations delayed. Further, the 2022 attrition rate in DE&I roles was 33% vs non-DEI roles at 21%, with the average tenure at under two years — one of the shortest among all executive roles. Many who did not lose their jobs or abandon them, saw their DE&I roles downgraded. This has led to some alarmist headlines in the media. While some of these headlines reflect what is truly going on, others are exaggerations aimed at stoking the heat against DE&I. In any case, there’s a lot of noise about the current and future state of our field that we must address.

It’s in a time like this that it would be easy for us to fully fault the reactionary forces against DE&I or the overwhelming force of economic headwinds for the slowdown and trendlines of resistance. While we must remain exceptionally vigilant about countering true destructive forces (see my post from last month), I see this as an opportunity for us in the DE&I field to take stock of where we may have had blindspots and where we can make the case for DE&I much more powerfully than we ever have before.  

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For at least a decade the signs have been there that DE&I was not evolving and maturing at a pace that was fully matching our changing times. Korn Ferry’s study DE&I Post 2020, “Real Progress or Just For Show?” raised serious concerns about the maturity of many organizations’ DE&I efforts. Over 5000 business leaders told us it was still too focused on events, feel-good messaging, and the right thing to do.

These, of course, are fundamental worthwhile objectives, but they are still indicators of early stages of maturity. DE&I has needed to expand its relevance – and therefore justification for budgets and resources – by coming up with compelling answers to how DE&I efforts are key enablers to hard-core business objectives.

Instead, the DE&I field – now a generation-and-a-half old – has remained in too many places (with many notable exceptions) stuck in the Awareness dimension of maturity by repeatedly only focusing on training, ERGs, Diversity councils, and community outreach since that was the demand. Of course, these have been and will continue to be very important. But these alone will not propel the full power of DE&I forward. These interventions have always been organizational scaffolding for sustainable inclusive and equitable structures.

The legitimate urgency of the Racial Reckoning of 2022 obscured this treading-in-water reality. The DE&I field tended bravely and well to the clamor at hand. But in doing this, it postponed the diversity field’s own reckoning.

But the reckoning is now here. Al mal viento, buena cara. To a harsh wind, a strong face. Let’s look at how we can approach the work ahead.

Lessons Learned and the Way Forward

How does the DE&I get back on solid footing? We need to ensure that DE&I strategic initiatives:  

  • …tangibly demonstrate their business relevance to the enterprise’s top priorities of innovation, growth, talent optimization, sustainability, and any other organization-specific critical needs.  
  • ..address structural inclusion while still addressing behavioral inclusion. The most powerful people processes to ensure all talent can rise to the fullness of its potential remain pretty much untouched.
  • …fully activate inclusive and diverse teams as the scalable and nimble organizational agents of change. This means solving the seemingly intractable problem of creating a compelling reason why middle managers should care about DE&I.

In this looking-forward four-part blog series, I will address each of these in turn in the coming days.

The road ahead is unpredictable and rocky. It’s also the way through to new ways of doing the work and continuing to make a difference — no matter who says it can’t be done.

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