Is DEI Coming of Age?

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

As Mahatma Gandhi supposedly said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

A good sign that an initiative or social movement is receiving the attention it deserves is when it has to deal with relevant public resistance. And this is exactly what has been happening to DEI programs across the corporate landscape: As a recent Washington Post article has argued, U.S. firms, industry groups and employment professionals are quietly erasing DEI from public view amidst increasing legal, social and political backlash. It is the label that is disappearing though, rather than its practice as such.

This development stands in stark contrast to 2020, when the murder of George Floyd seemed like a tipping point to pursue and implement corporate policies to reduce discrimination of historically under-privileged groups at a larger and more systemic scale, not just in the U.S. but in other parts of the world as well. It seemed we were making real progress on diversity representation compared to the past.

And yet, we have had to learn that promoting diversity in itself is not nearly enough to elicit a sea change, whether supported by quotas, explicit diversity goals, or unconscious bias training. Just because you have a diverse group of individuals at the table does not mean that their diverse voices are heard. Majority views often continue to prevail while other opinions slide off in silence. Inclusion is the real challenge, not diversity.

This is where nuances of language come in. These days, DEI is experiencing a significant rebrand to keep the spirit alive yet evolve its focus. Some companies swap the letters to IED to highlight the relative importance of inclusion, while others are moving to entirely different terminology, from “creating a culture of belonging” to establishing broader “talent” goals.

Rebranding can be a powerful means to give a critical movement renewed impetus and energy—at global scale. But it can also be a sign of weakness. Just consider the many rebrands the HR function has gone through: Call it ‘human resource management’, ‘talent management’, ‘human capital management’ or ‘people management’—none of these terms has managed to convey the urgency and significance of this most critical function of any corporation. This is also due to diffuse goals, lack of powerful sponsorship and support, and the inability to craft a sufficiently compelling narrative of how the HR function can create sustainable impact.

Whatever the state of DEI in 2024 – we have a lot of work ahead of us if the spirit of DEI is to win out!

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