Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) matter in the modern work environment. Yet, the challenges of diversity in the workplace can be significant, especially when trying to get your DEI initiatives off the ground. So, how do you strike the right balance and avoid a DEI backlash undermining your efforts?

Several avoidable mistakes can derail an otherwise well-intentioned DEI initiative. The most common pitfalls are poor communication, cultural misunderstandings, and unconscious bias. Avoiding an unintended DEI backlash takes ongoing training, engagement, and commitment.

This article looks at navigating the common barriers to implementing successful diversity programs. It explores proven ways to overcome the usual pitfalls. Furthermore, you will see how creating a culture of equality supports leadership initiatives. But first, a quick breakdown of DEI and why it matters.

Diversity Defines Who Someone Is

Workplace diversity refers to companies that purposely employ a workforce of individuals with a range of distinct characteristics. For example, diverse employees include age, body type, ethnicity, and ability. But identity is not simply what you can see. It also refers to less visible characteristics such as gender identity, sexuality, medical history, religious beliefs, and more.

American Sociological Association Review
Diverse US companies enjoy 15 times more sales revenue than those with the lowest levels of worker diversity [1].

Workplace Equity – The Level Playing Field

A diverse and inclusive workplace cannot exist without equity. All that means is fairness for all, irrespective of what visible or invisible identities they may have. So, an employer who embraces equitable opportunity treats workers without discrimination. Equity differs from equality in that it deals with fairness, while equality is about sameness.

Inclusion Welcomes and Values

An all-inclusive company creates spaces where workers feel welcome at any level. There’s a genuine sense of belonging and unbiased respect for all. And growth opportunities are available to anyone who has a meaningful impact on the firm. An inclusive business has policies and practices in place to cover the above and avoid unconscious bias.

Avoid DEI Backlash While Promoting Diversity in the Workplace - EWF International

Inclusivity Statistics According to Research

Researchers have carried out numerous studies on workplace inclusivity. US companies can learn valuable lessons from these findings to avoid the DEI backlash.

Low DEI Priority Companies

US employees responded to a recent leadership study. Around 78% said they work for organizations with little diversity at management levels. Another study found that 45% of workers still experienced occurrences of discrimination or harassment in 2021 [2] [3].

High DEI Priority Companies

It’s not all bad news. Research over two years highlighted why savvy businesses make DEI a priority. The finding saw that inclusive companies are more innovative and benefit from extra cash flow per employee. Moreover, the millennial workforce is 83% more engaged in firms that employ diverse talent [4] [5].

5 DEI Backlash Mistakes Companies Need to Avoid

Below are five common mistakes initiatives make that result in a DEI backlash. Learning from these will help prepare your new diversity and inclusion initiative or reshape an existing one.

Three Out of Four Workers Prefer Workplace Diversity
A 2020 Glassdoor poll found that 76% of US employees and job seekers consider a diverse workforce a significant factor when evaluating employment opportunities [6].

#1 Handing Your DEI Initiative Over to HR

A common mistake is for companies to place responsibility for DEI initiatives on HR departments. But unfortunately, this approach guarantees a natural death. Why? Because the policies and programs remain disconnected from the regular workplace—where they belong.

The solution is to ensure DEI is an integral part of everyday operations to avoid the DEI backlash. That means the entire workforce, including:

  • Marketing & sales departments
  • Operations
  • Accounting
  • Human resources
  • IT departments
  • Administrative staff

Human resources have a definite role but cannot be solely responsible for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. All departments need to be accountable for your DEI mission’s success. So, DEI must work in collaboration with HR not be solely driven by it. 

#2 Excluding Inclusion Causes a DEI Backlash

Too many companies view diversity, equity, and inclusion as the same thing, but that’s a mistake. Even if you have a “diverse” workforce, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s inclusive. Put simply, diversity without inclusion spells exclusion. So it’s almost impossible to leverage a diverse talent pool and maximize success without DEI’s I.

Inclusion considers each worker fairly, focusing on their contribution and potential. DEI leaders are adept at listening to opinions and identifying values. In addition, they recognize and reward all individuals who excel while offering support to those who need help. Inclusion should be a top priority for consideration by today’s hiring managers.

A wide focus and inclusivity to avoid DEI backlash - EWF International

#3 Avoid the Narrow-Focus Approach

The narrow-focus approach is not a shortcut and has no place in the DEI workplace culture. Diversity is not a simple box-checking exercise. Therefore, it’s wise to avoid focusing on a single demographic such as women, ethnic minorities, or older people. Doing this risks excluding other demographic groups, which defeats your objective. The same can be said for narrowing your DEI initiative to improving only one section or department of your company at a time. 

Composition of the US Labor Force
A 2019 report found that 78% of the US labor force is white. Black people make up 13%, Hispanic or Latinx, 18%, and Asian just 6% [7].

The solution to building a truly varied talent pool is to diversify your company’s sourcing strategy and channels. You will probably need to cast a much wider net than before to reach new target groups. And the ads for all jobs must grab the right attention and let prospects know your company values diversity.

#4 DEI Backlash From Unconscious Hiring Bias

A lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion challenge a company’s credibility to the outside world. Unfortunately, many hiring managers still think that appointing the “best person” for the job is the way to go. As a result, the best people tend to fit the corporate mold and reflect the values of the hiring manager rather than be selected for standing out in other ways.

This unconscious bias can create a DEI backlash and give rise to more uniformity within the organization. The way to resolve it is to include ways for job interviewers to recognize their partiality. Options such as bias training can help shape new processes for future hires. Additional tools and techniques are available to help you reduce the occurrence of unconscious bias in the hiring process

Team Player Vs. Qualified Candidate

A DEI interviewer looks at a prospect based on the value they could potentially add to a team. A team player does not necessarily need to be 100% qualified or meet every experience criteria for the specific role. That’s because they bring five other critical qualities to the table:

  • Ability to learn fast
  • Excellent communication
  • Active listening
  • Collaboration skills
  • Problem-solving

The old hiring approach excludes diversity, often resulting in a DEI backlash, because it only considers appearance, job/life experience, and other box-checking credentials that often align closely to the hiring manager.

#5 Fail to Leverage Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

There can be no progress in the DEI space until the front-line leadership fully commits. Sadly, the DEI backlash is typical in companies that lack the proper support through the ranks. Researchers estimate that 25% of workers—especially at larger concerns—think there’s a systematic failure in leadership commitment to DEI [8].

Women Leaders More Focused on DEI than Men
A 2021 report revealed that women in senior management positions were twice as likely to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion than their male counterparts. That included support for employee resource groups [9].

Promoting diversity in the workplace is a company-wide people obligation. But written policies and procedures are ineffective without action and commitment. And for that, there are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

ERG – A Company’s Greatest Asset to DEI Strategies 

How ERGs can help inform and meet your company's DEI goals - EWF International

Effective Employee Resource Groups (ERG) could be your company’s greatest asset. Because they are employee run, ERGs promote inclusivity from within your organization in an unofficial capacity to reduce the company’s risk of a DEI backlash. A well-run affinity group significantly impacts workplace culture for the better. It serves to foster diverse, all-inclusive spaces aligned with your corporation.

Types of Worker-led ERGs

The primary focus of a DEI ERG is diversity and inclusivity. Common types include:

  • Women (recruiting and retaining women)
  • Culture, ethnicity, and interfaith
  • Age minorities
  • Workers with disabilities
  • Gender identity minorities
  • Sexual orientation minorities
  • Single parents, working parents, & caregivers 

ERGs are an excellent resource for leaders and decision-makers to foster inclusivity. And you vastly reduce the risk of a DEI backlash by encouraging new hires to become active members. However, simply having ERGs is not enough. Company leadership must interface with your ERGs to foster a better DEI experience in the workplace. 

Inclusivity-Focused Leaders Matters

Inclusivity-focused leaders know how to reflect on their own perceptions and actions to help uncover their own unconscious bias and are not afraid to hold themselves accountable. Thus, the best leaders are never stuck in their ways. Leaders for diversity initiatives question the status quo—despite any resistance—and tackle issues surrounding equity. Such leaders ensure their workforce continues to be more diverse and that all feel welcome.

EWF Corporate Leadership and Development Programs

EWF offers custom, turnkey corporate programming, including flexible one-on-one leadership coaching for busy managers. Our innovative programs help your company develop a more diverse talent pipeline. Contact us to learn how our programs help you attain your DEI initiative goals.
See Our Corporate DEI Program Offerings

An Employee Perspective on Workplace Inclusivity

Have you made significant strides in your inclusivity initiatives? Would your employees agree? Over 95% of employers introduced new DEI measures in 2021. Yet, according to a Lever Study, 75% of employees surveyed didn’t notice any changes [10].

Employees matter; they are a company’s most precious resource. But recently retaining top talent has become a major headache for US businesses. Workers need to feel they belong and that their contribution is valued.

A business prone to a DEI backlash is also more likely to suffer from low retention rates. To overcome their challenges, these companies will need to reevaluate their diversity and inclusion efforts carefully.

US Companies Continue to Fall Short

Countless surveys suggest that US workers regularly experience stress, anxiety, and identity threats. A 2020 study found that many employees continue to feel excluded and want their organizations to do more to advance DEI initiatives [11].

Closing Comments on DEI Backlash

How diverse and inclusive is your company? Does it represent race, ethnicity, religion, women, ability, age, and LGBTQIA+? Is there room for improvement? If not, you now understand why DEI matters and how to avoid common pitfalls in your DEI initiatives. It improves company culture, workplace harmony, and the bottom line.

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EWF Executive Forums support women executives, offering a confidential, non-compete environment. They provide focused, productive meetings for members with insight and advice on specific challenges such as introducing successful DEI initiatives.

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  1. https://www.sciencedaily.com/15-times-more-sales-revenue /
  2. https://hbr.org/78%-lack-diversity-in-leadership-roles/
  3. https://www.gallup.com/45%-workplace-discrimination-or-harassment /
  4. https://joshbersin.com/diversity-and-inclusion-a-top-priority/.
  5. https://www2.deloitte.com/millennial-actively-engaged/
  6. https://www.glassdoor.com/diversity-and-inclusion-poll/
  7. https://www.bls.gov/race-and-ethnicity-US-labor-force/
  8. https://www.bcg.com/publications/flawed-approach-to-DEI/
  9. https://wiw-report.s3.amazonaws.com/women-leaders=for-DEI/
  10. https://www.lever.co/recruiting-resources/research/DEI-Report-2021/
  11. https://techcrunch.com/2021/11/16/why-dei-programs-are-failing/