The numbers are dispiriting.

View from behind: about 10 employees sitting at a conference table looking to the right

Despite the boom in corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) proclamations and hires in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, today the tide has turned. Even as race and gender wage gaps endure, and many states still refuse to offer statutory protections for LGBTQ workers, thousands of DEI-focused workers have been laid off over the last year, and companies are scrambling to scale back their commitments. Searches for chief diversity officers are down 75% this year, with demand now at a 30-year low. Of those that remain, 82% feel they have insufficient influence to make a real difference.

The possible drivers of this sharp decline in corporate support for DEI are many, including the recent cutbacks in the tech sector’s workforce, the Supreme Court’s ruling banning affirmative action in college admissions, Donald Trump’s emboldening of the expression of white supremacist sentiments, and organized campaigns by conservative legal groups to sue companies like Comcast, Amazon, and Starbucks for “reverse discrimination.” Together, these forces have, in fact, reversed business trends in diversity, equity, and inclusion, despite the strong business case supporting it. 

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How can corporate DEI survive amid this onslaught? We have found that two strategies are critical in such times: internal pressure campaigns and institutional responsibility.

Harnessing grievance and building resilience

First, it becomes particularly important to learn to harness the energy of grievance—with what Martin Luther King called “creative tension,” a form of nonviolent pressure that is necessary for growth. He writes:

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths . . . we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Leaning into and marshaling tension constructively can help stimulate and sustain change. But navigating it effectively is an art, and missteps can be consequential. Based on studies by ourselves and others, we recommend the following tactics to promote sustained DEI reform.

In the absence of sufficient external pressure driving DEI from legal mandates, cultural mores, or market pressures, research has found that internal agents, what some call employee activists or tempered radicals, can make a crucial difference. These are committed and concerned employees who engage in coordinated action within their workplace to promote just change. The good news is that internal activism is on the rise, with four in 10 of all employees and half of millennials reporting that they had spoken out about controversial issues at work.

A circle with four slices, where the Y axis is covert to overt and the X axis is increasing capacity to increasing tension. The four slices are (clockwise from top right) advocate, resist, heal, mediate.

However, overt forms of activism on the job can be risky, especially for newer hires, members of marginalized groups, or lower-level workers. Fortunately, direct advocacy—such as whistle-blowing or organizing staff walkouts such as we saw at Google, Netflix, and Amazon recently—while powerful and important, is not the only path available to employees seeking reform. We have found that employee activists use a variety of more and less chancy activities to support DEI initiatives.

For instance, one way to increase awareness of unfair actions or policies is to exercise quiet resistance, where employees work under the radar, carefully gathering and sharing information, organizing, and building networks of allies. They also might challenge the status quo themselves, but frame it in a non-threatening way, such as delivering a critique as a question; or they may use their current authority to enact reform, such as hiring with diversity in mind.

When employees feel levels of tension getting out of hand at work—where managers start to shut down or become defensive or employees turn on one another—some activists turn to mediation. This can involve something as simple as offering opportunities for coworkers and managers to share their concerns by simply taking time to listen, ask questions, and acknowledge problems, thereby decreasing the odds of harmful encounters.

In the current era of pernicious political polarization, these bridge-building skills have become increasingly essential, both within activist groups when the members differ passionately over strategies and tactics and when these groups are challenging those in positions of authority. In this environment, even mundane comments and interactions today can trigger hostilities that quickly escalate. Mediator-Activists can learn specific strategies for managing potentially derailing tensions, such as:

  • establishing and leveraging guidelines for civil disagreements before the conversations begin;
  • highlighting common goals (e.g., articulating how DEI serves the mission of the organization and ultimately everybody within the organization); and
  • emphasizing commonalities across constituents by, for example, highlighting constituents’ shared identity as members of the organization, or shared identity as organizational activists.

It is important to note, however, that emphasizing the aspects of identity that may be shared across groups is not suggested as a way to minimize or ignore real differences people might experience due to their other identities—implying everyone is the same can mask important differences related to privilege and oppression, and addressing these differences sits at the heart of DEI work. These bridge-building skills can help guide the energy from these encounters toward a more constructive direction. 

Another approach focuses on building resilience. Facing repeated setbacks to addressing discrimination at work can be infuriating and exhausting, and we’ve found it vital for workers to strengthen their capacity to handle these challenges in order to stay engaged in this work for the long haul. Some activists provide themselves and their peers with opportunities to recover through meditation, exercise, or practicing restorative breathing techniques. They may also share techniques for setting boundaries, such as avoiding events that could derail them, or accepting there may be some issues that they do not have the capacity to address at this time.

Other ways to build resilience include seeking opportunities to learn about patterns of oppression, which can help contextualize harmful interpersonal incidents and serve to remind people why DEI work is so important. It also creates community with other like-minded peers engaged in this work who can serve as a support system. Such self/other care is too often overlooked in activism.

All of these activities—direct advocacy, quiet resistance, tension-reducing mediation, and resilience building—can work in concert to create more optimal and sustainable levels of internal pressure for change.

Five steps to institutional responsibility

However, given the precipitous decline in support for DEI, it is also imperative that organizations reprioritize their goals and objectives. Most corporations rush to offer diversity training in reaction to complaints of bias and discrimination, currently an eight-billion-dollar enterprise, as it is a less demanding or disruptive remedy.

Unfortunately, research suggests that this is money poorly spent. In fact, one study of 708 organizations over 30 years found that bias training often accomplished remarkably little, and could even backfire, leading to increased resistance to diversity from members of dominant groups. The authors argue that most one-and-done events like motivational talks or workshops simply fail to go deep enough to address the baked-in attitudes, incentives, and norms that perpetuate discrimination.

What can work to move the needle toward DEI is prioritizing the establishment of high levels of institutional responsibility. That is, by leveraging every ounce of pressure available to nudge, encourage, insist, and cudgel organizations to establish the infrastructure that ensures DEI is realized, such as:

  • affirmative action plans;
  • employee-management diversity committees;
  • diversity staff positions;
  • sufficient budget lines;
  • ongoing data collection through standardized metrics; and
  • transparent forms of annual reporting of relevant trends and accomplishments.

In fact, research finds that once such forms of responsibility are institutionalized, other more popular forms of DEI such as training and mentoring can help.

Our framework is designed to help organizations embed DEI into the fabric of their institutions through five key steps:

1. Leverage moments of instability. When destabilizing events occur, such as scandals, mergers, leadership changes, or even wider social movements such as Black Lives Matter or #metoo, there can be energy and momentum for organizational change. Effective DEI leaders can capitalize on such pivotal moments to further reforms.

2. Map the DEI landscape. Collecting data on both what is not working and what is working is crucial, both for better understanding what needs to change, and to begin to track and document the current status of DEI so it becomes possible to measure the effectiveness of interventions. Conducting surveys, holding listening sessions, and speaking to people across the organization with different identities and positions can help lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the current state of DEI within an organization.

3. Deconstruct destructive dynamics. Once organizations have identified what is not working, they can take apart, and work to change, harmful policies, practices, and behavioral norms. This can often prove challenging as it is likely to spark resistance among people who may benefit from the status quo.

4. Bolster constructive dynamics. Just as it is critical to take apart what is not helping, it is also important to focus on what is already working. There can be a tendency to focus on what is dysfunctional, but it is also important to identify and support people, programs, and aspects of the organizational culture that have been successful.

5. Be ready to adapt and to keep at it. Organizational change for DEI is rarely a linear process, and setbacks, resistance, and evolving understandings of DEI are all to be expected. Accountability mechanisms and an appreciation that DEI work needs continued commitment can help organizations persist in the challenging work of sustained systemic change.

We have found this to be the case in our DEI consulting work in organizations. Often, we are approached by institutions that have already tried and failed repeatedly to implement effective DEI programs, only to see marginal change. Typically, these groups had relied principally on training or other education programs, the results of which were disappointing.

As a result of these setbacks, new leadership is recruited into the organization—leaders who the psychologist Connie Gersick would suggest are “unsocialized” to past policies, practices, and culture of the organization, and so are better able to offer a new sense of urgency and vision of what is possible.

This is what transpired in a recent project we were involved in at a top 900-person academic institute. After a decade of mostly failed attempts at incremental change around DEI at the institute, a new leader was brought in. His entrance to the organization happened to correspond with the killing of George Floyd and the spike in media attention on racial injustice in the U.S. The new director, a foreign national, was astounded by the levels of pain and grievance around discrimination voiced by many in the organization, and became immediately focused on effecting substantive reform.

The approach to the work that resulted was comprehensive and challenging, and is still ongoing, but prioritized the establishment of a robust infrastructure to help guide and support the work over the long run. They adopted an action plan to institutionalize responsibility that included commitments to identify ways to relieve employees of other responsibilities so they could participate in DEI work, holding individuals accountable for in-role DEI actions by incorporating DEI criteria into performance appraisals, and integrating DEI aspirations into the mission and vision statements of the organization.

The arc of moral justice in the workplace is proving to be long and winding, but institutionalizing responsibility for change and taking guidance from teams of employee activists working toward a clear North Star can shepherd us forward, even today.

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