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Why DEI Programs Backfire (And How to Fix Them)

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Jun 21, 2023

Every June, the professional world undergoes a temporary transformation, festooned in all the usual trappings of Pride Month. You know the drill: rainbow-ified company logos, colorful limited-edition merch, and an onslaught of LinkedIn posts from companies and executives applauding their own diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. 

Over the past few decades, DEI has ballooned into a massive industry, projected to reach a value of $15.4 billion by 2026.1 Initiatives like unconscious bias training and sensitivity workshops have become frontline tools for organizations, private and public alike, to address internal concerns about equity and representation. 

But as workplace DEI efforts have expanded, so too has the backlash towards them. And not without good reason: data suggests that many DEI initiatives fail. Since the 1980s, the demographics of organizational leaders have remained virtually unchanged, with women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ+ people largely locked out of power. 2,3

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Why do DEI programs backfire?

The fact that so many DEI initiatives have proven ineffective is a bitter pill to swallow on its own. But it gets even worse: some DEI initiatives may actually exacerbate organizational inequality. TDL’s Jeffrey To has previously written about how diversity statements, often appended to the end of job postings, can make people less sympathetic to employees who report discrimination. 

Other studies have found that programs like diversity training and grievance systems (i.e. making it easier to report harassment and discrimination) lead to lower percentages of women and racial minorities in leadership — the exact opposite of what they were intended for. 4

How do we make sense of these findings? There are likely many factors at play. But in this article, we want to focus on some behavioral biases that may be contributing. 

DEI lets us off the hook

One behavioral explanation for these backwards outcomes is moral licensing: we often feel justified to behave immorally if we’ve just done something morally good. If you’ve ever helped yourself to a little extra dessert because you felt like you “earned it” at the gym, then you can probably relate. 

When it comes to corporate DEI, moral licensing may be doing something similar. Instituting mandatory diversity trainings or organizing a few Pride events may give key decision-makers an excuse to feel chuffed about their organization’s social impact — so much so that they otherwise stop reflecting on the weight of their actions. For example: If we’re already hosting racial sensitivity training, then why do I also need to go to the effort of debiasing our hiring and promotion processes? 

The DEI “sales pitch” is misleading

Miscalibrated expectations likely play a role here as well. Over the years, it’s become common for advocates to invoke the business case for DEI as a central part of their sales pitch. Increasing diversity isn’t just good for minority employees; it’s also good for the bottom line. Not just that, but all you need to check the DEI box is to host the occasional training session. Easy peasy! 

Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that simple. Research doesn’t support the claim that this “add diversity and stir” approach can directly increase profits. In reality, the monetary benefits of DEI take a lot more time, and effort, to materialize. And real change requires more fundamental changes to how workplaces operate — notably, shifting more power into the hands of marginalized people. 5

This, of course, is a very different story than the one many organizational leaders have been sold on. The business case for DEI has left many decision-makers anchored to unrealistic expectations about what these programs can achieve — and so when they fail to deliver, many pull back. This rebound can undermine long-term DEI efforts within an organization, making it much more difficult to win buy-in on new initiatives. 

We incentivize the wrong kind of DEI

Finally, DEI programs are undermined by a problem of misaligned incentives. Too often in the corporate world, the focus is placed on inputs where it should actually be on outcomes. Companies and key decision-makers are lauded for instituting new DEI-oriented policies and programs, even before those actions are proven to have any kind of meaningful impact. 

Put another way, there’s a lot to be gained from performing an interest in DEI — but this performance doesn’t necessarily translate into real progress. Organizations, and the people within them, should be evaluated based on the success of their DEI programs, not merely their existence. 

How to Do DEI Better

To be clear, it’s not the case that there is no value to be found in exercises like unconscious bias training. Educating people about these topics is still an important component of DEI, and good training can give people the tools and skills they need to confront bias when it arises.  

That said, the past three decades of DEI have clearly been insufficient to address discrimination and inequality in the workplace. We need to make a lot of changes in order to close the gaps, both structural and behavioral. Below are just three ways that you can start to make your organization’s DEI more effective.

Take a more holistic view

We need a societal shift in the way we think about DEI — one that brings us to a more holistic understanding of workplace equity and well-being. We often think of DEI as training sessions or quotas. In reality, successful DEI is the embedded culture of a workplace. It ranges from hiring policies, to decision-making power, to everyday conversations between peers.  

As succinctly explained by RedThread Research, “A holistic [DEI] system is one in which every organizational process, action, policy, or decision is looked at through a [DEI] lens.” Instead of making space — in time, finances, and effort — for DEI, each decision should be made with DEI as a core consideration.

One example would be a strategy that aims to measure inclusion, rather than just diversity. 6 Hiring diverse employees is important — but it’s only part of the story. Those employees also need to be able to participate to the same extent as their colleagues can, and feel that they are valued just as much. 

Get evidence-based

Data related to DEI can be sensitive, and that holds many companies back from collecting it. But according to Sonia Kang, Canada Research Chair in Identity, Diversity, and Inclusion, we need to get over the awkwardness – while maintaining respect for employee identity. As Kang explained last year on The Decision Corner podcast, collecting rich data on the employee experience is a necessary foundation for meaningful change.

Measuring and tracking outcomes is one of the easiest ways to get out of the DEI performative rut. “If you’re not collecting that data,” Kang explains, “Then you can’t actually track how you’re doing. You can’t make goals because you don’t even know where you’re starting from. Then how are you going to make any changes?” 

Before we can hope to effect change, we need to know where we stand. Is senior leadership all male? Do white employees get promotions faster? Does turnover affect some groups at a higher rate than others?

Once your company has data, you can use it as a tool for accountability. Share it internally — and if possible, share it publicly. Potential collaborators or applicants will benefit from being aware of a company’s internal workings. Take soundscape giant Made Music Studio: in their ongoing commitment to anti-racism, they publish a breakdown of the race and gender of staff members and leadership.7 They use the data not to proclaim their achievements, but to acknowledge their own gaps. DEI data isn’t a measure of achievement, to be toted around as proof of a company’s anti-racism. It’s a starting point. 

Get it a positive spin

It sounds trite, but evidence shows that the ways that companies frame their DEI programs make a big difference in how they are received. 

Right now, DEI initiatives are commonly framed in punitive terms: think compulsory diversity trainings, grievance systems, and the like. 

But there are other ways that companies can try to get people engaged with DEI — ones that speak to more intrinsic forms of motivation. Counterintuitively, when participation in DEI is voluntary, people become more earnestly invested in improving equity within their organization. Research shows that such initiatives lead to significant improvements in representation among managers

Final words

DEI is imperfect  — but that doesn’t mean we should give up on these programs altogether. Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace are more important than ever, and employers have a responsibility to ensure that everybody working for their organization is afforded the dignity and respect that they deserve. 

What needs to change is the mentality we hold about these outcomes, and the strategies we use to achieve them. The status quo encourages a narrow, short-term view of social progress, setting unrealistic expectations and priming organizational leaders for frustration when initiatives don’t immediately pay off. By taking a more holistic view, committing to a robust data strategy, and leaning into the values that make DEI inherently appealing to so many people, we can make DEI truly impactful.

References

  1. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Lighthouses 2023 | McKinsey. (n.d.). Www.mckinsey.com. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-equity-and-inclusion-lighthouses-2023
  2. Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016, July). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/07/why-diversity-programs-fail
  3. Ellsworth, D., Mendy, A., & Sullivan, G. (2020, June 23). How the LGBTQ community fares in the workplace | McKinsey. Www.mckinsey.com. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/how-the-lgbtq-plus-community-fares-in-the-workplace
  4. Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016, July). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/07/why-diversity-programs-fail
  5. Ely, R. J., & Thomas, D. A. (2020, November 1). Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/11/getting-serious-about-diversity-enough-already-with-the-business-case
  6. Inclusion doesn’t happen by accident: Measuring inclusion in a way that matters | McKinsey & Company. (n.d.). Www.mckinsey.com. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/the-organization-blog/inclusion-doesnt-happen-by-accident-measuring-inclusion-in-a-way-that-matters
  7. Our Culture. (n.d.). Made Music Studio. Retrieved June 21, 2023, from https://mademusicstudio.com/culture/

About the Authors

Sarah Chudleigh

Sarah Chudleigh

Sarah Chudleigh is passionate about the accessible distribution of academic research. She has had the opportunity to practice this as an organizer of TEDx conferences, editor-in-chief of her undergraduate academic journal, and lead editor at the LSE Social Policy Blog. Sarah gained a deep appreciation for interdisciplinary research during her liberal arts degree at Quest University Canada, where she specialized in political decision-making. Her current graduate research at the London School of Economics and Political Science examines the impact of national values on motivations to privately sponsor refugees, a continuation of her interest in political analysis, identity, and migration policy. On weekends, you can find Sarah gardening at her local urban farm.

Katie Macintosh's portrait

Katie MacIntosh

Katie MacIntosh is Lead Editor at The Decision Lab. She is interested in the intersection of behavioral science, culture, and new communication technologies. Before joining The Decision Lab, she contributed to research on the neurochemical bases of memory and the social psychology of the internet. An aspiring polyglot, she has studied a number of languages, including as an exchange student in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Katie graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and linguistics.

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