Navigating Pushback Against Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts

  • DE&I
Nola Cartmill

Over the past three years, more companies than ever have launched, revitalized, and/or revamped their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) practices in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which spotlighted many ongoing social injustices and disparities present in our communities. Although many individuals are supportive and proud of these efforts, we must acknowledge that these topics and issues also can be polarizing. 

In fact, a 2022 Gartner article revealed that 44 percent of employees agree that a growing number of their colleagues feel alienated by their organization’s efforts, 42 percent of employees report their peers view their organizations’ DE&I efforts as divisive, and another 42 percent say their peers resent DE&I efforts. 

So now the question becomes, “how did efforts that are meant to do good and create inclusive environments end up creating further division?” Well, it is a surprisingly human response. 

As a Harvard Business Review piece discussed, we are highly motivated to protect our own sense of self-esteem, competence, and belief in our “inherent goodness.” Thus, when these things are challenged, our automatic defense mechanism is to resist and reject. 

Types of DE&I Pushback

If we believe both that DE&I programs are valuable and that resistance and rejection are natural reactions designed to protect our self-esteem, what can we do to continue these programs while acknowledging our humanity? I have some thoughts.

First, we can understand that there are several types of pushback, but it primarily comes in three forms: 

  • Denial — “This is not a problem.” 
  • Disengagement — “This is not my problem.” 
  • Derailment — “What about other problems?” 

Depending on the type of pushback you’re dealing with, your efforts to manage and mitigate it might change. Here are a few key points to remember as you respond to pushback.

Communication Is Key

Be clear in communicating why DE&I and the various initiatives you seek to move forward are important to your organization. To avoid denial and derailment, proactively consider potential different perspectives people might have and address them in your initial communication about a DE&I program or initiative, but don’t dwell on any potential or realized pushback. 

Change Isn’t Bad Just Because It’s Uncomfortable

Very few people like change, particularly when they feel like they are being asked to change because what they are doing is “bad,” “wrong,” or “incorrect.” 

In response, pushback may take the form of denial with the suggestion that “we don’t need to fix what isn’t broken.” However, frequently DE&I initiatives are not about changing the entire organization, but rather finding ways to make the organization better, more diverse, more inclusive, and more equitable. 

A simple Google search will show that these are reasonable goals not only because they are the right things to do for people, but also because the better businesses do in these categories, the more profitable they are. 

Of course, when we implement initiatives to reach these goals, we may adjust how things are done, which we can acknowledge may be uncomfortable, but it is akin to any other change in process or implementation of any other new system within an organization. It will take time, but people will adjust.

Respecting and Valuing All People Is Important

DE&I efforts are often misunderstood and associated with political or religious beliefs. However, at its core, DE&I is simply about caring, respecting, and valuing the lived experience of all. 

When DE&I is stripped down to these basic concepts, it is much harder to be resistant. We can still have different perspectives, beliefs, and values while caring and respecting those whose beliefs and values are different from our own. There is no winner and loser in DE&I initiatives. When we make space for everyone to be valued and respected, everyone wins. 

Create Ways for Everyone to be Involved in DE&I Work

In my organization, we include all of our employees as part of our DE&I framework. This is because even if you do not sit on a DE&I committee or get involved in an employee resource group (ERG), every employee plays a vital role in creating the diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment we strive to create with our DE&I efforts. 

Pushback can often come from not feeling like there is a space for a person in the work. Encouraging all employees, particularly those in dominant groups, to participate in your DE&I groups is one way to let everyone know they are included and there is a space for them within your DE&I efforts. 

DE&I Is a Journey

There’s a saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” As we navigate pushback to DE&I programs and/or initiatives, it is important that we acknowledge and address different perspectives and their rationale — not to put a cog in the wheel of our progress, but to ensure the success of the incredibly valuable DE&I work being done at our organizations and make sure no one is left behind in our efforts. 

DE&I is a topic that not only I am passionate about as a Chief Diversity Officer, but that Holmes Murphy is passionate about. While we are by no means perfect, we are on a journey to ensure everyone within our walls and those who work with us feel as though they can bring their whole selves to the table. We want everyone to feel valued, recognized, and heard at all times. In fact, we believe so deeply about this, a portion of our ethOs company is dedicated to it and helping companies achieve their DE&I goals.

So, my question to you is this. Are you on your own DE&I journey? How is it going? What advice do you have for me? Or, if you have questions about how to start your own organization’s journey, I’d love to chat with you about that too! All you have to do is reach out.

August 14, 2023