When it comes to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, there are always some who need convincing.
A wide variety of people aren’t fully sold on DEI, and they can include top executives, middle managers, employees with no prior exposure to DEI, those who question the underlying research, people from different cultural settings, or individuals inspired by a particular social or political stance. In addition to those who openly express skepticism or resistance, many more are more likely to avoid DEI topics or activities as much as possible, sometimes as a result of prior experiences with flawed approaches.
In the face of economic challenges and budget cuts in some industries, skeptics with decision-making power can be quick to slash budgets for DEI work. Cutting investment for well-conceived, research-based DEI initiatives is short-sighted, as an inclusive work environment has greater positive impact on your business than some may think, while sporadic, half-hearted attempts at DEI work can cause more harm than good.
DEI initiatives may be polarizing and even harmful if they are seen as unfair or as a poor investment of organizational resources. Additionally, your employees should understand why you are committing to such efforts and how they relate to overall company values. It is best to start with goals that have broad appeal: ensuring that everyone has opportunities to learn, grow, and take on greater responsibilities, leveraging the full capabilities of each person through an inclusive work environment, or contributing to greater equity in the communities where we work and live.
DEI skeptics point to limited knowledge retention or behavioral change resulting from “one and done” training programs or lectures. Sometimes DEI initiatives are put in place as a response to current issues, allowing executives or organizations to say: “See, we are doing something!” However, these efforts are often piecemeal and performative—disconnected from organizational strategy, other forms of training, and meaningful systemic changes. The most impactful DEI approaches include extended learning journeys that convey valuable knowledge and skills and provide reinforcement over time to maximize learning. These learning journeys are even more effective alongside carefully designed systemic reforms in areas such as the talent cycle, which encompasses hiring, learning and development, retention, promotion, leadership succession planning, and so on.
Initiatives that call for voluntary participation are generally more effective and less likely to produce resistance or backlash than those that are mandatory. And even when training is required for legal compliance, participants can be invited to contribute voluntarily rather than being asked to speak or act in a certain way. One-on-one or small-group breakout discussions also provide greater freedom and flexibility than large-group dialogue, encouraging those who are doubtful or hesitant about sharing their views to join the conversation. Similarly, participants are more likely to successfully implement next steps that they decide on themselves rather than actions that are mandated.
DEI topics are sensitive because they relate to personal aspects of our lives—who we are and how we behave. Additionally, these topics are typically viewed through a normative lens: it is generally seen as “good” to be more inclusive, for instance, and “bad” to be exclusive. Any information received from individuals must be handled very carefully so that participants do not feel exposed, judged, or condemned for views they have shared. When data is reported back to participants, as many initiatives promise in the interest of transparency, it must have large enough sample sizes so that individual responses are protected. Breaching confidentiality undermines trust, and could lead to the rapid collapse of an initiative’s credibility and appeal.
Considering a range of diversity factors—race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, generation, religion, culture, regional background, language, job function, immigration status, neurodiversity—is another means to engage those who are skeptical. This wider range also enables colleagues in countries across the world to identify aspects of diversity relevant to them rather than dismissing DEI as “just a U.S. issue”; many so-called global DEI rollouts flop due to perceived lack of local relevance. Taking a broad approach to diversity does not mean watering down the emphasis on creating effective solutions for critical issues. Identifying the forms of marginalization that are most important for your organization, without assuming that they are necessarily the same for all locations, enables you to develop solutions that target relevant issues and are welcomed by local stakeholders. Our Global DEI Featured Insight series provides information on specific DEI factors relevant in countries around the world.
Decades of research have shown that forms of prejudice and bias between different groups are most effectively mitigated when people get to know each other as individuals rather than as categories or stereotypes. The use of broad categories in some DEI programs—“white men,” “Asian Americans,” “Black,” “Latinx”—may reinforce reductive stereotypes and unintentionally foster greater divisiveness. Keeping in mind a broad definition of diversity along with how various aspects of diversity can intersect in a person’s life, more nuanced approaches to individual identities and personal stories have room to emerge; such conversations can lead to compelling insights about the distinctive characteristics of individuals who were formerly lumped into a single category. People who had regarded themselves as completely different from one another may also discover unexpected similarities that strengthen the bonds necessary for DEI strategies to actually be implemented.
Terms that are common in academic discourse and which may be everyday vocabulary for some facilitators or employees—“white supremacy,” “colonialism,” “patriarchy,” “oppression,” “perpetrator”—can almost immediately shut down discussion and cause passive or active backlash among program participants, particularly those from more socially conservative backgrounds. It is generally far more effective to focus on comparatively actionable topics such as the responsible use of power, empowering those who have been marginalized to work in environments where they are systemically disadvantaged, and designing team or organizational change efforts to create greater equity.
Employees who question the value of one-time training or executive pronouncements are usually more responsive to regular, just-in-time learning opportunities with follow-up recommendations that are integrated with their everyday work lives. Individual actions are a key driver of inclusion, and skeptics who still want to “do the right thing” often appreciate training that offers concrete practices they can adopt: widen your in-group, ensure that you are providing feedback to all of your direct reports, learn what motivates others, ask colleagues about their career aspirations, ensure that people are recognized for their ideas, share your platform in a way that expands opportunities for others. Individual efforts are magnified by the use of organizational levers for change: modified hiring practices, coaching and mentoring for future leaders, greater work-life flexibility, and remote work options. Task forces charged with solving particular problems—for instance, how to improve retention of employees from underrepresented groups—may not only generate productive solutions but also enable initially reluctant task force members to shape an updated concept of themselves as champions of inclusion, gaining deeper insights and a genuine sense of engagement along the way.
The eight steps outlined above are designed to reduce resistance and avoidance while creating a welcoming and psychologically safe environment for important DEI learning. Certain aspects of training may be mandated (legal compliance) and some actions prohibited by law (verbal abuse, retaliation, or sexual harassment). However, when employees are given the opportunity to make their own choices and select their own next steps to support greater inclusivity, there is more room for creativity and genuinely enthusiastic participation.
Positive word of mouth, peer influence, fresh insights, and new ties across previously separate groups are likely to bring skeptics on board, perhaps initially out of curiosity to see what all the excitement is about. Tangible signs of systemic change in areas such as recruitment, learning and development, retention, promotion, mentorship, and executive actions also tend to win over previous skeptics, who begin to wonder what’s next and how they might contribute—nobody, even doubters, wants to be left behind as a popular movement gathers momentum.
Instead of being roadblocks to change, skeptics can become key advocates when they, too, become its authors and owners, with a commitment to achieving shared goals and practical outcomes. And as employees from historically marginalized communities experience a greater sense of inclusion and belonging, the whole organization—skeptics as well—will learn to better integrate their energy, ideas, and creative contributions.