02.08.2022 Human Resources

How HR Can Address DEI Pushback

Diversity and Inclusion

Over the past two years, amid social justice movements, many organizations have taken action to engage with social issues previously avoided in the workplace. Many of these issues overlap with an organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. 

While many C-level executives and organizations have vowed to accelerate DEI initiatives, Gartner research shows this sentiment is not always shared equally throughout an organization.

We spoke with Emily Strother, senior principal in the Gartner HR practice, to discuss how organizations can address DEI pushback amongst employees to make progress towards DEI goals.

Q: How does Gartner define DEI pushback?

A: As organizations’ commitments to DEI have expanded, so has resistance among certain individuals or employee segments. This pushback is with the aim to invalidate, disrupt or disconnect from programs meant to enable marginalized groups.

Q: What challenges are organizations facing when it comes to DEI pushback?

A: While over 31% of employees report that DEI efforts have increased in their organization over the last two years, a September 2021 Gartner survey of 3,516 employees revealed 42% of employees resent DEI efforts and 42% view their organizations’ DEI efforts as divisive. Further, 44% of employees agreed that a growing number of their colleagues feel alienated by their organization’s DEI efforts.

If organizations don’t take a proactive approach to addressing this misalignment, underrepresented groups will experience further alienation and discrimination in the workplace, leading to a decline in employee inclusion, engagement and retention. HR leaders need to double down on their efforts to steer employee pushback towards the alternate path of resolution: allyship.

Q: How can organizations identify employee pushback? 

A: Many employees conceal their resistance to DEI efforts out of fear of social disapproval. Not to mention, pushback can be particularly challenging because it can be masked as well-intentioned critique of DEI efforts.

There are three common forms of pushback within organizations: denial, disengagement and derailment.

Denial manifests when employees don’t acknowledge the existence of social, racial, ethnic, gender or caste hierarchies – these employees don’t see DEI concerns as a problem. By failing to recognize these disparities, deniers invalidate the need for interventions or initiatives to address them. A great example of deniers are employees who make comments such as, “I don’t see color; I’m colorblind.”

Disengagement is an unwillingness to take action in support of DEI. These employees are usually aware of inequities, but they struggle with being an ally because it’s not a problem they face. This can look like an aversion to participate in DEI efforts, trainings or being a passive bystander. These individuals might believe a problem exists, but they don’t feel it is their individual responsibility or the organization’s to resolve it.

Derailment constitutes a dismissal of DEI challenges, intended to dilute or draw focus from marginalized groups, while diverting attention toward dominant groups. For instance, derailment can be seen with employees shifting to other problems such as, “Our focus should be on merit and competencies, not on race or gender” or “Why don’t I have a dedicated employee resource group?”

Q: How can organizations intentionally surface DEI pushback?

A: It’s important to note that the resistance to DEI efforts that is easily noticed is often the tip of the iceberg. Pushback that remains unresolved will only become more entrenched.

HR leaders must look to surface DEI pushback by creating psychologically safe spaces to help employees – especially those from dominant groups – feel safe in voicing their concerns. This approach allows organizations to understand the scope and source of resistance to DEI efforts to inform how to tailor DEI strategies and communication efforts to better engage employees.

Q: What strategies can HR develop to motivate allyship over pushback?

A: HR can promote allyship via three approaches:

– Tailor DEI communications. This includes avoiding language that casts blame or inadvertently shames member of dominant groups. Instead, they must explicitly communicate how all groups are key contributors to achieving DEI goals.

– Embed inclusive behaviors into performance evaluations. To create accountability for allyship, leading organizations are implementing inclusion rating systems that articulate specific sample behaviors and integrate inclusion into development goals.

– Leverage DEI champions as role models. This can range from senior leadership or other influential positions, as well as different parts of the organization, to role model and steer employees toward allyship. They can also assist in spearheading communities of practice for dominant group members to share concrete examples for being an ally.

Source: Gartner