Amid DEI backlash, employers are ‘doubling down’ on commitment

To prevent a negative impact on corporate agendas, do organisations need to provide more clarity around their DEI goals?
By: | January 15, 2024

In the last four years, corporate attention to diversity, equity and inclusion has skyrocketed. And while a number of recent high-profile events may be upping the pressure on corporate leaders to dial back their support, new research suggests the DEI backlash is not having a material impact on employers’ attention to this work.

A study out this week by law firm Littler found that nearly 60% of the more than 300 C-suite leaders surveyed said their organisations had expanded their DEI work in the last year, while about one-third maintained it and just 1% significantly decreased their DEI activity.

“We’re seeing many employers maintain—or even double down on—their commitment, even as backlash spikes,” said Jeanine Conley Daves, Littler shareholder and member of the firm’s IE&D Consulting Practice, in a press statement.

DEI backlash and its impact on corporate agendas

Among the drivers of the so-called “war on woke” was last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down college affirmative action. Conservative activists challenging the role of DEI in academia celebrated again earlier this month with the resignation of Harvard University President Claudine Gay, the Ivy League institution’s first Black president who had come under fire for plagiarism allegations and her handling of antisemitism on campus. These incidents follow a wave of state- and local-level legislative moves aimed largely at restricting DEI work in academia.

In the Littler study, business leaders acknowledged this growing movement is reverberating into the corporate world, with 59% saying they have witnessed increased backlash toward corporate DEI efforts since the SCOTUS ruling last summer. Yet, a significant 91% of leaders said that the decision, in particular—which restricts colleges and universities from using race as a factor in college admissions—has not impacted the priority they place on their respective DEI programmes.

However, while leaders contend that the motivation to advance DEI is maintained, the increasingly complex legal landscape for DEI may be slowing their success. Although nearly 60% of respondents said their organisations have enhanced training and L&D for diverse employees, just one-third have established diversity benchmarks, and less than one-quarter hold leadership accountable for the organisation meeting DEI goals.

Thirty-five percent acknowledge their organisations need more clarity around their DEI goals, a stat that underscores the need for HR leaders to leverage data as they build out DEI agendas.

READ: Driving better business outcomes and employee engagement with DEI

The political and legal DEI backlash “raises the stakes for employers to develop programmes that are compliant with federal and state laws,” says Kate Mrkonich Wilson, Littler shareholder and member of the firm’s IE&D Consulting Practice.

“In today’s environment,” she says, “it’s more important than ever for organisations to assess whether their investments in IE&D are achieving their desired outcomes without creating new liabilities.”

About the author: Jen Colletta is Managing Editor at Human Resource Executive, where this article was first published.