Managing diversity, equity & inclusion backlash

Many organisations are starting to realise that Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) is not a ‘nice to have’ but an imperative in achieving successful business outcomes for their people, customers and communities that they serve. 

As leaders start to plan, design and implement DEI into the ways of working in their organisation – planning for, and managing, DEI backlash, needs to be a number one priority if they want to succeed in integrating DEI into the DNA of their culture. 

Identifying backlash and having the language and skills to articulate it can help leaders draw attention to resistance to DEI efforts and take proactive steps to navigate the backlash and continue efforts in making progress towards their DEI objectives. 

What does DEI backlash look like?

According to Gartner’s “framework to categorise pushback”, DEI backlash often comes in three forms:

1. Denial 

Denial is the lack of knowledge & understanding from individuals on how power & privilege has been unequally distributed across society. People who react in denial do not acknowledge or are unaware of the different, often negative, experiences that employees from marginalized groups face in the workplace. 

  • “We don’t have a diversity problem here in our organisation” 
  • “I don’t see people for the colour of their skin, I treat everyone the same”

2. Disconnection

Employees can often unintentionally disconnect from participating in DEI efforts because they feel that diversity, equity & inclusion is not about them. These employees often believe that while inequality exists, it isn’t their individual responsibility to help solve it. 

  • “This isn’t my problem to solve” 
  • “I shouldn’t be commenting on this because it’s not my place” 

3. Derailment

Employees who feel 

  • “We shouldn’t lower the hiring bar just to attract diversity.”
  • “Shouldn’t we focus on hiring the best people for the job?”

The backlash can also come from people from historically marginalised groups themselves. They may be skeptical of your company’s efforts due to past negative experiences and/or have received direct backlash from people from the dominant group. For example, not being believed when they have raised issues of microaggressions, bias or discrimination because of their race, gender, religion, age or be on the recieveing end of comments such as “You only got the role to fill a quota”. 

What can leaders do to minimise and/or navigate DEI backlash?

We know that in order for businesses to successfully make any large-scale changes, they need to anticipate the types of reactions their employees may have so that they can support everyone in the change process and help them focus on how the change will actually enhance the success of the business. 

Once leaders identify and understand the nature of the resistance & backlash, they are much more able to put effective & proactive steps in place to mitigate the backlash & move the organisation forward towards its DEI goals. 

Here are some tips that are important for leaders to minimise backlash. 

  • Take an Evidence-Based Approach

Ensure that you have formal & informal mechanisms to capture regular feedback on employee demographics & inclusion sentiments. It is important that leaders conduct regular DEI employee engagement surveys so that they can monitor & track progress. Share the results of the survey with your employees to enable accountability. 

  • Be Authentic in your DEI journey

Organisations can often focus on being hyper-positive on their diversity, equity & inclusion efforts. This can often make employees feel that leaders are being inauthentic or tokenistic when it comes to DEI. Whilst it’s important to celebrate wins & accomplishments, it’s even more critical to acknowledge challenges & the ongoing work that still needs to be done to continue to progress DEI. 

  • Consistent DEI Communication Plan 

When launching or rolling-out a new DEI initiative or project, be clear on how it has come about, how its intended to support the business & the role that all employees play in supporting it. Consider the different perspectives employees may have, anticipate the threats they may perceive as a result of your initiatives and address these proactively in your communication strategy.

  • Role-Modeling Inclusion

Leaders must demonstrate with their words and actions that they’re serious about creating a workplace where everyone feels included & where they can see themselves represented at every level of an organisation. 

  • Provide Allyship & Inclusive Leadership Training

Provide leaders with Inclusive Leadership training. Your mid & senior leaders are critical to managing DEI backlash & progressing DEI efforts. Providing leaders with the requisite skills & tools to manage DEI backlash when they see or hear it happening in the workplace is a neccessity. 

Drive a culture of inclusion across your organisation by providing all employees with training on Allyship. To foster inclusion, employees need to understand how power & privilege is unequally distributed in society & how this can affect experiences of inclusion in the workplace. Equip them with the tools to identify individual & systemic biases in the workplace and what they can do to speak up, expand opportunities & challenge systems that disadvantage others. 

Would you like to speak to one of our diversity, equity and inclusion specialists about your DEI challenges, including a strategy to overcome them? Get in touch here.

Written by

Dawn Teo (she/her)
Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion


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