i4cp Survey: Employers Aren’t Scaling Back on DE&I (i4cp login required)

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Headlines trumpeting “the death of DE&I” have become ubiquitous of late, and persistent detractors insist that the demise of workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion is upon us, yet new research indicates this simply is not the case—in fact, far from it. 

A significant number of individuals surveyed this month by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) said that their companies have made progress in the last 18 months toward their stated diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. The survey, which gathered responses from 852 participants, found that 75% of those from larger organizations (employing >1,000 people) reported that progress is being made. In contrast, only 9% of the respondents said their companies are not making progress toward their DE&I goals.

Despite headlines to the contrary, most employers are not distracted by anti-DE&I rhetoric or backlash; they are unwavering in their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at work, and report seeing progress as a result of their efforts. Moreover, rather than cutting budgets in 2024, funding for DE&I programs/functions is expected to remain relatively stable over the next 12 months.

But while this clearly isn’t the end of the line for DE&I, it’s certainly time for a reset for many organizations, especially those that made ambitious pledges in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, only to have little to show for it four years on.

Organizations that were initially well-intended but primarily reactive in quickly pivoting toward DE&I efforts in 2020 are now more likely to be struggling. Simply having created a DE&I leadership role and then calling it a day has obviously proven to be disastrous for some organizations—and the individuals placed in these roles without the infrastructure necessary for success.

In contrast, those employers who were proactive and strategic—they already had (or established) clear goals and objectives, allocated adequate resources, enlisted leadership to champion the work, communicated, clearly about all of it—having established  a sustainable model and are making strides.

Advancing DE&I work requires effective communication

We asked survey participants whose organizations are making progress toward their DE&I goals to tell us what they attribute that success to—what’s proven to be most important in driving that progress?

What we found is that the elements deemed most essential in these organizations are firmly grounded in the fundamental but critically important ability to communicate well.

Leadership buy-in topped the list (61%) followed by having clear goals and objectives (52%); ensuring that DE&I is an integral part of the day-in/day-out culture of the business (40%); the CEO is a DE&I champion (37%); and leaders are held accountable for meeting DE&I goals (33%). All of these require clear, consistent communication—well beyond sending out a flurry of messages about Black History Month each February and not doing much else the rest of the year.

Internal communication about the organization’s commitment to DE&I topped the list of actions organizations plan to increase focus on in the next 12 months in comparison to the previous year. We can’t overemphasize how important communication acumen is, not only to the advancement of DE&I work, but to the overall success of the business—case in point, the number-one skill on LinkedIn’s list of the most in-demand skills for 2024 is communication (Bessalel, 2024).

How complicated the word “diversity” is and the degree to which it is interpreted, understood, misunderstood, or even clearly defined in organizations is also a factor. Well over half (60%) of those polled said that they would describe the current state of DE&I in their organizations as focused more on belonging; 55% said they would describe theirs current states as focused more on inclusion (the “I” part of DE&I); 51% said their companies are in ideation mode–thinking through their approaches to DE&I.

One survey participant noted: “We continue to talk about inclusion and that it means that everyone (no matter what) belongs here. We spend a lot of time talking about our culture, keeping people engaged in the work and activities that bring us TOGETHER rather than those that divide us.”

Another said: “We communicate about DE&I efforts in a way that is neutral, applies to all, and ultimately provides a great deal of value to our day-to-day lives. Employees are taught (in detail) how to acknowledge people, treat them with kindness and respect, and how to be considerate. When you apply that mindset, DE&I almost becomes automatic; DE&I efforts are being implemented in a subtle but effective manner.”

DE&I metrics and accountability matter

Making determinations about the effect of DE&I efforts, linking to business outcomes, and gaining insights into what is going well and what needs adjustments can be complex, with innumerable variables coming into play such as an organization’s culture, maturity of the DE&I work, and so much more.

Survey participants who reported that their organizations are making progress toward their DE&I goals said they rely on these top-four metrics: 

  1. Employee experience (disaggregated engagement survey findings, focus groups, feedback portals, sentiment analysis)
  2. Culture impact (Net Promotor Score, inclusion / belonging surveys, sentiment analysis, etc.)
  3. DE&I program participation (ERG / BRG involvement, event attendance, etc.)
  4. Progress against annual goals and benchmarks

Does you organization measure any of the following to determine the impact of its DEI efforts

Members of i4cp’s Chief Diversity Officer Board (CDOs) posited in the 2024 edition of our annual Priorities and Predictions report that as scrutiny of DE&I programs and initiatives continues and most likely intensify, leading with DE&I data tied to business objectives and bottom-line impact will become table stakes.

In addition, CDOs anticipate that cross-functional collaboration will increase (e.g., partnerships with DE&I, talent acquisition, comms, etc.) and business units as leaders combine efforts to work toward meeting representation goals, audit and debias existing systems, refine recruitment activities for maximum impact, and invest in diverse sourcing.

While the 2023 SCOTUS decision on affirmative action has inarguably emboldened staunch opponents of workplace DE&I initiatives, most organizations remain committed to equitable hiring and talent practices, which is at the heart of inclusion and its power to drive productivity and performance.

Recommendations

  • No two organizations define diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, accessibility (or whatever combination or order of these) in exactly the same ways. Ensuring that what it means in your organization is succinctly defined and repeated often is foundational to effective communication. 
  • Partner with legal counsel to audit all current or proposed DE&I activities, programs, or initiatives to identify potential risks or concerns.
  • Co-create a communication plan with stakeholders across the business, ensuring that there is clear messaging about DE&I and business outcomes. DE&I work must break out of the traditional human resources silo; as long as it is viewed as work limited to HR, meaningful progress will be nearly impossible. 
  • Ask the CEO and senior leaders to consider making a statement(s) reenforcing commitment to the organization’s DE&I work.
  • Provide ongoing education on what inclusive leadership means and should look like in your organization for all leaders.  
  • Provide managers with opportunities to develop their ability to facilitate difficult conversations.  
  • Organizations that conduct college recruiting should stay on top of what’s happening in each U.S. state and audit and adjust their campus messaging accordingly. For example, West Virgina has proposed a bill that includes eliminating mandatory diversity training, including discussion, workshops, and guest speakers on cultural appropriation, transphobia, homophobia, social justice, and inclusive language (Bryant & Appleby, 2024).

i4cp members: Download the aggregate survey results

Not an i4cp Member? Learn more about becoming an enterprise member

References & Further Reading

Bessalel, S. (2024). “LinkedIn 2024 Most In-Demand Skills: Learn the Skills Companies Need Most.” LinkedIn.com  

Bryant, J. and Appleby, C. (2024). “These States’ Anti-DEI Legislation May Impact Higher Education.” BestColleges.com

Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp, 2024). 2024 Priorities & Predictions: C-Suite Perspectives from i4cp’s Boards.i4cp.com

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