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DEI backlash won’t halt workplace initiatives, most leaders say

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Across U.S. corporations, 72% of C-suite and HR leaders intend to increase their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the next two years, and only 4% plan to cut back or eliminate programs, according to a June 3 report from Bridge Partners, an executive search firm.

The commitment persists as key challenges remain around DEI, particularly at the leadership level, the report found. About 46% of leaders said their executive team fully reflects the diversity of their employee and customer base.

“Stepping back to see the bigger picture, the numbers show diversity remains elusive at the executive level, so it makes sense that firms plan to continue their investment in DEI as leadership seeks the competitive edge such diversity brings,” Ryan Whitacre, partner at Bridge Partners, said in a statement.

“Beyond that, we see the demographic waves produced by the Millennials — who embrace inclusion and are now in management themselves — and Gen Z, which enters the workplace as the most diverse cohort in history, as strengthening the tidal forces propelling DEI rather than supporting those who call for an ebb to such programs in Corporate America,” Whitacre said.

In an April 2024 survey of 400 C-suite and HR hiring executives at companies with at least 250 employees or at least $25 million in revenue, 94% said they believe DEI is important for its positive impact on recruiting, hiring and retention.

The biggest proponents of DEI tended to be internally focused stakeholders, such as HR (87%) and executive leadership (75%), while the board (57%), shareholders (41%) and external stakeholders (35%) prioritized DEI less.

Executive leadership appeared to be most representative of women, older workers and racial and ethnic minorities, according to the report. However, 57% of companies reported that LGBTQ+ workers were included on leadership teams, and lower percentages were reported for workers with disabilities, immigrants, formerly incarcerated people and neurodivergent workers.

Despite increased pushback to DEI programs, a majority of employers have expanded their DEI commitments — or even doubled down — during the past year, according to a Littler report. Within the C-suite, better communication across roles could improve alignment, minimize legal risks and improve DEI implementation, the company said.

A majority of business leaders who responded in Coqual’s Black Equity Index have also voiced concerns about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2023 affirmative action ruling and the implications for workplaces. As companies move forward, accountability and transparency are key, Coqual said, suggesting a DEI-related focus in C-suite performance evaluations, consideration of workforce diversity in companywide performance evaluations, and a link between C-suite pay and progress on diversity metrics.

Amid a complex political landscape, DEI efforts need to evolve in 2024, Mandy Price, CEO and co-founder of DEI tech company Kanarys, told HR Dive. “We have to really go back to the foundation: the meaning of our DEI programs, how they are tied to the business goals of the organization, and the culture, mission and vision as well,” she said.

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