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Shadow of people

Diversity backlash is real. Here’s how to avoid it

By Carolyn Lawrence

Between #MeToo and the near-daily stories of sexual harassment or assault at the highest levels of some organizations, there’s no shortage of examples of what inclusive leadership isn’t. 

But there are also many stories of good companies and good leaders taking deliberate steps to foster inclusion—and running headlong into a backlash. Often, this unexpected repercussion takes the form of quiet, simmering disappointment, resentment, or anger. Occasionally it bursts out into the open, as Google experienced when employee James Damore posted his now-viral “ideological echo chamber” memo, prompting the organization to fire him.    

Diversity backlash is a real and important phenomenon that damages people and companies. It’s all too common—but it’s not inevitable. Organizations can prevent it. And in Deloitte’s new report Outcomes over optics: Building inclusive organizations, we urge leaders to guard against diversity backlash, because doing so is a critical component of their organization’s journey to becoming more inclusive. 

I’ve witnessed diversity backlash firsthand. One company in particular that reached out to Deloitte for help had taken deliberate steps to meet an admirable and ambitious gender diversity target: gender parity in leadership by 2025. The company established specific hiring and promotion targets across regions and departments. It trained recruiters and management to identify and mitigate unconscious biases and to sponsor and develop high-potential women, and launched dedicated programs to attract more women to the organization from non-traditional sources. The company poured tremendous energy into these efforts, all of which are considered to be highly effective strategies to achieve inclusive talent management. 

But under the surface, something very different was happening.  A backlash began to take shape, and criticisms began to arise. Some questioned whether the new women were hired for merit or simply gender, creating an atmosphere of distrust and making the new women hires feel they had to work extra hard to prove themselves. Those women who had already succeeded within the organization worried the culture they’d learned to navigate and master was changing. Employees in other under-represented groups, particularly visible minorities, were deeply hurt—they saw the company’s efforts as a signal they weren’t as important, and as such felt even more excluded.  Which, as we know prevents employees from reaching their capacity to perform at the top of their game.

It became clear the leadership didn’t have its finger on the pulse of the organization. While the leaders were speaking publicly about their commitment to inclusion, but they were only focused on one aspect of this, gender representation, and furthermore they weren’t engaging in any two-way dialogue with their employees to get the feedback they needed early on. Thankfully, they swiftly responded to the concerns raised and are making shifts to become more broadly inclusive.

But why did this backlash happen in the first place? 

In part, it’s because diversity and inclusion are highly personal, emotionally charged topics. Discussing them requires us to think and talk about how we see ourselves and others, and how to include a vast array of identities. These conversations can often hit very close to home for us and others. They’re not easy.

As well, we create inclusive workplace cultures by adopting new ways of thinking and acting, not through programs and initiatives. It’s not like a technology project—there’s no “go-live” day on an inclusive culture; it’s a constant journey. And changing behaviour is hard, as anyone with a failed New Year’s resolution can attest. It takes repetition, reminders, and sometimes failure and then evolution.  

In our work at Deloitte, we strive to build strategies to prevent backlash such as robust and holistic communication plans, but when needed, we also coach our clients through the setbacks and unexpected twists.  We understand well the process is not always smooth; we’ve learned from our own experiences.

Guarding against the backlash

So how can organizations protect themselves against a diversity backlash as they move forward on their inclusion journey? One of the most important steps is to view all people and ideas, different as they are, as equally valuable in the success of your organization.  As a way to see and value uniqueness, or as a next step, engage in frequent, candid, and open two-way conversations with all employees to develop a deeper, fuller, and simply better understanding of their perspectives. As well, organizations should:

  • Lead inclusively: this is an action, and goes beyond understanding the business case for inclusion in intellectual terms to actually modelling inclusive behaviour, day to day. This can be a daunting task for leaders whose leadership skills were honed over decades, but without an inclusive tone at the top, organizations will struggle to move the needle.
  • Give all your people a voice in how the organization is shaped, including members of traditionally dominant groups, not just the under-represented employee resource groups. Deloitte US took a bold step in this direction by dissolving all affinity resource groups
  • Seek out employee feedback regularly to identify possible missteps or signals of backlash early, and respond accordingly. 
  • Be courageous—and vulnerable. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But bold action and commitment, combined with honesty and humility, will create the long-lasting change you want. 

Creating more inclusive organizations—and by extension, a more inclusive Canada—is a goal worth achieving. It’s good for Canadian businesses, and it’s good for Canada overall. But it’s also hard, and diversity backlash is real. By engaging all people in the conversation, and by sharing successes as well as setbacks and disappointments, we can move us all forward in creating the Canada we want to live in. 

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