Big spending on DE&I doesn’t necessarily get big results

A new survey of senior DE&I leaders at big companies shows how corporate approach to diversity has shifted since 2019.
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Francis Scialabba

· 3 min read

CEOs are spending more to improve diversity, but at the end of the day, some executives still treat such initiatives like Raisinets at the movies—nice to have, but make sure you get your popcorn first.

That’s according to a new report from United Minds, in partnership with KRC Research and Weber Shandwick, which found that less than half of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) leaders “strongly” believe CEOs view their position as a “must-have.”

The survey asked 227 senior DE&I leaders in the US, UK, and Canada working at companies with annual revenue over $500 million about how their companies’ approach to diversity has shifted since 2019.

Follow the money: 77% of participants said the C-suite gave DE&I more money in 2021. Since 2019, 26% more DE&I leaders report budgets of $50 million or more. The number of employees focused on diversity at work at these large companies has quadrupled. This is great news for HR folks hoping to share the workload and grab a happy-hour drink. (This isn’t professional advice, but it’s our experience that the more coworkers who are on a team, the better the odds you can expense after-hours artichoke dip.)

But, but, but…Something is getting lost in translation.

  • Although 86% of DE&I leaders think the company is investing appropriately in diversity, nearly one-third of employees disagree. They believe their organization isn’t dedicating sufficient resources to advancing DE&I.
  • 78% of respondents feel diversity is only prioritized when the company faces a “visible, public problem.”

This disconnect could be explained by how organizations are spending diversity funds.

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According to the survey, the top DE&I priorities for the next 12 to 18 months are “diversity, equity, and inclusion training” and “learning & development” programs. These programs are sometimes criticized for being inadequately brief and cursory, driving few behavioral changes. In contrast to 2019, fewer companies represented in this year’s survey are “recruiting and retaining diverse talent” (down 11% from 2019) and “fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace culture” (down 18%).

Speaking to the NYTimes, DE&I strategy consultant Lily Zheng argued that workers see through one-and-done approaches to diversity training.

“The old corporate playbook of let’s just do performative diversity and try to shut people up is actually failing,” Zheng told the NYTimes. “PR departments are really stressed out right now, because something that worked just 10 years ago is no longer working.”

Zoom Out: McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski recently came under fire for what critics decried as “ignorant, racist, and unacceptable” text messages sent to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. (Kempczinski has apologized.) McDonald’s as a company has pledged $1 million toward racial justice since the murder of George Floyd, the Washington Post reported in August.

As Cassandra Newby-Alexander, an African American history professor at Norfolk State University, told Forbes, the controversy surrounding the McDonald’s CEO shows that corporate leaders need “more than a workshop” to understand the “embedded racism in our society.”—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Susanna Vogel via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SusannaVogel) or simply email [email protected].

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