DE&I efforts are a ‘mixed bag’ three years after summer 2020, experts say

Companies committed to prioritizing diversity, but many lack nuanced changes to improve the employee experience for Black workers.
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4 min read

Following the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the summer of protests against racial injustice, many companies proclaimed that Black lives matter and announced moves to strengthen or develop their commitments to racial justice and corporate diversity.

Follow-through on some of those pledges doesn’t yet seem to have met the needs of those calling for change in how corporate America nurtures workers from marginalized communities.

Investment by corporations in DE&I efforts “surged” in 2020 and 2021, but “stalled” in 2022, according to a Glassdoor survey. Three full years later, even though those investments are still higher than pre-2020 levels, results have been a “mixed bag,” according to Christie Lindor of Tessi Consulting.

“There are some organizations that were already steeped in this work and really focused on it, and the summer of 2020 just accelerated and helped further prioritize this work,” Lindor said. “But then you have a lot of organizations that, all of a sudden, started to do things or started to be very declarative publicly about their commitments, and we’ve seen a lot of organizations, especially the ones that started to do this in 2020, many of them started to backpedal.”

Lindor pointed to companies that had already begun the work of diversity and cultural change before Floyd’s murder, suggesting they were better prepared to be “more nuanced” during the summer of racial reckoning.

But DE&I work is “not for the faint of heart,” and it often requires companies to hold a mirror up to “inner workings” they may not be prepared to do the work to address, she said.

“So much of people’s commitments in 2020 were just rooted in capitalism,” glassware company Grav’s Chief Experience Officer Madison Butler said. “They were starting to recognize that a big portion of younger millennials, Gen Z specifically, want to spend their money at companies that support the things that they fundamentally believe in.”

Butler also works as a public speaker and DE&I consultant, and she said many companies have worked on social justice marketing since 2020 and there’s still a need to turn their “lens inward” to make the employee experience better for marginalized people within their own walls.

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Shereen Daniels, managing director of HR Rewired, said when it comes to improving the employee experience for Black colleagues, one HR challenge is identifying problem areas and then making specific changes to address them.

Daniels said most of her clients come to HR Rewired with concerns about underrepresentation in senior leadership. What they don’t realize is that without addressing cultural issues that affect attrition rates within specific demographic areas throughout the employee life cycle, she said, they won’t actually make impactful improvements to diversity and the employee experience that have contributed to that “leaky bucket.”

“That’s because they’re not honing in on the reasons why there wasn’t the representation in the first place,” she said. “They’ve just [done] the symbols of change, which is hiring more diverse people...It’s actually more important making a difference when they’re actually there.”

Shai Poulard, head of global diversity, inclusion, and belonging at NerdWallet, agreed. She told HR Brew that the company focuses on increasing representation, “but simultaneously, it’s also about [making] sure we have the right culture to empower that representation.”

Lindor added that ongoing challenges stem from a misunderstanding about what DE&I work is and who is responsible for its goals.

Some corporate leaders saw DE&I work as a short-term initiative and a “warm, fuzzy brand reputational component.” She said those who were more successful saw it as a core component of the organization, likening it to company-wide values like “innovation” or “collaboration.”

“DE&I…is one of those fundamental core values…You determine how you weave that throughout so that it becomes a practice,” Lindor said. “It just becomes how we do business as opposed to one of the things we do.”

With that, Lindor said HR is struggling to own the work because DE&I can’t be owned by one function. HR teams can help shepherd change because lots of components (recruiting, culture and employee experience, and learning and development) are developed by HR.

“Yes, it does begin [with the] HR function, in terms of looking at your employee experience and how you, end to end, revitalize that from a DE&I lens, but it shouldn’t stop there,” she said.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.