The shifting language around DE&I isn’t just about politics

Experts say the transition is also about the next phase of inclusion and belonging, and tailoring programs to meet new needs.
article cover

Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Purpose-driven. Office of inclusion. Head of belonging. Cultural transformation. These are terms some companies are using that seem to describe diversity initiatives without saying DE&I.

Emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) surged in 2020, largely due to the cultural reckoning surrounding the police murder of George Floyd, which put a spotlight on persisting racial inequities in the US. But nearly four years later, dwindling budgets, politics, and legal woes have some programs shifting in strategy and name. While some experts believe that the industry was already changing course, one academic says the shift may negatively impact the communities that built DE&I.

How we got here. In 2020, corporate America examined how it was contributing to systemic racism, responding with shows of solidarity, followed by proclamations to do better, in part through DE&I investments. All of a sudden, the industry, which has existed since the 1960s, was booming, and DE&I roles jumped by 55%.

Those investments were somewhat short-lived. When tech layoffs swept the country in late 2022, DE&I appeared to be considered expendable by some large companies, as Google, Meta, and others cut their DE&I leaders loose. In June 2023, DE&I faced new scrutiny, following SCOTUS’s affirmative action decision. Some questioned the programs’ merits, with conservative activists calling for their abolishment and bringing lawsuits against some companies for their DE&I initiatives.

In response, the term “DE&I” has started to fade. Jobs featuring the term are down 8% so far this year, according to the Washington Post, and companies including JPMorgan Chase, CultureAmp, and Blackstone are quietly rebranding “DE&I.”

What’s in a name? Some companies may have initially focused on diversity because aspects like gender and racial representation could easily be tracked, explained Renu Sachdeva, head of client solutions, Americas, at Talking Talent. But that word may be triggering for some. “For that person who is used to being in the majority demographic, there started to be this sense of, the more that we’re focusing on hiring different people from different backgrounds, maybe there’s less opportunity for me,” Sachdeva said.

Sachdeva believes the backlash and perceived legal risks of DE&I are leading companies to put “diversity” on the back burner. In January alone, PwC eliminated the diversity requirements for its Start internship, while Tesla, which previously touted its diversity efforts, removed the language from its site. Organizations are focused “more on inclusion and belonging, because that’s more legally safe to do that.”

Wei Zheng, associate professor of business at the Stevens Institute of Technology, is also seeing a shift in language. “People have more reactions to the term DE&I, especially to diversity,” she said of her research. “Equity and inclusion seem to be much better received than just diversity.”

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.

Love Odih Kumuyi, founder of Unsiloed, a DE&I consultancy, noted a shift as well, with clients using terms like “inclusive excellence,” “engaging equities,” and “cultural transformation.”

Some organizations may avoid terminology altogether, explained Zheng. “Several organizations mentioned using their core values that include the idea of diversity, but do not use the term diversity,” she said.

While we’re seeing terminology change, Kumuyi believes the industry was evolving before the legal challenges. “Some people might change [terminology] in response to what’s happening in the media, but there was already a shift as more of a proactive movement towards better defining what it is,” she said.

Shaun Harper, a business and education professor and DE&I researcher at the University of Southern California, refers to this as “lay low DE&I.” He believes it could harm the relationship between businesses and their BIPOC employees.

“DE&I initiatives that Black folks and other employees of color, and other diverse employees have long fought for—it’s real hard to walk back that stuff and then look the folks in the face with some level of integrity,” Harper told HR Brew.

Moving forward. While some C-suite executives worry about what to call DE&I, Sachdeva recommended HR and DE&I leaders instead focus on their goals.“Let’s figure out the programs first and make sure we’re not going to run into trouble there legally. And then we’ll figure out what to call everything,” she said.

Sachdeva expects more companies to change their DE&I approach as they reexamine what has and hasn’t worked. “Psychologically, there is something here, where if we focus on the culture around inclusion and belonging and we help people figure out that piece first and really care about it at a heart level…I wonder if the diversity and equity will follow,” she said.

Kumuyi said integrating DE&I throughout businesses may lead to improvements. “When you silo DE&I, you lose the effectiveness of having it infiltrate, how you do organizational design, how you do team effectiveness, how you do leadership work,” she said. Zoom, for example, recently laid off its DE&I team, but said it is incorporating inclusion into its business more broadly, Bloomberg reported.

Regardless of public sentiment around DE&I initiatives, or whatever they’re called, Kumuyi said that, “reframing should not be a distancing from the word diversity.”

Changing the terminology could have lasting, detrimental effects on employees, according to Harper. “It does matter what you call it,” he said. “When we go and hide our work, rename our efforts, and lay low…it hands [DE&I obstructionists] a victory.”

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.