Amid DEI backlash, employers say they’re ‘doubling down’ on commitment

In the last four years, corporate attention to diversity, equity and inclusion has skyrocketed. And while a number of recent high-profile events may be upping the pressure on corporate leaders to dial back their support, new research suggests the DEI backlash isn’t having a material impact on employers’ attention to this work.

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A study out this week by law firm Littler found that nearly 60% of the more than 300 C-suite leaders surveyed said their organizations had expanded their DEI work in the last year, while about one-third maintained it and just 1% significantly decreased their DEI activity.

“We’re seeing many employers maintain—or even double down on—their commitment, even as backlash spikes,” said Jeanine Conley Daves, Littler shareholder and member of the firm’s IE&D Consulting Practice, in a press statement.

DEI backlash and its impact on corporate agendas

Among the drivers of the so-called “war on woke” was last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down college affirmative action. Conservative activists challenging the role of DEI in academia celebrated again earlier this month with the resignation of Harvard University President Claudine Gay, the Ivy League institution’s first Black president who had come under fire for plagiarism allegations and her handling of antisemitism on campus. These incidents follow a wave of state- and local-level legislative moves aimed largely at restricting DEI work in academia.

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In the Littler study, business leaders acknowledged this growing movement is reverberating into the corporate world, with 59% saying they have witnessed increased backlash toward corporate DEI efforts since the SCOTUS ruling last summer. Yet, a significant 91% of leaders said that the decision, in particular—which restricts colleges and universities from using race as a factor in college admissions—hasn’t impacted the priority they place on their respective DEI programs.

However, while leaders contend that the motivation to advance DEI is maintained, the increasingly complex legal landscape for DEI may be slowing their success. Although nearly 60% of respondents said their organizations have enhanced training and L&D for diverse employees, just one-third have established diversity benchmarks, and less than one-quarter hold leadership accountable for the organization meeting DEI goals.

Thirty-five percent acknowledge their organizations need more clarity around their DEI goals, a stat that underscores the need for HR leaders to leverage data as they build out DEI agendas.

Kate Mrkonich Wilson, Littler
Kate Mrkonich Wilson, Littler

The political and legal DEI backlash “raises the stakes for employers to develop programs that are compliant with federal and state laws,” says Kate Mrkonich Wilson, Littler shareholder and member of the firm’s IE&D Consulting Practice.

“In today’s environment,” she says, “it’s more important than ever for organizations to assess whether their investments in IE&D are achieving their desired outcomes without creating new liabilities.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].