Diminishing DEI - the big mistake that some tech firms are making and storing up talent problems for the future

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett March 2, 2024
Summary:
Firms would do better to reshape DEI programs to cover areas like age and class, rather than cutting them altogether.

Diversity And Inclusion. Business Employment Leadership. People Silhouettes © Andrey_Popov - Shutterstock
(© Andrey_Popov - Shutterstock)

Zoom became the latest in a long line of tech companies laying off staff at the start of February. The firm cut around 150 jobs, which accounts for around two percent of its workforce. 

This number is relatively low compared to some of the hefty job losses other tech companies have been making – almost 200 firms have laid off more than 46,000 employees so far this year, many letting staff go in the multiple hundreds or even thousands (plus, Zoom had already laid off 1,300 staff last February). 

But it has also emerged that among these 150 staff, Zoom ditched its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) team. Instead of retaining its own DEI-focused department, the online video company plans to work with external consultants to engage all its employees, with a focus on inclusion, according to Chief Operating Officer Aparna Bawa. She added that Zoom needed to change its approach to DEI, while some work will still be done by internal staff.

As Cath Everett noted previously, 2024 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for DEI. The proportion of people joining the tech sector from underrepresented groups dropped sharply in 2023 compared to 2022. Alongside this decrease, many firms are cutting or reducing their DEI efforts alongside wider job losses.  Prior to Zoom, Google and Meta had both made cuts in DEI programs and teams. Twitter’s 30-person DEI team has also been reduced to just two employees following layoffs – unsurprisingly, considering its new owner Elon Musk’s critical stance on DEI

Backlash

However, this DEI backlash is short-sighted and could end up damaging firms over time, as the findings of a new report from TEKsystems highlight. 

When it comes to DEI spending, 90% of firms plan to spend the same or more this year compared to 2023, while only six percent are going to decrease DEI outlay. Similarly, 91% of firms intend to hire the same or more staff as part of DEI-focused recruitment, while only five percent plan to decrease the number of DEI hires.  The report also reveals that 76% of IT employees consider DEI as important when considering a new job. 

So we have a situation where more than three-quarters of people want to see evidence of a focus on DEI at any potential employer; and the vast majority of businesses are putting more budget into DEI schemes and hires. Hence, it's not unreasonable to imagine that firms bucking this trend and instead shedding DEI teams and programs could soon find it difficult to attract top talent to their organization. 

Major consequences 

Franklin Reed, Executive Director of Global Inclusion, Diversity & Equity at TEKsystems, warns that pausing or reducing DEI programs could have major consequences for businesses, both internally and externally: 

Internally, de-emphasizing DEI initiatives will signal that it was self-serving, virtue signaling or performative. This may lead to dis-satisfaction, which will lead to dis-engagement among employees, who value a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Most employees do value this kind of workplace, as evidenced by the report - 83% of IT professionals say diversity initiatives have made their company a better place to work, while 77% say they have positively impacted business results. On this basis, talented individuals may choose to leave an organization in search of a more inclusive environment. Reed adds:

If they don’t leave physically, they will leave emotionally, intellectually and psychologically. The result will be a reduction in discretionary effort, which is where many business opportunities are realized.

And externally, there’s the risk of reputational damage for the business. Reed says:

I’m curious about what potential employees will say or feel about these organizations moving forward and how effectively those companies will cater to its increasingly more diverse talent pool.

Personal agendas

Reed attributes the rise in anti-DEI sentiment and program cuts to misunderstandings, personal agendas and a lack of insights into what genuine DEI initiatives can accomplish. He notes:

Poorly executed DEI initiatives are being used to overshadow the wonderful efforts that yield the kinds of results we all want, which is the full participation of every employee.

Political motivations are also fueling the backlash. Reed is keen to emphasize the difference between businesses reducing DEI programs based on changing operating conditions, compared to criticism of DEI in general:

It is natural to evaluate DEI staff reduction to determine if the objectives the organization established can still be met, otherwise questions regarding commitment are legitimate.

Anti-DEI sentiment is altogether different. It is not the same as having to reduce staff. The anti-DEI sentiment we’re seeing unfortunately has to do solely with the racial, ethnic and gender aspects of DEI and none of the others, which are just as important.

As Reed notes, it’s unlikely anyone would tell TEKsystems to stop focusing on programs that help veterans find work. He adds:

Business leaders would never say to stop helping my decision-makers mitigate the negative impact of bias on their decisions. They’re unlikely to ask us to stop providing working moms with resources to help them be great employees and attentive caregivers. These are all also elements of DEI. 

Unfortunately, this current movement is just a wave that we will all have to endure, pay attention to and learn from to be better businesses and better people.

Broader DEI needed

One useful takeaway from this current propensity to cut or criticize DEI programs, is that it shines a spotlight on what a ‘good’ DEI strategy looks like. This includes ensuring programs cover areas like age and social class that aren’t so often discussed. Firms that aren’t already focusing on expanding DEI programs beyond the two main areas of gender and race are already a step behind, notes Reed.

To walk the talk, firms need to incorporate all aspects of DEI, whether it’s age, income class, disability, working styles, personality disposition, veteran status and so on. To make significant investments in your employees, firms need to invest in these employees' jobs and their lives. Implementing DEI programs and initiatives that involve a wide range of diversity is where that can start.

This may not be the case at present. According to the report, 43% of firms don't yet have an advanced DEI program. This isn’t necessarily due to a lack of interest for most companies, says Reed, more a failure to make it a strategic priority: 

When organizations elevate DEI work to the same plain as other strategic imperatives like expanding the business, enhancing the digital experience, or acquiring companies, that’s when they will see progress over time.

Another factor could be a resistance to change. Reed says:

Change, especially when it involves rethinking established practices or confronting biases, can be met with resistance from those who may feel threatened or uncomfortable with it.

My take

It’s depressing reading comments from the likes of Musk and billionaire investor Bill Ackman slating DEI efforts – and even more worrying is the number of people who support their take. But what is heartening is realizing how few companies and individuals actually hold this view, based on the TEKsystems’ data. Hopefully, it won’t be long before those firms making DEI cutbacks are forced to realize their mistake as talented individuals choose to join other businesses and companies look to work with more enlightened suppliers. 

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