I’m rarely shocked by the data that WeSpire collects. Since we do research in the field we work in every day — employee engagement — the data tends to reinforce what we are experiencing on the ground. But when our Insights team told me that employees reporting access to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) programs had dropped 35% since 2019, I was stunned. We had seen a big jump from 2018 to 2019. Given all the emphasis on racial equity and justice, the wave of corporate diversity commitments this year, and even the momentum in our business, I expected that number to jump again.
I made the team go back and make sure it was right, then checked to see if something dramatic had changed about survey respondents. Did we skew more towards smaller companies? No. Significant industry differences? No. Anything different in the confidence interval or margin of error? No.
So if we accept that the drop is real, what happened? Our hypotheses are informed by what we see in our work. For many companies, their DEI engagement initiatives rely heavily on employee resource groups (ERGs), sometimes referred to as affinity groups. Those efforts are supplemented by formal workshops and training sessions, and in some companies, mentoring programs. The vast majority of programming is delivered in-person and relies heavily on volunteer employee leaders.
Another difference is the role technology plays. When people use WeSpire to support their ERGs and inclusive culture efforts, we are rarely replacing other technologies like we are in wellbeing or charitable giving. If technology was used at all, it is usually just a page on an Intranet with some links to online training courses or a discussion channel on a social platform.
One theory is that heavy reliance on in-person activities and volunteer leadership, combined with the lack of technology, meant many of these programs just didn’t survive the shift to remote work. This need for better technology is reinforced by one of the leading HR analysts, Stacia Garr of Red Thread Research, who stated in a recent report: “As orgs feel the pressure to take a stand, and act against systemic racism and gender discrimination, they’ll no longer be satisfied with technologies that only go so far as providing data.”
The other theory is that leaders are in a period of rethink and reflection about their DE&I efforts, finally acknowledging that many diversity efforts are failing to drive the deep cultural and behavioral changes that are necessary.
Whatever the reason for the drop, it should serve as a wake-up call to leaders. Commitments state your intent, but they have to be followed up by actions. Those actions in DE&I require changes to policies and processes but most importantly, behaviors. We’ve seen this necessity in our inclusive culture work where fabulous progress on pay equity, balanced hiring and promotion practices, and strong mentoring and sponsorship programs get undermined by how people treat each other day to day. To hit your goals, your employees need to know that there are initiatives that they are expected to take part in that will change their awareness, attitude and behaviors. Those initiatives need to be universally accessible, whether you work in a warehouse or are currently logging in from your dining room. We would strongly recommend that they emphasize psychological safety for all.
I am optimistic that this drop will be reversed as more offices begin to reopen, technology usage increases, and companies recognize the imperative to deepen engagement efforts in inclusive behaviors. I hope I’m not surprised again.