Harvard Business review

To Avoid DEI Backlash, Focus on Changing Systems — Not People

Perhaps in response to the critique that corporate efforts to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion are all talk and no action, an increasing number of companies are taking the matter of diagnosing and resolving inequities more seriously. According to a recent survey, more than 40% have either already conducted a DEI survey or audit or are looking to do so “in the near future.”

But in my own work as a DEI practitioner who often administers, analyzes, and helps companies act on these kinds of assessments, arriving at data-driven insights is only the tip of the iceberg. The far harder challenge is addressing organizational inequities without incurring backlash: strong adverse reactions from individuals and groups that undermine or compromise the positive outcomes DEI initiatives try to create.

Mandatory DEI trainings have been linked to lower levels of representation in leadership positions for Black, Latine, and Asian employees of all genders, and white women, due to resistance from existing leaders. Backlash is well-documented in response to organizational equity efforts like affirmative action policies, as well as broader equity-related social movements. In what has since been called the “#MeToo Backlash,” a 2019 survey following up on the impact of the #MeToo movement found that 19% of men were less willing to hire attractive women, 21% were less willing to hire women for jobs involving close interpersonal interactions, and 27% now avoided one-on-one meetings with female colleagues.

It isn’t only people from privileged groups that contribute to backlash, either. When the “diversity” of candidates is mentioned as a reason for their hiring, people rate the qualifications and skill of a candidate from a marginalized group lower — even if they themselves are from that same group. And when marginalized employees are presented with a “business case for diversity,” espousing the benefits of diversity on business outcomes, they respond by reporting a lower sense of belonging and less interest in joining the organization.

Why is backlash such a large risk when DEI initiatives are put into practice, especially when the vast majority of workers express support for DEI in the abstract? Because people are strongly motivated to protect their own sense of self-esteem, competence, and “inherent goodness.” When any of these things are challenged, their gut reaction is to resist and reject. If people are told that their language and interactions are biased, that constitutes a challenge to their self-esteem. If people are told that “diversity” and not “skill” played a role in their hiring, or that favoritism played a role in their promotion, that constitutes a challenge to their sense of competence. If people are criticized for being a member of a social group that has negative associations, that constitutes a challenge to “inherent goodness.” Regardless of how true any of these assertions are, these framings run a high risk of resistance, rejection, and backlash.


One powerful method to avoid backlash is by framing DEI initiatives to address inequities as changing systems, rather than changing individuals. By situating an organizational inequity in something less “personal” than an individual or group, like a process, policy, or normalized set of practices, leaders can galvanize the workforce while lowering the risk that people feel personally targeted. Here are some examples of this approach in action, compared to framings that risk activating backlash.

Backlash risk: “Biased hiring managers are only bringing in candidates that look like themselves, which is why we have little racial or gender diversity. To address this, we should have all hiring managers go through training to address their biases.”

Systems framing: “The hiring process doesn’t have consistent guidelines or expectations, putting additional burden on hiring managers, creating an inconsistent experience for candidates, and making it difficult to connect our organizational strategy to our hiring strategy. To address this, we should create initiatives to support hiring managers, like implementing hiring panels, tracking the overall race and gender makeup of the candidate pool through each stage, and coming together to agree on how to make decisions fairly based on resumes and interviews.”

Backlash risk: “Employees with disabilities and those who are neurodivergent aren’t able to navigate the workplace as well as their non-disabled or neurotypical peers. To address this, we should give disabled and neurodivergent employees coaches and run a campaign to help all employees build empathy for these experiences.”

Systems framing: “The employee experience is built around narrow assumptions about the ‘ideal’ employee that no longer hold true for our current workforce, which, among other things, is more disabled and neurodivergent than the workforce of the past. To address this, we should revisit employee onboarding, job design, and the manager-direct report experience to be more accessible, then integrate these changes into our general management training.”

To put this approach into practice in your own organization, use these five steps:

1. Collect data to diagnose specific inequities in your organization.

Use a mix of quantitative and qualitative data, whether survey data, focus groups or interview data, network data, or HR data, with employee demographic data to identify inequities in specific aspects of the employee experience. Seek to understand not only “what” inequities exist, but also “why” and “how” they exist. Qualitative data can be a useful tool to assist.

2. Communicate about initiatives using a systems-focused framing.

Make the case that the status quo is inequitable, pointing at the specific inequities you have identified, but maintain that the things to be “fixed” are specific systems, policies, processes, and practices, rather than the people engaging in them. Avoid blaming or shaming individuals or groups, and actively push back against fears that DEI initiatives will do so.

3. As change-making efforts begin, appeal to “fairness.”

“Business case” rhetoric tends to alienate members of marginalized groups. “Multiculturalism” rhetoric that focuses largely on supporting marginalized groups may alienate members of advantaged groups. Instead, focus on “fairness” and stress that DEI efforts both require and will benefit members of all groups.

4. Clearly lay out expectations for change alongside resources and support.

Communicate within the context of every initiative (e.g., building a more inclusive shared language), the initiative’s goals (fewer incidents of microaggressions and disrespectful language), and expectations for accountability (by the time of the next yearly survey, an improved belonging score). Highlight primarily the support available to all (learning resources and leadership coaching), while underscoring the importance of achieving the initiative’s goals within the expected timeline.

5. Sustain momentum by affirming effort and celebrating wins.

Using DEI-related metrics, regularly identify and celebrate wins and achievements while praising the shared effort of all stakeholder groups. Ensure that these celebrations use a similar framing of fairness, universal benefit, and systems improvement as other steps in the process. Finally, regroup the organization around the next objective to meet, and repeat these steps as needed.

To genuinely address and resolve inequities, leaders must first understand the nuances and obstacles that so frequently stymie the initiatives they undertake. Backlash is no different, and what can appear at first glance to be knee-jerk defensiveness, ignorance, or fragility, under a more compassionate lens becomes our universal desire to be seen as dignified, competent, and inherently good. If leaders can protect these core needs while coming together to make change, they can create DEI initiatives that succeed.

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