Joelle Emerson’s D.E.I. consultancy, Paradigm, works with more than 500 companies. The growing backlash against D.E.I., she said, “is usually the first agenda item on every call.”
Critics of D.E.I., or diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, have tried to scapegoat it for everything from regional bank failures to a panel’s ripping off a Boeing plane in flight last week. That debate gathered pace this month as three famous billionaires clashed over D.E.I.’s merits on social media: Elon Musk and Pershing Square’s chief executive, Bill Ackman, have attacked D.E.I. efforts as “racist,” while the investor Mark Cuban argued that they were “good for business.”
The economy and political landscape have changed since 2020, when companies hired D.E.I. officers in droves amid a racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd. Recently, D.E.I. programs have become less visible. Over the past two years, hiring for D.E.I. roles has plunged and the number of investor calls mentioning D.E.I. has dropped.
That raises a question: Have companies pulled back on D.E.I.? Or have they just changed how they approach and talk about it?
D.E.I. is operating in a new environment. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, setting off a wave of similar lawsuits and legal threats against company diversity programs. And while polling indicates that most Americans believe it’s good for companies to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, there’s a wide partisan divide: In a Pew survey last year, 78 percent of workers who identified as Democrats agreed with this sentiment, while just 30 percent of Republican workers thought the same.
The pushback may have prompted a rebranding, according to D.E.I. professionals. At some companies, what used to be called a D.E.I. survey may now be advertised as a culture survey, Emerson said. Or management training once framed as part of D.E.I. efforts may instead be discussed as a course to help managers deliver performance reviews more effectively. “This term seems to be pretty widely misunderstood in ways that I don’t think any of us realized until the past couple of months,” Emerson said of D.E.I. She added that it might make sense for companies to “be far more specific about exactly what it is that we’re talking about.”
Some corporate D.E.I. programs now include a broader variety of groups, said Porter Braswell, the founder of 2045 Studio, a membership network for professionals of color. “I think instead of saying this is a program for Black employees,” he said, “it would be more like, ‘This is a program to increase the equity of promotion rates across the firm, and everybody is included to apply to be part of this program, but will play different roles.’”
Some companies now talk about “I.E.D.” instead of “D.E.I.,” placing the emphasis on inclusion.
But a plunge in D.E.I. job postings could signal a retreat. After a spike in 2020 and 2021, job posts for D.E.I. roles on the employment websites ZipRecruiter and Indeed dropped in 2022 and 2023, the companies said. On ZipRecruiter, the number fell 63 percent in 2023. On Indeed, the number dropped 18 percent from December 2022 to January 2023.
Slow turnover of D.E.I. jobs (employers that hired in 2021 may not have needed to hire again in 2022) and a cooling labor market — especially in industries, like tech and finance, that are most likely to have D.E.I. roles — probably contributed to the drop, said Julia Pollak, the chief economist at ZipRecruiter. But those factors don’t entirely explain the shift.
Some see the decrease in job postings as a sign that companies have walked back their commitments to D.E.I. It shows that the surge in hiring of D.E.I. roles after Floyd’s murder “was performative at best,” said Misty Gaither, vice president of diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging at Indeed.
Braswell of Jopwell added that many companies tried to offload all responsibility for changing company culture onto a couple of new hires — a strategy that predictably failed. “All those people are being fired, all those people are quitting, all those people are feeling burned out,” he said, adding, “The only way these cultures change to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive is if it is everybody’s job within the company.”
There is also evidence that companies remain committed to D.E.I. In a survey released this week by the employment law firm Littler, only 1 percent of the 320 C-suite executives said they had significantly decreased their D.E.I. commitments in the past year, and 57 percent said they had expanded those efforts.
In a survey of 194 chief human resource officers published by the Conference Board last month, none of the respondents said they planned to scale back D.E.I. initiatives. And while the number of times D.E.I. is mentioned on investor conference calls has fallen, the number of mentions in annual filings is at a high, according to AlphaSense.
Does it matter how companies talk about D.E.I.? Executives have stopped discussing their sustainability efforts and using the term E.S.G., for environmental, social and corporate governance issues, as the topic has become more politicized. (BlackRock’s Larry Fink recently described “E.S.G.” as “entirely weaponized.”) When it comes to D.E.I., some professionals aren’t bothered by changes to branding as long as the work continues. “The end goals of these diversity initiatives and programs will not change,” Braswell said.
To others, changing the words is itself a retreat. “We need to call it what it is,” said Gaither of Indeed. “The data says that all of these positive things happen when you have diversity, equity and inclusion. So we’re not going to mask it or call it something different.”
— Sarah Kessler
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Citi will cut 20,000 jobs. The Wall Street giant announced the layoffs as it reported a $1.8 billion loss for the fourth quarter — the bank’s worst results in 14 years. Citi’s chief executive, Jane Fraser, admitted the bank had performed poorly but said 2024 would be “a turning point.”
BlackRock bets big on infrastructure. The asset manager agreed to buy Global Infrastructure Partners for about $12.5 billion, in a deal that would create the world’s second-biggest infrastructure business. BlackRock also announced a big reorganization, with Global Infrastructure’s chief executive, Bayo Ogunlesi, joining BlackRock’s global executive committee and board.
The S.E.C. approved the first Bitcoin E.T.F. The regulator authorized 11 fund managers to create a new product that would make it easier for retail investors to buy and sell the cryptocurrency. But the S.E.C.’s chair, Gary Gensler, issued a cautionary statement after the decision, making clear that Bitcoin was a “speculative, volatile asset” that was used for illicit activity.
The World Bank warns of a “wasted” decade. The institution predicted that global growth would slow to 2.4 percent this year from 2.6 percent in 2023. The forecast put the world economy on track for the weakest half-decade in 30 years. Two wars, a slowing Chinese economy and increased risks of natural disasters caused by global warming have added to the uncertainty.
The Geek Way
Andrew McAfee’s books, including “The Second Machine Age,” have focused on how technology is changing work. In his latest, “The Geek Way,” McAfee, a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, describes a shift from the industrial era’s management philosophy to a new era of constant change.
McAfee discussed the book with DealBook. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You recommend that companies adopt “geek norms” at which the most successful modern companies excel. What do you mean by that?
Norms are expected group-level behaviors. I say there are four great geek norms.
The first one is science, which is a constant argument that gets settled over time by evidence.
The second one is ownership. It’s about assigning responsibility to an autonomous group, and then making sure that it remains an autonomous group.
The third one is speed. How quickly are you iterating, doing something, getting meaningful feedback on it, incorporating that and getting something else back out there? You need a plan, but the key is a minimum viable plan.
And then finally, openness, which is very close to psychological safety (which my former colleague Amy Edmondson talks a ton about). It’s the opposite of defensiveness. We are inherently defensive creatures. We don’t love being challenged, and the geeks have realized we have to get past that if we’re actually going to make progress together.
You write that a key to the norm of ownership is keeping bureaucracy in check. Why does bureaucracy tend to balloon?
We human beings have this very deep-rooted desire to want status. And one way to get status in a big, complicated organization is to be a gatekeeper or some person in the decision loop.
Hitting your numbers helps the organization as a whole — if you’ve done the alignment process right. But making yourself the 20th signature on the approval route to get some amount of spending through the system? No, let’s try not to have that.
Which of the geek norms is most difficult for leaders?
Probably openness. Like the rest of us, our leaders are inherently defensive creatures. Saying “Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that — good idea” is not what the Industrial era’s Jack Welch-style of leader was supposed to do. Maintaining that lack of defensiveness, creating an environment of psychological safety, arguing in ways that don’t shut things down are all difficult things to do and to keep doing as a leader.
Was there an era when this wasn’t the best way? What about the world has changed that makes it more important?
It has always been a better idea to be open instead of defensive. In a slow-changing environment, where the landscape is static, being closed off or not welcoming debate is not as big a problem. It is when the competition is global, when things get twice as good every 18 months and when, periodically, you have your environment rocked by something like generative A.I.
When the world is changing very quickly, all these old industrial habits become even worse.
Thanks for reading! We’ll see you Tuesday.
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