How Do You Handle Pushback Against DEI Initiatives From Employees — or Even Other Senior Leaders? - Senior Executive

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DEI Expert Panels 1 min

How Do You Handle Pushback Against DEI Initiatives From Employees — or Even Other Senior Leaders?

How confident you are as a DEI leader in navigating conversations with DEI skeptics has a lot to do with two key factors: 1. how well you’ve quantified DEI’s impact on your organization’s strategic objectives and 2. how much support you have from the CEO.

by Senior Executive Media Editors on June 7, 2023

Even today – perhaps even more so today – it’s not uncommon for colleagues to question or criticize DEI initiatives. Sometimes, that pushback comes from fellow executives or influential department heads.

How confident you are as a DEI leader in navigating conversations with DEI skeptics has a lot to do with two key factors: 1. how well you’ve quantified DEI’s impact on your organization’s strategic objectives and 2. how much support you have from the CEO.

We asked members of the Senior Executive DEI Think Tank – a criteria-based organization for DEI decision-makers at large companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies – to share their playbooks for responding to DEI pushback from internal sources. Consider the following.

Ivan Lee

Come to a Mutual Understanding

Ivan Lee

Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Elastic

This is a two-pronged approach. The first is to help people understand the direction of the organization: This is where we want to go and the impact we want to make. The second is to understand the person’s journey and how their alignment can create more value for them: “What’s in it for me?”

Now, are you with us?

Aubrey Blanche-Sarellano

Compassionate Clarity

Aubrey Blanche-Sarellano

Senior Director of People Operations and Strategic Programs, Culture Amp

Answer questions compassionately, while being clear that DEI is a non-negotiable priority at the company.

Kellie Sauls

Bring Your Data

Kellie Sauls

Director of Outreach, Culture and Engagement, Teacher Retirement System of Texas

Align DEI initiatives with individual and departmental goals. Share how DEI helps meet and support the goals.

Eric Jo Johnson

DEI as Change Management

Eric Jo Johnson

formerly Director of Culture and Inclusion, VNS Health

After making change a part of the DNA of your organization’s culture, research suggests that people are less resistant to change when they are provided the authority to make decisions or share their opinion in regard to the proposed change regardless of role level.

DEI professionals must communicate why the change is happening, address and help reconcile what people are feeling emotionally in response to the change, and ensure the change happens in a form that doesn’t result in too many tasks being placed on people at once.

Last, there needs to be an ask for people to reaffirm expectations around certain DEI initiatives (e.g. beginning a declaration of the company espousing DEI) when appropriate and a push to put systems of accountability in place to ensure that pushback is mitigated.

Ileisha Sanders

It Helps to Have a CEO Who Walks the Walk

Ileisha Sanders

DEI Manager, Stanislaus County (Calif.)

Lean on mission and vision, which supports DEI. Also, having continuous involvement in DEI initiatives from the CEO is helpful.

Rodrigo Castejilla

Don’t Dwell on DEI Pushback

Rodrigo Castejilla

Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, DWS Group

I listen, then share our organizational goals. Then I move on.

Kevin Walters

Capturing Data on DEI Pushback

Kevin Walters

Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion Solutions, SilkRoad Technology

When I receive pushback from employees or senior leaders on DEI initiatives, I try to find out what the root cause of the pushback or concern is. My goal is to obtain data on the specific concerns the employees or senior leaders have with a proposed DEI initiative.

Several ways to obtain this data are by taking pulse surveys and meeting directly with senior leaders to gain their buy-in. All feedback, whether positive or negative, helps further engagement overall.

Jennifer Good

Make Your Workforce Aware of DEI Commitments, Progress

Jennifer Good

Senior Manager for Supplier Relations, Compliance, and Diversity, American Axle and Manufacturing

Continuous education and awareness are key. We work hard to make sure that our employees are heard, as well as senior leaders, but, ultimately, we need to work together to make progress.

Marisa Grimes

A DEI Challenge Bigger Than Internal Pushback

Marisa Grimes

Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, U.S. Tennis Association

Oftentimes, the biggest challenge is not pushback from employees or senior leaders—it’s getting everyone to feel ownership and accountability for embedding and driving DEI within their respective areas, rather than expecting that it is the sole responsibility of the DEI department.

We address this through education and initiatives that inform and empower our employees and leaders, but also through setting clear and measurable DEI goals at every level and across every function of the organization so that it is clear it is everyone’s responsibility.

Ian Brown

Can’t Argue With Success

Ian Brown

Vice President / Chief Employee Experience Officer, Duke University Health

Demonstrate the business impact of DEI initiatives on business results.

Karen Perham-Lippman

Deal With DEI Pushback on a Case-by-Case Basis

Karen Perham-Lippman

Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Jensen Hughes

There are multiple strategies that are employed depending upon the individual or group – especially because DEI implementation is change management, and it is important to assess where folks and the organization as a whole are in their readiness to adapt and to go through a change process, regardless of whether an initiative is small or is a larger change that will happen over time.

This includes patience, education, effective communication, engagement of stakeholders, pilot programs, creating business cases, defining and implementing measures of success and building support through sharing outcomes, influencing leadership, involving everyone, addressing fears and misconceptions as they arise, and engaging my external network of DEI practitioners when necessary for another perspective or fresh ideas.

Senior Executive DEI Think Tank is a criteria-based membership community for chief diversity officers and senior-level DEI leaders at large organizations to share difference-making tactics, trade valuable resources, and seek the counsel of experienced peers in a private, confidential setting.

Do you qualify?

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