'DEI' becomes 'IED'

The sentiments surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are changing — as are the words used to describe them, according to a recent report from The New York Times

DEI executives became a more common C-suite fixture in 2020 amid a racial reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd, according to the Times. In recent years, many leaders have left the roles, while some companies have cut them or combined them with other departments. Expectations on new CDEIs were often high, but unclear, leading to frustration among under-resourced leaders. As Yelp Chief Diversity Officer Miriam Warren told The Wall Street Journal in July, "There's a combination of grief, being very tired, and being, in some cases, overwhelmed." 

Diversity efforts came under greater scrutiny in June, when the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action. Debates over DEI have gained steam, playing out on social media among high-profile executives like Mark Cuban (who says these efforts are "good for business") and Elon Musk (who says they are "racist"). The issue has become increasingly partisan; a recent Pew study found that 78% of Democratic workers agree it is good for companies to focus on DEI, compared to 30% of Republican workers. 

As such, growing backlash against the framework "is usually the first agenda item on every call," Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of DEI consulting firm Paradigm, told the Times. 

Research on how that backlash has affected business decisions is mixed. "DEI" is mentioned much less frequently on recent investor calls than it was between 2020 and 2021. But the mention of these efforts in annual filings is at an all-time high, according to AlphaSense. And, in a recent survey of 320 C-suite executives from employment law firm Littler, just 1% said they had significantly decreased their DEI commitments in the past year, while 57% said they had expanded efforts.

DEI is likely not disappearing, but rebranding. 

"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," Ms. Emerson said. Now, companies aim to "be far more specific about exactly what it is that we're talking about."

For example, some companies are renaming their "DEI survey" to "culture survey"; reframing DEI trainings as courses to help managers deliver more effective performance reviews; and saying "IED" over "DEI" to center "inclusion" over "diversity." 

"I think instead of saying this is a program for Black employees, 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,'" Porter Braswell, founder of 2045 Studio, a membership network for professionals of color, told the Times

DEI programs are at their best when they emphasize their breadth, Lois Greene, DHA, BSN, RN, senior vice president of wellness, diversity, equity and inclusion at Newark, N.J.-based University Hospital, told Becker's last year. 

"You cannot just focus on one thing, right? If I'm the pencil officer, and everybody's using typewriters or pens, then I'm not addressing the needs of the organization," Dr. Greene said. "In the past, a DEI role could be sort of set up as, you know, 'We are racist and we need to fix that.' It's not that. It's coming from a place of understanding that everyone is different. And when you put all these different people into one space, you're going to have conflict, you're going to have misunderstandings. How do we learn to communicate better as an organization?" 

However, not all DEI executives agree that a shift in language and presentation could benefit the sector, including Misty Gaither, vice president of diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging at Indeed. 

"We need to call it what it is," Ms. Gaither told the Times. "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."

Read more about the evolving role of health system DEI executives here.

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