If your organization was like many others in 2020, George Floyd’s murder inspired a fire and passion for pursuing justice and implementing DEI initiatives. We all wanted to be better, to do better. Companies created plans, brought in experts, and hired DEI leaders. The number of roles devoted to these measures increased by 55%. But over the last three years, instead of taking a giant leap forward, we’re at risk of going backward.
A 2023 report revealed attrition rates for DEI roles have outpaced those of non-DEI roles. Additionally, in companies that have experienced recent layoffs, more than 300 DEI professionals left—in some cases, entire DEI teams departed. These roles certainly aren’t being cut or vacated because companies reached their goals. So why are those leading the charge leaving or being forced out?
The unfortunate reality is that many companies were just checking a performative box when it came to these initiatives. They promised commitment and likely had genuine intentions in the beginning, but as budgets tightened, they struggled to prove the ROI. Several other factors contributed as well.
• Company goals around DEI were too nebulous and vague.
• Resources were never really funneled to DEI programs to ensure they succeeded.
• Accountability for the change was never established, so no one followed up on progress.
Because it’s nearly impossible to show value when goals, resources, and accountability are lacking, DEI teams and their programs don’t stand a chance. These roles will continue to disappear unless companies are truly committed for the long haul.
We’ll never be able to say we’re done advancing DEI. Organizations are made up of people, and people will never reach full DEI enlightenment. As companies and individuals, we’re all on our own journey, and the journey may never have a final destination.
As society and humanity grow and change, our programs must change with them. The DEI goals we set back in 2020 may not make sense anymore. For example, new economic struggles, politics, and world events can disproportionately impact one group over another. So the programs and initiatives you plan and support one year may need to change the next.
Neglecting to iterate over time and set new goals hinders DEI efforts. Let’s say your organization achieved a goal to have 30% of new hires come from diverse groups. That’s great and should be celebrated! But what’s next? Do you have groups or systems in place to support these employees? Does your leadership pipeline have diversity? Is there another employee population that needs encouragement and resources?
There’s always more to be done. But that work becomes infinitely more difficult if DEI teams and leaders are disappearing. With no one advocating for continued efforts, progress can stall—and even start to creep backward.
The chasm between where your company is and where you want it to be may be deep and wide. Financial and economic pressures could be wedging the divide apart even further. Setting aside DEI efforts, even just for a short time, may seem like the fiscally responsible choice. But you must stay the course! Here are some strategies to keep your momentum.
One way to energize your DEI teams is for company leadership to celebrate its wins. It doesn’t matter how small. Any movement in a positive direction is worth acknowledging. This signals to DEI teams and the organization as a whole that leadership is on board and recognizes the hard work being done.
While this worked as the title for an Academy Award-winning movie, it doesn’t have to be your approach to DEI initiatives. You don’t have to solve every single inequity in one day. Instead, determine the small steps that make the most sense for you and your organization and start there. Do your best in a small area, communicate your intention to do more over time, and—again—celebrate the wins as they come.
Vague goals leave progress open to interpretation. It’s vital to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. Put numbers to it. Consider both quantitative and qualitative metrics. Sentiment surveys and employee feedback can signal progress just as much as hard numbers.
Then, identify how often you plan to check in on those metrics and goals. Do you have someone who’s responsible for sending out a monthly report? Does your company publish a public update every quarter? Will you have an all-company meeting at the end of the year?
On the DEI journey, your company will inevitably encounter bends in the road or bumpy terrain. So progress may ebb and flow over time. But don’t be discouraged. It’s just like building muscle. Growth doesn’t happen after two weeks of effort. It requires consistency and discipline.
Consistent and authentic effort over time will lead to results, so don’t let your momentum falter. Small steps and seemingly insignificant actions create a cumulative impact, even if your priorities at the beginning of the year change by the end. Just remember: Once you achieve one goal, it’s time to set another. When one initiative succeeds, use that playbook to launch others.
We cannot let economic uncertainty and budget constraints wipe out DEI teams and their initiatives. Now is the time to do more, not less. Let your DEI leaders know their efforts are still a priority. Reassure them that resources won’t be diverted and initiatives won’t be canceled. We cannot afford to take a step back. We’re still on the journey.
“DEI Progress Is Facing A Concerning Reversal” originally appeared on Forbes.com