Businessolver Blog

3 Ways CEOs can Regain DEI Momentum

3 Ways CEOs can Regain DEI Momentum
Posted on Thursday, September 7, 2023 by Jon Shanahan

CEOs say they’re disappointed with their organization’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) progress. Yet this isn’t translating into visible action for the organization or their employees.

Our 2023 State of Workplace Empathy study put numbers behind CEOs’ DEIB disappointment: 79% say their company spends more time talking about DEIB than acting on it and 84% feel their company should be doing more to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace. 

CEOs clearly value DEIB with 93% saying DEIB is important and 92% agreeing DEIB is empathetic. Yet these perceptions are not translating into visible action on the DEIB front for many organizations. In fact, our 2023 DEIB Special Report reveals a notable backslide in people-first cultures with double-digit declines in the visibility of DEIB programs:  

  • Only 55% of HR Professionals (-11 points from 2022) and 61% of CEOs (-12 points from 2022) say they have DEIB initiatives in place at their organizations.  
  • Only 31% of employees, 35% of HR, and 38% of CEOs say they’ve seen DEIB initiatives demonstrated in their workplaces.  

So if C-suite leaders highly value DEIB, then why is there such a pronounced backslide in DEIB efforts? We dug into the data and found three key opportunities for improvement:  

1. Reinvest in DEIB efforts 

The DEIB investment spark that was ignited in 2020 has now fizzled alongside the economy. Over the past year, some of the largest and most influential technology companies laid off hundreds of DEIB leaders. Likewise, DEIB roles have been downsized at a higher rate than non-DEIB roles. In 2020, DEIB roles increased by 55%, however, by the end of 2022 the attrition rate for DEIB roles was 33% compared with 21% for non-DEIB roles.  

A report by LinkedIn also found that the hiring of chief diversity officers (CDOs) declined in 2022, and CDOs were the only C-suite position to experience a decline. Since DEIB is not viewed as a revenue-generating role, it’s one of the first to go. Critical champions have been lost, leaving programs stalled or regressing as our findings show.  

What the C-suite can do about it:  

Put your dollars where your people are (or, in some cases, aren’t). The investment doesn’t have to be showy, but it does need to be meaningful. At Businessolver, we’ve invested in DEI programming by hosting quarterly book clubs, conversation corners, and working with a third-party firm to continuously assess our opportunities and develop strategies to make meaningful progress.  

2. Make DEI a priority and stay accountable to your organization’s needs 

Lack of investment ultimately leads to a lack of accountability. Whether due to a combination of DEIB layoffs, widespread employee burnout, or C-suite de-prioritization, there is a clear backslide in DEIB momentum.  

Our Empathy data revealed that smaller companies could be disproportionately impacted. In fact, companies with fewer than 1,000 (35%) employees are less likely to have DEIB initiatives in place versus companies with more than 1,000 employees (51%).  

At smaller organizations, HR professionals typically play a larger role in DEIB execution. With double-digit declines in HR’s empathy perceptions as well as clear burnout among this group, it stands to reason that smaller companies may feel the DEIB backslide more acutely.   

What the C-suite can do about it:  

Taking on accountability means taking on ownership. When initiatives are actioned on from the top down, it helps shed light on executives’ priorities for their employees. But if these initiatives aren’t baked into the culture from the start or backed by your leadership team, are you really staying accountable to your people?  

3. Employee Engagement and Workplace Flexibility

The decline in action and visibility in the workplace follows other declines and concerning trends in this year’s Empathy data, including a widening empathy gap, HR burnout, the Great Resignation, and the push for return-to-office (RTO).  

In the midst of all of these challenges, it’s no surprise that HR teams and employees are struggling with their mental health and motivation at work. 

Our data found that inclusivity, connectedness, and belonging trend significantly higher for remote workers—particularly women and remote workers of minority ethnic and racial backgrounds. But, 85% of CEOs feel an equitable and inclusive culture is harder to maintain in a hybrid or remote workplace.  

What the C-suite can do about it:  

To put it simply: Stop dragging your heels when it comes to flexibility. The data doesn’t lie—flexibility pays dividends when it comes to employees’ productivity and ability to find balance between work and personal lives. But when employees are boxed into inflexible work environments, productivity and mental wellbeing suffer.  

Reigniting people-first culture in the workplace

The three areas listed above present clear opportunities for C-suite leaders to bridge the many gaps that exist between themselves and their employees—starting with putting a purposeful and empathetic ear to the ground to stay rooted in employee realities.   

Beyond that, fixing the DEIB backslide will require executives to put dollars against their disappointment and reinvest in DEIB personnel to drive accountability and people-first cultures. But DEIB should not be a siloed effort. To drive real value, DEIB must be shared and demonstrated across all levels and functional areas of an organization—where everyone understands their role as delegates of DEIB—starting with C-suite emulating the culture they want to see.