"The backlash is real": Behind DEI’s rise and fall

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) were a hot topic in corporate America just a few years ago, but presently, the business community has backed away from these programs. This shift is attributed to widespread attacks from lawmakers, high-profile individuals, and conservative activists, including former Trump aide Stephen Miller. While some companies are still committed to the principles of DEI, many others are backing away from these initiatives, either quietly or publicly.

According to Kevin Clayton, senior vice president, and head of social impact and equity for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the demand for diversity and inclusion roles "was the hottest position in America" after George Floyd's murder in May 2020. However, some CEOs are now feeling reluctant to speak publicly about DEI due to the growing backlash. As reported by Bloomberg, "The seemingly small changes— lawyerly tweaks, executives call them — are starting to add up to something big: the end of a watershed era for diversity in the U.S. workplace, and the start of a new, uncertain one."

Despite the shift away from DEI, some companies are still committed to fostering inclusive workplaces and treating people fairly. However, they are less likely to use the initials DEI or ESG (short for environmental, social, and governance). Instead, they may focus on their commitment to diversity and inclusion, so that everyone feels their voice is listened to and respected. As Bruce Van Saun, chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group, told Axios' Felix Salmon, "We want to make sure that we don't trigger somebody with some of these words."

The backstory behind DEI initiatives is that there are widespread inequities in corporate America, including the low representation of Black CEOs and women in leadership positions. After a flurry of lawsuits in the 1990s and early 2000s, companies started caring about diversity more. Now, a new kind of litigation risk is sending them in the opposite direction.  

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