DEI’s Delicate Balance

Some programs can be counterproductive, and initiatives themselves are under assault in court and in public. But there’s so much bias out there. What actually works?

Last month, Korn Ferry held a webinar on the status of diversity efforts worldwide. A year ago, a similar presentation had thousands of attendees; the latest one had only a few hundred, says Alina Polonskaia, a global leader in Korn Ferry’s DE&I Consulting practice. “We are in a DEI recession, so to speak,” she says.

According to a 2022 survey of more than 1,000 firms, leadership support for DEI initiatives has fallen by 18% in two years. Today, one-fifth of companies offer no diversity programming at all. Some are actually being sued by activists to stop DEI efforts. At least 30 states are considering legislation to defund DEI measures in public institutions.

Yet inequality remains glaring in many organizations. For example, white men are 33% more likely than white women—and 300% more likely than Black men or women—to have a management role. In a slow-growth economy that’s now three summers removed from the murder of George Floyd, organizations are questioning whether DEI is worth the effort.

DEI experts acknowledge that critics have a point, to some degree: a lot of programs haven’t worked. Many organizations need to change their approach, the experts say; too many rely on awareness training and good intentions. “Diversity is a lot more complex,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

One reason that programs don’t work: Some training methods shame participants for feeling biases that are biologically innate. Almost everyone shows a preference, explicit or otherwise, for someone who looks like them and has a similar background. Unconscious-bias training is a good step, but if all it does is label people as racist, experts say, it’s being executed poorly.

To have a chance at sustainable success, Polonskaia says, DEI efforts need to be structural in nature. That involves multiple steps, including retooling job roles and requirements so they’re accessible to more people, continuously building teams whose members have diverse backgrounds, and holding managers accountable for finding and developing talent from underrepresented groups. “Running unconscious-bias training is easy,” Polonskaia says, “but transformations aren’t.”

It’s also important that DEI initiatives encompass all levels of an organization. Flo Falayi, a Korn Ferry associate client partner in leadership development, recently helped one client open up their narrowly focused programming, which targeted just a few segments of the employee population, to incorporate everyone. “You have to be intentional with these programs for them to have a chance of succeeding,” Falayi says.

DEI-focused leaders also need to continually make the business case for diversity and inclusion. Too often, advocates rely on the argument that DEI is the so-called right thing to do—when plenty of research shows that diverse, inclusive organizations outshine their less inclusive peers in terms of attracting talent, retaining it, and making money. “Businesses make decisions based on their currency, which is profit,” Tapia says. “You have to position a DEI effort as an enabler.”


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion capabilities.