What I’ve noticed about DEI questionnaires – and it’s heartbreaking

Robin Hardman has helped employers put together 'great place to work' assessments for years. But recently, she's noticed changes to the way firms are being asked to report DEI, and doesn't like it

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May 6, 2024

I’ve been working in the “employer-of-choice” arena for several dozen years now.

I’ve watched as what began as a focus on “work-family balance” morphed into the more inclusive “work-life integration.”

I’ve since seen the focus on inclusiveness continue to grow until the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion – DEI – had become central to any employer wanting to be able to claim they are a great place to work.

Now, I accept that this makes sense.

In order to promote work-life integration, you need flexibility, equitable pay, and decent leave policies, among other things.

These are some of the very attributes required of a truly inclusive workplace: a workplace that makes personal and professional success possible for individuals with a wide range of interests, needs, abilities, personal responsibilities, and backgrounds.

Programs specifically designed to support diversity, such as unconscious bias training, diversity-related hiring and performance expectations, employee resource groups, and so on, help spread the success still further.

The elephant in the room

But, the truth is, you can have all the great workplace practices in the world, but if the vast majority of people who succeed in your organization are straight white men, then clearly not everyone is experiencing a great workplace.

It’s not for nothing that Great Place to Work Institute, which oversees Fortune’s and People’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” and “Companies that Care” lists, now calls its annual conference “Great Place to Work For All.”

In 2020, with the near universal outrage following George Floyd’s murder, many employers focused still more intensely on DEI – even as COVID-19 sent office workers home, exploding the concept of work-life integration in wildly unexpected directions, as well as creating a new chasm between those who could, and those who couldn’t, work remotely.

At many workplaces, the concept of inclusion grew more important than ever.

Although there was likely a great deal more talk than action, from what I could see, companies were at least trying.

Shifting winds

But last summer, the winds suddenly shifted.

In the wake of their success getting the Supreme Court to overturn affirmative action in college admissions (SFFA v. Harvard and UNC), members of the anti-“woke” brigade began setting their sights on employers.

Just weeks after the Court’s decision, attorneys general from thirteen states sent a letter to Fortune 100 CEOs, “reminding” them of their “obligations…to refrain from discriminating on the basis of race, whether under the label of ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ or otherwise,” threatening legal consequences if they didn’t.

A growing number of companies, including Disney, Pfizer, Comcast, the law firm Morrison Foerster, have already been the target of lawsuits by right-wing organizations, claiming they discriminate against white people. (Disney won its case; many of the others have made small, cosmetic-seeming changes and settled quickly).

Not surprisingly, legal departments everywhere are taking notice.

As far as I know, none of the companies I’ve worked with are actually dismantling their DEI programs.

But I also help companies put together their applications to be on “great workplace” lists and I’ve noticed two things:

Firstly: when it’s time for the inevitable review by the legal department, for the first time some of my language describing DEI programs is being toned down. That is, it’s being made a bit more vague and generic.

Secondly: questions on applications themselves, are sometimes changing.

So far, I have only one major “great workplace” list to go on, but it’s telling.

Each year Seramount, formerly known as Working Mother, sends interested companies applications for its various best company lists, many of which focus on DEI.

To get on these lists, contenders must respond to hundreds of questions about their demographics, benefits, policies, programs and practices.

But this year’s applications, released in late 2023, were notable for the absence of numerous questions that had been asked in previous years – questions related to inclusive hiring and promotion practices.

Among those questions that hadn’t been eliminated altogether, many were marked as optional.

In a webinar about the application process, organizers said the changes were made to protect applicant companies from having to answer questions they no longer felt comfortable answering.

I get it. I certainly can’t blame companies for doing what they need to do to stay out of legal jeopardy.

And so far all I’m talking about it is changes in language – that is, what companies are willing to say about their programs.

As I have said, so far any changes I’ve heard about in DEI programs are small and largely cosmetic.

But can a company really be a great place to work if it’s not doing everything it can to be a great workplace for all?

What does it tell us if companies can get on these lists without answering the tough questions?

Watching employers pull back from a promising trend towards inclusivity is frankly heartbreaking.

But it’s not just the employees who are affected. Years of research have shown a strong connection between inclusiveness and business success.

Can you be a great company without being equitable and inclusive?


But its not easy.

More to the point, it isn’t right.