The Current State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace

In this episode, you’ll learn about the current state of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the workplace and explore what’s changed since the beginning of the pandemic. We chat with Jerome Tennille with the Uplift Agency, discuss the impacts of layoffs and current economic conditions. Finally, we look at what the future looks for DEI. 

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Karl Yeh:

Today, my guest is Jerome Tennille, he is the Director of Social Impact and ESG at the Uplift Agency. Thank you again, Jerome, for joining us today.

Jerome Tennille:

It's great to be here with you.

Karl Yeh:

Jerome, today we're going to be talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, I guess in the workplace, and how that DE&I has evolved I guess since the pandemic where there was a lot of focus, and where it is today.

So maybe before we get into that, what is the state of DE&I today in the workplace?

Current State of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the workplace

Jerome Tennille:

If I had to use just two words, and I'm not sure that everybody's going to agree with this, but I'd say, "in turmoil."

And I think you pointed to that. If we hop into a time machine, and if we go back to 2020, I remember like it was yesterday going on to, or SimplyHired, or LinkedIn, any other job hiring sites, and while corporations at the time were laying off hundreds of thousands of people, they were still hiring diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging professionals.

Fast-forward to present date 2023, and it's been like a rollercoaster. Right?

It was this high, then there was this steady plateau, and then it sort of dipped off.

Now we're starting to see that it's like the progress that was made over the last three years has essentially been wiped away.

Karl Yeh:

When you say, "in turmoil," is it because we've seen a lot of the layoffs recently, and a lot of it has to do with the economic conditions, but it seems to me, and correct me if I'm wrong, that the people who are being let go are these DE&I social impact professionals that maybe six months, a year, two years back, that was the entire focus. So what's causing that?

What’s causing the change or turmoil today?

Jerome Tennille:

I think it's a couple different things.

So when I say turmoil, you speak to some of it.

So that's a part of it, is we have been set back in terms of diversity in the workforce as a result of layoffs.

We know that people of color, women, other minority communities that are historically marginalized have been the greatest affected by layoffs and are going to continue to be the greatest affected as there are continued layoffs through 2023 with recession fears.

That's one element of it.

The second element of it is,

at the same time as minority groups are being the greatest affected by layoffs, so are HR professionals, and specifically HR professionals who focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

So that's the other part of it too, is not only are you setting back minorities by years as a result of these layoffs, you're also setting back the progress that can be made on DEIB type of initiatives because those who have been hired to spearhead these initiatives are also the ones who are facing the greatest layoffs.

Then the third element to this too is, we're also starting to see how polarizing even the acronym DEI is in a political arena.

And then to make things even a little bit more muddy, we're also seeing that there's this change in the workforce in terms of hybrid versus 100% remote, versus being back in the office.

What I mean by that is, the hybrid type of work space or the hybrid work environment can actually in some ways be more inclusive and more accessible to certain populations in some communities.

So if a corporation decides that they're going to go away from their hybrid or remote offerings and go 100% back to in-person, perhaps it's people who are living with different abilities are greatest affected because now they have to make that commute on a daily basis, whereas before they were operating from their homes with greater accessibility because they probably have all the tools that are necessary for them to do their job.

So it's like those three different elements that are making things a really hard landscape to navigate in the workforce when it comes to DEIB programs.

Karl Yeh:

So two questions here for you.

One, do you think it's still a priority, as it was two years ago, for a lot of the same companies who made it their mission and priority in the organization to have DE&I professionals and spoke a great deal about why it's important, do you think it's still a priority?

Or is it now being replaced, "Hey, you know what? It's not as much as a priority because economic conditions, and at the very end we're still a business. We need revenue."

Is DEI still a business priority?

Jerome Tennille:

I actually don't know, and that's like the hardest part.

Here's what I'll share.

I think one of the toughest things, especially as a social impact professional is, over the years I've looked across the corporate landscape and there are brands that I've looked at and been like, "Man, they're doing such a great job."

And then now, present day, over the last six months, they have also been some of the same companies that I believe were making some of the greatest progress that I also believe were some of the greatest champions around some of these issues, and they're also making layoffs and are fairly public about it.

And I've seen some of these positions at these companies that I've looked at and I've looked up to, and now as a professional, now I question that.

So I think the answer to that is, I actually don't know because I've been somewhat surprised at the complete reversal by companies that I thought were actually like 100% in, and on board, and doing these things authentically.

So what's really interesting, and I actually pulled it up in front of me here today because I think you'll find this sort of ... It's an April Fools' joke, but as I read this I was like, "Man, this is not a joke at all when you really think about it."

I'm going to quote something here. It's on Instagram.

This was posted on April Fools' Day, so April the 1st. The title of this Instagram article it says, "Workplace excited to add more diversity as long as it doesn't change anything." And it's a joke, it's a joke that sort of insinuates or really points at the lack of progress that companies have made in diversity.

What's really interesting about that Instagram post, it's satire, there was a comment in the comments section and somebody actually said, "That's probably the most honest post that I've seen on April Fools" Day."

And that's how people are feeling about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging and the commitments that companies have made at this point.

Karl Yeh:

Do you also think there's been a backlash to diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Let me give you some examples.

On this channel we've had episodes focusing on DE&I in the workplace, strategies, and those garner a lot of negative comments.


There's a lot of people who have positivity, "This is great," and so on. "It's helped me."

But there's a lot of negative comments. Even some of the content that we posted as Benevity, toolkits, and guides, and blog posts, those seem to have like really polarized people.

Are you seeing some of that backlash yourself?

Is there a backlash to DEI?

Jerome Tennille:

Oh, 100%. I alluded to this very early on, what I'm seeing. I'm based here in the United States. I'm outside of the Washington D.C. Beltway, and so I see probably too much of the political arena.

But especially here what you'll see is on the conservative side, there are a lot of arguments that DEI and even ESG as sort of things that are ...

When I think about DEI, DEI sits squarely within the S of ESG. But there are a lot of folks who are talking about DEI as being a woke political agenda, and it's not.

It's simply giving the tools to folks so that they can achieve the same success that I may have achieved.

When I think about equity and even the benefits of having a more diverse and inclusive workforce, one of the things that most people who know me know is that I served in the military for eight years.

And one of the things that I really enjoyed about serving in the military is not just traveling abroad and the multicultural aspect of that, but also serving with others who were very different than me, very different walks of life, very different backgrounds.

And the military is one of those unique places where they're able to pull everybody together for the same reason, for the same cause, for the same mission, even though we have all had very different upbringings, culturally, religiously, and just socially as people in how we've been raised.

And as I look across the broader ESG spectrum, and as I think about DEI, it's certainly being politicized.

And as a result of that, I think there's a certain amount of risk that people are feeling as a result of launching DEI-focused programs.

Karl Yeh:

Maybe it's a misperception or lack of understanding of what it specifically means.

Because a lot of I guess the rhetoric that I hear is more of like, "Hey, meritocracy-based hiring, not just filling your quota or whatever that is."

But I think that's where maybe over the past two years, there wasn't an actual awareness or education on what DE&I meant versus what the perception is, or what it's been reported, or what's been mentioned in any social channel.

Was there a lack of education on DEI?

Jerome Tennille:

Yeah, I think that's correct. Here's what I'll also share. I think, especially in this day and age, people are so quick to rush to solutions before they actually even understand the problem.

I think what we saw as sort of a knee-jerk reaction in 2020 was, we skipped a bunch of steps.

Socially we skipped a bunch of steps. We said, "Okay, this is an important issue. Now let's solve the problem."

And what we actually didn't do is the change management that was actually necessary to sustainably get everybody to the actual change that we wanted to make and be able to do that in a way that is sustainable moving forward.

A lot of the work that I do as a consultant, we think about change management models and how they're applied.

What a change management model helps with is with sustaining the change that you want to see. It's not enough that we create something and then three years later it completely falls apart.

You need to be able to build the awareness, the understanding, educate people, so that you're actually able to change people's behaviors and you're able to, through behavior change, have a culture shift.

I think we didn't do any of that. We went right from, we're in a moment of crisis racially, to now putting forth solutions.

We forgot all the change management that actually needs to happen and take place so that the change is also lasting change. I think hindsight is 20/20. We look back and we're like, "Oh gosh.

We're like three years after all these big commitments. We socially, like as a society, we did not apply change management in a way to sustain the change that we actually want to see." And it's slipping backwards now.

Karl Yeh:

And do you see when you talk about sustaining the change, are you saying that when the organizations and businesses that really were focused on this, they didn't have the right infrastructure in place? So it was more of like, "Hey, let's hire a bunch of people, let's get these programs running."

But they didn't actually have, whether it's the physical infrastructure or maybe the workplace buy-in infrastructure that needed to happen to ensure that, "Hey, regardless of economic conditions or anything, this is accepted and then championed correctly in the organization."

What did companies miss to sustain DEI in their companies?

Jerome Tennille:

I think it's all of that and, so it's all that. It's the physical infrastructure. It's the buy-in from employees. It's making sure that there's a foundation of information, there's a study drumbeat of communications, all that sort of stuff.

I think it's all of that. And I think that there was also an oversimplification of what the issue actually is.

There was a knee-jerk reaction of, "Let's just solve the issue without actually understanding what the issue is."

And the people who actually needed to be fully bought in and have clear understanding probably didn't have any of that. And we're seeing that. Right?

We're seeing that. And it's tough. It's disheartening.

Karl Yeh:

So where do you see diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging going forward?

Where do you see that in the future as we start navigating through a little bit more economic uncertainty and perhaps even more layoffs?

Where do you see that path moving forward?

Where is DEIB headed?

Jerome Tennille:

So I would just say that diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, it's certainly not dead.

I think it just needs a small jumpstart.

And I'm actually fairly optimistic on this. I think that once we finally hit the bottom, I think we'll probably start to see the trend going back up.

Now, having said that, again, I'm very optimistic and I do think that as long as the profession, and the concept, and the programming get the jump-started needs, I think we're going to still be able to make the progress that we may have lost on over the past couple of years with the layoffs.

I would also say that because the workplace is changing and also the ways in which people are identifying as those change, so does the profession, and I think so do the expectations that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging professionals need to have in terms of the types of programs that they're pulling forth, and also the expectation that they have of how receptive others will be of implementing those programs.

So that's like a clear as mud answer, but I think I'm certainly optimistic on the profession and the direction in terms of the progress that will be made.

And I think the other part of that too is that I think that the workplace and landscape is getting a little bit harder to navigate, I think as a result of all the different things that we talked about. But also because the way that we value some of these things as a society are also evolving fairly rapidly.

Karl Yeh:

So Jerome, if any of our audience wants to connect with you on diversity, equity, and inclusion, or any other topics on social impact, what's the best place to reach you?

Jerome Tennille:

Two different places. I think, naturally, they can find me on LinkedIn as Jerome Tennille. I'm fairly active on social media, especially LinkedIn. Or you can go to the Uplift Agency website and you can find me in the staff roster.