Artificial intelligence, economic volatility and political unrest influenced how employers approached inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D) in 2023. With a U.S. presidential election on the horizon in 2024, several workplace experts forecast the impact IE&D will have on employers and employees this year.
The Remote-Work Debate Rages On
Workplace experts have been debating the effectiveness of remote work since the COVID-19 pandemic made it more mainstream. Some say remote work hurts productivity, while others believe employees function more efficiently and effectively when working remotely.
Paul Wolfe, a former HR executive at Indeed, Condé Nast and Match.com, foresees this argument continuing in 2024.
“We have seen the power in the employees’ hands and then shift to the employer,” he said. “I would say it sits somewhere in the middle now.”
While some companies are requiring employees to return to the office, many employees are reluctant to do so. For example, a 2021 survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers across the globe revealed that just 3 percent of Black white-collar employees wanted to return to full-time in-office work, compared with 21 percent of white workers. Remote work has also helped many people with disabilities secure employment at record numbers.
The rise of remote work could lead to more diverse teams spanning different countries and cultures, Wolfe noted, leading to more globalized IE&D policies.
A Greater Focus on Supporting Employees
Karyn Twaronite, global DE&I officer at professional services network EY in New York City, said factors such as war, xenophobia and economic uncertainty are causing many people to experience an overwhelming sense of burnout across all aspects of their lives, including at work.
“As we look ahead to , it will be even more important for leaders to respond by providing resources and support to employees on an individualized basis to combat heightened feelings of isolation and disconnection,” she said.
Fostering authentic, one-on-one connections can help employees feel a sense of inclusion and provide a natural support network, Twaronite added. This is especially critical for younger professionals who may be less confident reaching out to their team members directly.
In fact, EY’s 2023 Belonging Barometer found that while most Generation Z workers (88 percent) and Millennials (79 percent) have felt excluded at work, they also feel a greater sense of belonging when colleagues check in on them.
Wolfe reminded HR professionals that employees need things beyond quality health insurance to care for themselves in the right ways, such as help with financial planning and with day-to-day issues.
“I believe we will see the trend—although it is in its nascent stage now—of personalized benefits continue to be discussed and hopefully see more offerings that allow employees to choose what is best for them,” he said.
Using AI to Mitigate Bias
There are several ways in which AI can discriminate against workers. Undisciplined use of resume-screening tools is a commonly cited example of how AI can lead to disparate impact discrimination, as some chatbots automatically reject applicants who do not meet specific requirements.
However, Kat Campbell, founder of HowardHelen, a Nashville, Tenn.-based HR consulting firm, predicts a stronger focus this year on using AI and machine learning tools to identify and mitigate biases in hiring, promotions and organizational culture.
“There will also be an increased awareness of the potential for AI to perpetuate biases if not carefully managed,” she said.
Twaronite also believes employers will gradually use AI to advance equity in the workplace, such as by using AI-powered large language models to write job listings that remove biased language or by analyzing employee sentiment to track the progress and impact of IE&D initiatives.
“Looking ahead, I think we can expect to see technology become a critical aspect in ensuring more inclusive and equitable workplaces around the globe,” she said.
Research shows that many IE&D initiatives are well-intentioned but not often effective.
The content of these programs can be misguided if it isn’t connected to job responsibilities and functions, according to Stephen Paskoff, a former litigator with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
“In the new year, it’s likely we’ll see organizations approach their DE&I efforts differently, focusing on enforcing consistent standards of behavior and treating each other civilly,” he said. “Connecting people on common values is a good opportunity too, since all organizations have values present, but they are too often aspirational and not activated or enforced with core daily behaviors.”
IE&D has evolved into a divisive point of discussion in the U.S., with some conservative groups pursuing or threatening legal action against companies that exercise racial preferences in hiring practices in light of the Supreme Court’s overturning of affirmative action in higher education last year.
But the EEOC is continuing to pursue legal measures against organizations that engage in discriminatory practices, Paskoff said.
“A lot of claims are still arising, and as long as organizations do not start tying their inclusivity initiatives to business results and commonalities, legal action will likely be taken,” he said.
Paskoff noted that organizational values can be fulfilled more effectively by starting with common standards and behaviors. HR should work to build inclusive cultures and help find, select, mentor and develop people from a wide array of backgrounds to help further IE&D objectives in a lasting way.