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DE&I Without Cancel Culture

A large group of colorful paper people.

Recently an HR director told me about resistance she experienced from a senior executive toward the company's new diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiative. The executive made comments disparaging the new practice of adding gender pronouns to employees' e-mail signature blocks.

I suggested that the executive's comments created an opportunity for a one-on-one conversation. "Rather than trying to pressure him or avoid him," I said, "explore with him why he feels the way he does. What's the source of his concern? Why does he feel the way he feels? What are his overall thoughts about the DE&I program?" By engaging with him, I explained, the HR director might learn ways to connect. "If nothing else, he'll at least know that HR is willing to listen and try to understand differing viewpoints."

Often in circumstances where someone voices opposition to a DE&I initiative, the reaction is hostility, rejection or avoidance. The operating assumption is that there's something wrong with the person who voiced the opposition. He or she is the problem, the obstacle, and some may call for the person to be "canceled." These negative assessments and the negative feelings and emotions they generate will undermine the overall DE&I initiative. The negativity translates into resistance, passive or otherwise. In the end, you may have diversity. But you won't have inclusion.

Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SHRM's chief knowledge officer, describes this problem as "diss-versity." Simply put, he explained, "this refers to seeking people who look different from you but believe in the same things."

Alonso cites research showing that 1 in 5 people reported being excluded or pushed out of their organizations because of their beliefs. He said DE&I initiatives that practice diss-versity undercut their organizations. "Dissing diversity of thought results in two key disadvantages: increased distraction [from the initiative because people are] focused on making sure everyone is aligned, and diminished collaboration because of assumed alignment. Both mean a less productive organization."


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Convert Frustration into Opportunity

In my experience, for any DE&I initiative to be truly successful, it will likely include employees whose personal views don't exactly align with the DE&I principles. For example, after launching a DE&I initiative, the HR director of a client of mine encountered resistance from a white male senior partner at the law firm. "This is politically correct nonsense," the senior partner said. "The 'woke police' have taken over!"

The HR director could have easily gone into fight-or-flight mode ("How dare you, you rotten Neanderthal!") or thought to herself, "Henceforth, I'll avoid him like the plague." Instead, she engaged him in a conversation about his views. After listening to him (here are some good listening techniques), she shifted the topic to how he might be part of this program, help others, and potentially experience something meaningful and positive. The senior partner ended up mentoring a young female associate, helping her develop litigation and client development skills. It became one of the program's success stories. The key here was the HR director's willingness to engage, not condemn. 

My DE&I Experience

Many years ago, I managed a law firm. We had an applicant for a staff position who I'll call Michelle. When she came in for an interview, she disclosed that she was a transgender woman undergoing transition. I felt Michelle was the best candidate and was prepared to make her an offer. However, I ran into resistance, especially from another staff member, who I'll call Susan, who is a devout Christian. In Susan's belief system, Michelle's transition was a sin before God. In addition, two other women expressed anxiety about being in the women's restroom at the same time as Michelle.

I listened to their concerns. We talked them through. I didn't try to debate, argue, pressure, shame or intimidate. I didn't try to change anyone's view. Instead, I focused on the importance of welcoming Michelle as a team member. "We have a great team-oriented culture here," I said. "Let's help make Michelle feel part of it."

I made the offer. Michelle accepted. She joined us and did a great job. There was never a single complaint from her or about her. In fact, Michelle and Susan became friends.


I've personally experienced how a DE&I initiative can produce major positive organizational change, one where organization members benefit across all lines of race, gender, orientation, age, religion and so forth. A critical element has been inclusion, which means including people whose views may differ from yours. The words "inclusion" and "cancel" simply don't fit together. Instead, let's pursue DE&I energetically—and without the cancel culture. That's the true path to diversity, equity and inclusion.


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