CEO’s Letter: Mass Media Pundits Get an “E”

In today’s hyper-charged, politicized, and divisive environment, it is hard to have a reasoned conversation on what the mass media is calling “DEI.” I am going to try and do just that here. I am relying on the HR community that has always represented the voice of reason in turbulence and strife. I think it is time to review the recent furor in the mass media over what has been dubbed by some as the “DEI” movement. First, let me say, that we should all work fervently to ensure the program outcomes for any initiative involving diversity and inclusion should be supported regardless of what it is called.  

I want to address the possible objections to me. Some will say I am just another older white guy commenting on DEI. That is nonsense. I do not have to be from a disadvantaged group to understand the legal, social, and operational issues. I will offer that I am Jewish and as a religious minority, we have not exactly had a walk in the park the last 3,000 years or the last three months for that fact, but this isn’t about me, and I will not let those engaging the debate with me make it about me. We lose ourselves in these ad hominem distractions. I am a studious observer of HR and a long-time member of the community and with that, a basis to address the recent debate and angry arguments on both sides of the issue. I certainly have those credentials.  

This frenzy of mass media discussion started over the poor showing of three university presidents and the subsequent removal of two of them from office.  I cannot speak as clearly to the “DEI” policies of the academic community.  I have some but not great visibility into that sector, but I do want to discuss “DEI” as it applies to the corporate community and will below. After the Congressional hearing with the three CEOs, we had wealthy donors and billionaires like Bill Ackman of Pershing Square and Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks arguing the merits of “DEI” on X (formerly Twitter) and a host of mass media pundit panelists railing for and against “DEI.” I hope most HR leaders had the same reaction I did. I felt like I was watching children running with scissors.  

To listen to the left wing media describe “DEI,” it is an essential form of affirmative action and I heard one describe it as a “necessary form of reparations” for people of color. As for the right wing media, it was described as a way to deny equal opportunity to white employees and other groups such as Asian Americans. The problem with both positions is they are patently illegal under a host of laws and regulations.  

I feel the problem with “DEI” is the “E.” Most people in HR, I believe, agree with the definition of “diversity” as needing to reflect the demography of the communities in which organizations work and serve. I think everyone agrees much needs to be done to address educational and economic disadvantages for some of the racial and ethnic communities and the need to end gender based discrimination in any form, and to the extent that qualified candidates exist, the acquisition of that talent is important to achieve diversity goals.  Likewise, the notion of “inclusion” is almost a universal one, though operationally a challenge. Inclusion is managing the employment experience of minority groups to ensure they feel welcome, are given a voice and heard and appreciated. (I am summarizing a complex concept here, but I only have so many words.)

The “E” is the problem. Up until about five years ago, HR referred to programs as “D&I” and then, and I am not sure from where, the “E” was inserted. If you watch the mass media, which are clearly not HR professionals, the definitional construct of the concept of “Equity” is not only ill-defined, but what these non-HR pundits describe is, as aforementioned, completely illegal. I asked a focus group of about a dozen CHROs if they had adopted the acronym DEI and if they thought we needed to take the “E” back out of it. Most responded that they studiously avoided the acronym and talked about culture and belonging and stressed that a diverse culture was a corporate value. Interesting. My observation from my vantage point is that most corporate HR leaders adopted the “DEI” acronym because it had become popular, but they did not materially change their programs. The idea that equity is equal outcomes not equal opportunity is fraught with legal risks given current laws and regulations. Clearly, the people leading this debate and talking about the “DEI Movement” do not know much of anything about corporate HR. Once again, if that is going on in the academic community, I cannot speak to it, but we are already seeing emerging judicial decisions reinforcing the various aspects of Title VI, Title VII and Title IX. 

Language is important and we need to have clear definitions of what these complex HR topics mean. The current debate on national news networks and in the national news media is being led by people who do not understand these multifaceted topics, and the acronym was altered to include equity without a clear understanding of what that means. Some now even use a “B” for belonging as if that differs from inclusion.  

This isn’t about acronyms. It is about policy and companies are always working to improve their policies. There was an important conversation about these issues after the murder of George Floyd, but we cannot let the topic be defined by pundits who neither understand HR or work in it. These programs are important and need to continue, and the furor over the definition of “equity” distracts from both the successes and the struggles to achieve program outcomes.

So, in short, the mass media and other commentators in this conversation get an “E” for effort and the rest of us may want to remove that “E” from program descriptions to deny others from the opportunity to define policy goals in a way that HR could never undertake. 

Tags: January February 2024

Recent Articles