Why traditional DEI initiatives fail to deliver on their promise

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives have become a core pursuit of businesses across the globe. Once a tool that sat on the periphery, they are now recognized as crucial for meeting a range of performance objectives.

However, today’s DE&I initiatives are navigating hostile territory where controversy seems to court them at every turn, and their ability to deliver is being called into question.

With a shift in attitudes towards DE&I surfacing in recent years as a result of companies recognizing its commercial potential, business leaders have been enthusiastically implementing updated DE&I strategies. Despite this, many have found that though their workforces now represent a greater cross-section of society, minority groups still often underperform against their white, male, heterosexual peers.

Closer inspection has since revealed that a primary reason for this is that they have been throwing their weight behind diversity and forgetting about the inclusion. 

Diversity without inclusion will not deliver

Without inclusion, diversity can actually do significant harm. Disagreements intensify, communication weakens, and those in the minority are often ignored or ostracized. 

It wasn’t until 2017 that inclusion began to enjoy the same status as diversity. Some DE&I departments even renamed themselves I&D to highlight the new emphasis and hundreds of CEOs committed to the creation of more inclusive workplaces.

However, multiple recent global events, not least a rise in populism across the US, much of the EU and most of Latin America meant social divisions moved towards questions of cultural identity. Subsequently, the issues that DE&I initiatives sought to address, began to clash with a climate of cultural polarization.  

Even in progressive businesses, attempts to build inclusive environments risk exacerbating division. The ‘I’ in DE&I was meant to bring us together, but evidence suggests it could be pulling us apart.

To get it right, we need to understand where DE&I has gone wrong.

What research tells about the most widely-used DE&I methods


1. Unconscious bias training (UBT)

A number of studies have shown that some UBT approaches not only reduce bias just temporarily, but that exposure to messages about diversity can make people more prejudiced. It turns out that humans are rather accomplished at hearing a message and finding ways to reject it1.

Some fall foul of ‘moral licensing’2 – the psychological phenomenon whereby a person justifies doing something bad having done something good. “I’ve completed my UBT training and become aware of my biases – I may now skip the steps I should take to actually do something about it.”

Then there’s the ‘backlash effect’3 where people do the opposite of what they are instructed because they don’t like being told what to do, no matter how sensible the suggestion.

Or there’s ‘normalising’4. Here, upon learning that lots of other people also harbor unconscious bias, they de-prioritize tackling their own.

2. ERGs

Also known as affinity groups, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), are usually organized to create safe spaces for minority groups and can lead to more commercial benefits such as increased employee retention. However, they can also produce their own raft of problems. 

Without establishing clear accountabilities, companies risk ERGs becoming lobbying groups and the result can be toxic. Even with clearer remits and proper governance, they can become exclusionary. 

And then there are those individuals who belong to multiple underrepresented demographic groups who have no way of choosing which one to join.

3. Quotas

Studies have shown that though quotas can be beneficial, they too invite unintended consequences.

Those who are not a member of a targeted demographic often feel they will be disregarded despite their best efforts, leading to disengagement and, ultimately, unwanted departure from the business5. Meanwhile, beneficiaries of a quota can also find the experience challenging.

Though they may have been employed or promoted entirely on merit, many are burdened by the knowledge that some of their colleagues will likely believe their success was a result of nothing more than a ‘box ticking’ exercise.6

4. Whistleblower lines and zero tolerance

While these sound like powerful weapons in the DE&I armory, they risk harming those they are designed to support.

Whistleblowing carries negative associations we learn through childhood of being a snitch or a scab. For many, these associations are too ingrained to countenance being the one who blows the whistle. Indeed, the cost to those who do can be significant in terms of both career chances and health and wellbeing.7

Equally, not everyone blows the whistle for honorable reasons and the risk of being wrongly accused or a complaint leading to a disproportionate response, can create a culture of hyper-caution.8

For more information on transforming DEI in your company download our new white paper – the inclusion solution.


  1. Atewologun, D., et al. “Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness.” Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report Series, 2018.
  2. Blanken, I., et al. “A meta analytic review of moral licensing.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 41, no. 4, 2015, pp. 540-558.
  3. Howe, L. C., and B. Monin. “Healthier than thou? “Practicing what you preach” backfires by increasing anticipated devaluation.” Journal of personality and social psychology, vol. 112, no. 5, 2017, p. 718.
  4. Cialdini, R. “The secret impact of social norms.” RSA Journal, vol. 154, no. 5528, 2007, p. 60.
  5. Shaughnessy, B., et al. “Diverse and just? The role of quotabased selection policies on organizational outcomes.” European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 46, no. 7, 2016, pp. 880-890.
  6. Klettner, A., et al. “Strategic and regulatory approaches to increasing women in leadership: Multilevel targets and mandatory quotas as levers for cultural change.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 133, no. 3, 2016, pp. 395-419.
  7. Waytz, A., et al. “The whistleblower’s dilemma and the fairness– loyalty tradeoff.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 49, no. 6, 2013, pp. 1027-1033.
  8. Dover, T. L., et al. “Mixed signals: The unintended effects of diversity initiatives.” Social Issues and Policy Review,, vol. 14, no. 1, 2020, pp. 152-181.
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