The Emotional Fallout of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

By Diana Sadighi posted 09-23-2022 10:34 AM


Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) can be an emotional and very personal topic. DEI efforts can challenge our own beliefs and assumptions about people and how we communicate and collaborate. Accepting change can be uncomfortable, and employees do not always welcome it. Don’t give up: Failing to actively address this pushback can mean losing progress with DEI.

Your organization can receive negative feedback from employees. For example, if your DEI efforts focus on racial equity, some employees complain about reverse discrimination. Another employee begins to cry during diversity training. The LGBTQ community feels left out of your DEI statement. No matter what you do, someone feels hurt, undervalued, or ignored.

You might hear comments similar to these:

  • I’m afraid.

  • You’re attacking my beliefs.

  • I’m feeling guilty.

  • Why are you calling me a racist?

  • I’m reliving a past trauma.

  • I’ve been treated poorly, too.

  • I worked hard to get where I am; I’m not privileged.

  • I’m offended.

  • You’re bullying/harassing me.

The last complaint needs a special focus. Often, employees assume behavior they find inappropriate or offensive is unlawful, and employers are unsure how to respond when they receive a complaint. Let’s look at simple definitions:

Bullying is repeated mistreatment of one or more people by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that includes, but is not limited to:

  • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating behaviors

  • Work interference/sabotage that prevents work from getting done

  • Verbal abuse or insults

  • Cruel or vindictive conduct

A bully takes advantage of an imbalance of power and may threaten, intimidate, humiliate, or socially isolate a target.  

Unlawful harassment based on a protected status, including race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, pregnancy, citizenship, veteran status, and genetic information, is a form of discrimination. Conduct that may rise to the level of unlawful harassment includes the use of slurs or insults, demeaning or degrading behavior, mocking an accent, stereotypical remarks, proselytizing religious views, jokes, unprofessional visual displays, threats or intimidation, and physical touching or assault.

While the behaviors defined above should be investigated, the following individual behaviors generally don’t constitute bullying or harassment: providing corrective performance feedback, disagreements or arguments, hurt feelings, or crying. These are uncomfortable situations and shouldn’t be ignored, but don’t take the position of protecting everyone’s feelings or favoring one opinion over another. Doing so threatens to further exclude employees. Exceptional workplaces respect the unique needs, perspectives, and potential of all their team members.

How should you respond to emotional fallout? When employees are in distress or are passionate about a touchy topic, don’t shut them down and tell them that work isn’t the place to vent. Instead, the following suggestions may help you and others return to calm, heal, and move forward without invalidating feelings.

  • Pause: Go to a safe place and allow your brain to return to a peaceful state instead of responding immediately with freeze, flight, or fight. This isn’t easy because you’re fighting your body’s biological reactions. Take a deep breath, so you can be intentional about how you move forward, rather than allowing your subconscious to take over.

  • Name it: What am I feeling? Why am I feeling this way? We have different ways of processing these feelings. You can think about them, write them down, discuss them with a trusted friend or ally, practice mindfulness, or talk to a mental health professional. At this stage, don’t focus on solutions. Set and acknowledge boundaries for yourself and others.

  • Accept: Emotions are healthy. Uncomfortable feelings like anger or sadness are not wrong. Acknowledge the hurt for yourself and the other person. Emotions can indicate that some action is needed. If you feel that a coworker’s statement is attacking you, could it be that they’re reflecting on a previous experience? At Employers Council, we always emphasize the importance of assuming positive intent. You can accept how it impacts you but assume the other person isn’t intentionally being rude.

  • Learn: Approach the situation from curiosity, not judgment. Ask open-ended questions, considering what might be the other person’s perspective or situation. Gather facts but leave room for listening to feelings to foster a connection.

  • Respond: Look for discussion, not an argument, and direct the conversation to the behavior, event, or comment. Don’t attack the person; question the words, which decreases the likelihood of defensiveness. Be kind. Give a little understanding to the possibility that life may not have been fair. In the workplace, you have an ongoing relationship. It’s worth investing effort in keeping this positive.

Here are some tips for preparing for the emotional fallout of DEI initiatives or training:

  • Provide psychological safety. Reflect on the environment at your workplace. Ensure your employees are aware of all the avenues in which they can communicate safely. Civility can make the difference between a harassment claim and one where people skillfully navigate their differences.

  • Set expectations and ground rules. Don’t assume generic phrases, such as “respectful and professional behavior,” are equally defined by all employees. Identify opportunities to provide examples of acceptable behaviors and the importance of one’s choice of words. Communicate why your organization is pursuing DEI initiatives. Because DEI can be an emotional and personal topic, provide for confidential self-assessment, and encourage but don’t force participation.

  • Among the biggest predictors of successful DEI efforts are participants’ willingness to be there and their commitment to learning and growth. You may believe mandatory training signals your organization’s commitment, but it can breed resistance and resentment. Start with awareness of unconscious bias, which we all have, and focus on inclusion, having all team members feel welcomed and respected.

  • Leadership and managers must support and consistently model inclusive behaviors. Employees are likely to express concerns to their supervisors first. Consider previewing training for this group and prepare your leadership team to respond to possible pushback. Teach them to be an ally.

  • Don’t expect people of any marginalized group to become the spokesperson for your DEI efforts or to share their personal feelings and experiences unless they choose to.

  • Recognize the many facets of diversity. While your organization may explicitly want to address racism, recognize that others in your organization may be facing bias based on disability, gender identity, and ageism and may feel ignored by a singular focus. Individuals may experience bias as a result of many factors. Khan Academy offers a brief overview of the topic of intersectionality.

  • Provide supporting resources for additional learning on DEI, conflict management, and mindfulness and referrals to resources like mental health and employee assistance plans.

  • Keep your ears and eyes open to what people are saying or even not saying. You may want to conduct listening sessions, surveys, or check-ins with employees who seem distressed or agitated.

Don’t let criticism and emotional fallout derail your DEI efforts. Diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations are more innovative, have greater revenue and profits, and create exceptional workplaces for employees.

Employers Council has many resources and services available to assist your organization, depending on your membership level: HR and employment law consultation; training on DEI, unconscious bias, workplace respect, and communication; assessments of workplace culture; leadership coaching; and organizational development and change-management facilitation. If you have questions or want more information, please email the Member Experience Team.