Overcoming Today’s DEI Leadership Challenges

Overcoming Today’s DEI Leadership Challenges

Corporate interest in and action on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which had risen sharply following the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, has faded as economic uncertainty, shrinking profits, and political attacks have shifted leaders’ priorities. Daisy Auger-Domínguez, until recently the chief people officer at VICE Media, kept the company focused on DEI principles as it navigated these changes. Her success came in part from persistence and in part from how she and her team were able to embed DEI principles into many of the company’s core employee and management processes.


The last few years have been something of a roller coaster for HR and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professionals, particularly in the United States. Momentum created by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements faded as companies grew more concerned about the Great Resignation and, quickly thereafter, economic uncertainty, shrinking profits, and the need for workforce reductions. At the same time, political attacks scared some companies away from pursuing their DEI efforts. As chief people officer of VICE Media from the spring of 2020 to the summer of 2023, Daisy Auger-Domínguez was on the front lines of managing these changes. A seasoned HR executive who previously worked for Moody’s Investors Service and Google, she describes the challenges she faced — and the ones she sees ahead.

HBR: When you arrived at VICE in 2020, what was its attitude toward DEI?

Auger-Domínguez: First, remember that VICE is a young media company. Nearly 80% of its employees are under 40, many of them Gen Zers, and that’s a population demanding fairness, equity, transparency, a sense of safety, and a sense of agency from their employers. I joined on May 15, and 10 days later George Floyd was murdered. The reactions at the office were striking: It was as if a significant portion of white employees throughout the organization, including managers and senior leaders, had suddenly become aware of racism. So I felt like I was at the right place at the right time to help lead the company through this complicated moment.

Our CEO and I did a listening series with employees in more than 20 countries. It consisted of moderator-led sessions in which we asked structured questions and heard from people about the conditions on the ground and where they expected to see change. We found that their main concerns were around career advancement, pay equity, and a sense of belonging, which is driven by the behavior of peers and managers.

To solve the career advancement issue, we implemented a mundane solution. We didn’t even have job architecture and leveling at the time, so we created clarity and transparency about what it takes to move up in the organization and equipped managers to have thoughtful, engaging performance conversations with employees.

On the equity issue, we did a pay study that resulted in adjustments for a small percentage of our workforce, and we continued to monitor and adjust pay equity throughout later restructurings.

Improving everyone’s sense of belonging comes down to managers: They are the ones responsible for building a workplace culture where people feel seen, heard, and valued. We found that many managers hadn’t been trained on the fundamentals, such as how to give feedback well and how to ask good questions of an employee. So we focused on training team leaders in what we call the beautiful basics of management.

In all of these situations, addressing inequity involved improving core management processes — which means that we were able to embed DEI into the key functions of the business, rather than having it be a siloed, separate part of what we do.

Over the next few years, how did the momentum shift?

During periods of economic uncertainty, DEI work inevitably faces the threat of budget cuts. At VICE, we underwent organizational transformations that included the restructuring of teams. We stayed committed to maintaining diversity throughout this process by consistently evaluating factors such as gender, race, and other identities. But there were still instances where the departure of people of color resulted in noticeably lower representation in leadership positions.

And then there was the Great Resignation phenomenon. I distinctly recall a period where our attrition rates ranged from 20% to 30%. This placed immense pressure on managers, who desperately needed to fill vacant seats with bodies as quickly as possible. It took steadfast commitment and constant attention to bring in a diverse talent pool. While I can’t claim that the percentage of people of color at VICE in the United States increased during that time, I can proudly affirm that it remained at just over 40%, which was a win.

Soon, though, you and many other HR leaders were looking at layoffs. How were your DEI efforts affected?

Cost-saving measures, including workforce reductions, are guided by financial analysis and driven by leadership. Our job in HR is to ensure these actions are carried out with the utmost thoughtfulness.

We conducted a legal analysis for each reduction to assess potential negative impacts on different groups of employees. That helped us identify areas of potential risk for the organization, such as a disproportionate reduction of women or people of color in specific teams. However, we didn’t stop there. We took that analysis back to leaders and asked: “What kind of organization do you want to have on the other side of this?” Our goal was to empower managers by helping them visualize and strengthen their commitment to building a diverse workforce, even when confronted with internal and external pressures.

HR and managers also sat down to review individual team composition, who was doing what work, and what work was necessary going forward. At this stage it was important to call out elephants in the room. We would say things like, “You may want to reduce this role, but this decision may impact a woman versus a man, or a person of color versus a white person — and maybe they never had the right management support, training, or clarity about their outcomes.” We really tried hard to reflect on whether we were making the right decisions.

After the final decisions were made, we guided managers on how to engage in human-centered conversations. That meant giving impacted employees the necessary information and the space for processing. We coached managers to consider who each individual employee was as a person. Once more, we would call out race and other identities: How can you approach the layoffs kindly, while understanding that a Black woman may respond very differently than an Asian American man? Sometimes white leaders resisted and would say, “I can’t believe you’re talking about race now.” But whether we talk about it or not, it’s real. Race profoundly shapes the experience of your employees, and it is your responsibility to sit through any discomfort that may cause you. People are not just names to cross off a list; each one deserves thoughtful attention before moving on.

It sounds like DEI work can continue through budget-tightening as long as it’s already embedded into the organization’s culture and processes, and leaders stay relentlessly focused on keeping it there.

The vision has always been that DEI is integrated into how we do business. At times when there’s pushback, you can demonstrate that these efforts not only add value to the organization but also solve for systemic gaps. When every step of the employee journey is seen from the prism of equity and inclusion, DEI can’t be cut — because it’s how you hire and engage all of your people, and how you build the great culture that you tell the world you have.

You just left VICE for a sabbatical. I’ve noticed a broader exodus of DEI leaders, particularly women of color, from corporate America. That seems like a bad sign.

Some of it is individual and some of it is systemic. The media industry, for one, is going through a huge transformation, and senior executives are leaving businesses that haven’t matured enough to see DEI as an integral part of how they work.

As for me, the past three years were enough to prompt me to explore new paths. Women of color tend to shoulder so much of this work, and we push ourselves to depletion and the brink of exhaustion. Advocating for change can be a hard fight, and humans need breaks. I’ve been surprised and heartened by the positive support I’ve received about taking this time off.

I also think that when the DEI pressure was high, some well-intentioned, brilliant, capable leaders were put in DEI roles but were set up to fail because organizations didn’t fully understand the problems they were trying to solve or how to support those new leaders. As the context shifted, some organizations transitioned from empathy to apathy, leaving these individuals vulnerable. Unfortunately, many companies still see diversity, equity, and inclusion as nice-to-haves. They’re not. They need to be integrated into every aspect of strategic planning.

Where do you see corporate DEI efforts going from here?

While it’s somewhat premature to give a definitive outlook, I’m seeing the familiar pattern of ebb and flow that DEI work has witnessed over the decades. During economic uncertainty or organizational shifts, the commitment to DEI initiatives often wanes and we see budget reductions, less emphasis in corporate communications, and decreased attention from leaders. We hoped that the progress we achieved post-2020 would maintain momentum, but instead we’re now seeing enthusiasm for DEI continuing to wane, fueled in part by legal actions like the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling against affirmative action.

As a result, I doubt we will hear as many CEOs openly denounce systemic racism and white privilege or use terms like “equity” in their corporate communications. We will also likely see fewer grand gestures of commitment to DEI. That isn’t necessarily bad; history shows that superficial pronouncements and lofty ideals won’t suffice. However, we might simultaneously see reduced energy around what’s come to be a foundational aspect of this work: establishing DEI processes throughout the employee journey.

Meanwhile, DEI practitioners, particularly those well versed in navigating this cycle, are revisiting their strategies to safeguard the progress they’ve made. Reviving the business case for DEI initiatives has been a common first step in this part of the cycle through the decades. But while it has always been essential to align DEI initiatives with business priorities — by highlighting their relevance to innovation, talent strategies, and sustainability, for example — we must not overlook the ongoing need to connect on both human and business levels to tackle structural inequalities and foster a sense of belonging. These steps are equally important in building workplaces that work for everyone.

Despite the current trend of organizations pulling away from DEI commitments, doing so poses a substantial risk of alienating a company’s potential future hires, its existing workforce, and its customer base. We’ve witnessed that in recent incidents involving Target and Bud Light. Leaders — especially those whose firms announced strong DEI commitments in 2020 — need to be wary of these risks and of breaking their promises to constituents.

 

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