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What Layoffs Reveal About Big Tech's Commitment to DEI

A theme emerging from the Big Tech layoffs: Investing in DEI was a fair-weather activity.

In the wake of the SVB implosion, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece with an incredibly reactionary take, suggesting that outcomes would have been better with “12 white men” on their board. 

There was an immediate backlash—the idea was nonsense—but that it was published in the Journal reveals a lingering undercurrent of anti-DEI sentiment.

It’s a theme mirrored in the ongoing wave of layoffs in Big Tech, which suggest that investing in diverse talent is a fair weather activity.

A Bloomberg report found that big tech layoffs hit diversity and inclusion jobs extra hard. As a DEI champion and co-author of a book on dismantling gender bias in the workplace, I was upset to learn this—but not surprised.

The layoffs rolling through Big Tech already seem like a blunt force weapon, designed to placate investors—even though the empirical evidence shows no connection between layoffs and improved financial performance, as the wise Adam Grant explains.

The real kicker is the fact (yes, proven fact) that the talent most needed to survive a financial downturn, and drive innovation revenue, and overall profitability, is precisely that diverse talent the DEI teams were hired to enable. See studies by McKinsey, BCG, and Pipeline, among others.

Somehow, against all evidence, investing in diverse talent is seen as optional.

Yet instead of doubling down on that investment (E.G., talent best able to drive innovation and creatively navigate a downturn), Big Tech gutted DEI offices. Somehow, against all evidence, investing in diverse talent is seen as optional. 

How does this make strategic sense? 

Unless DEI efforts were more about jumping on a bandwagon and were never truly integrated into the deeper mission.

There’s a clue in the phrasing of the Bloomberg report: “Companies made promises to hire more underrepresented groups…” It now seems those companies did not seem to start with the right foundation: an understanding that the business case for enabling diverse talent is so solid and compelling, and the work ahead is how to make this systemic and sustainable change in our particular company, not whether the fundamentals are legitimate. Rather, they “made promises” because they felt they had to. The promises, we are now learning, were empty.

If the DEI bubble was fake, how can we make it real?

So what should happen now to help those companies recover this fumble? And if the DEI bubble was fake, how can we make it real? 

A.Team challenged me to bring this provocative question to their Change Makers Community, a diverse group of investors, founders, enterprise leaders who are obsessed with the future of work. At an event co-sponsored by the executive recruiting firm, Hunt Club, we hashed it out over a family-style spread in downtown Manhattan.

Here are five steps for tech leaders who want to get strategic about DEI:

1. Set DEI up correctly.  If DEI’s last wave wasn’t real - set up too quickly, not anchored in a clear business case and not integrated into the strategy, then let’s start that now. Create clear goals and through-the-line accountability, starting from the top.

2. Maintain a visible access point. One clear benefit of the standalone DEI office was not only the signal of intent, but also the clear access point for outsiders to find a way into otherwise fortressed institutions. Even if we do integrate thoughtful intention into the businesses, we need to preserve that access point for outsiders until more progress is made. 

3. Strap in for the long haul. Early change makers can spark initial progress, but it's important to keep in mind that this is a continuous process with long term goals. Since the work has to start somewhere, we have to be willing to accept our role at the beginning, without a guarantee of quick results.

4. Accountability starts at the top. There is no question that real change starts with a real intention at the top of an organization. In the case of DEI, it really needs to be company boards that hold the c-suite accountable for their talent, and the metrics that matter in a modern workplace. At the same time, the workforce will continue to vote on Glassdoor and with their feet. If you listen to employees, you’ll hear about the sense of betrayal they feel from institutions, and why the next generation of diverse talent is tapping out. This is the wake up call.

5. Bring it back to shared values. We need visible values to set the right intentions for DEI to work. Take the story of a Big Tech CEO who cared authentically about nurturing diverse talent: She started a meeting on the topic by saying “I’ll give everyone 5 minutes to leave if they don’t believe this is important and urgent. I won’t judge you, I just don’t want to waste your time or mine. I only want you to stay here if you are as committed to this work as I am.” Now that’s an attitude that will drive real change!

Angelique Bellmer Krembs is a CMO-in-Residence at A.Team as part of their CXO Network of executive leaders, adding advisory and thought leadership on critical topics driving the future of work.

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