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Are DEI initiatives driven by fear of doing the wrong thing? HR responds

True progress in DEI comes from a genuine desire to cultivate diverse perspectives, say HR leaders

Employers use diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to avoid doing the wrong thing, according to a report that was commissioned by the government and published last week (20 March).

Kemi Badenoch, secretary of state for business and trade (she is also minister for women and equalities), commissioned a panel to consult with employers on the efficacy and value for money of DEI initiatives in the workplace. This work resulted in the Inclusion at Work report published last Wednesday (20 March 2024).

The panel was set up in June 2023, and asked 100 people representing 55 organisations about what DEI means to their organisation. The representatives were also asked about what they are trying to achieve with their DEI strategy or practice, and about the barriers to delivering a positive outcome.

According to the report, employers want to do the right thing but cited barriers including “fear of saying and doing the wrong thing”.

It read: "People mentioned fear of legal action, conflicting or unclear HR policies, and that definitions of bullying, harassment and discrimination are becoming ‘weaponised’ in employment grievances and pre-emptive HR or legal advice."

This comes after a report by the Young Foundation (7 March) found that scepticism towards DEI has grown since 2019, as 22% of professionals indicated that they believe DEI receives too much focus compared with other issues in their profession.

Read more: 72% experience discrimination at work, report finds

On the day that the Inclusion at Work report was published, Badenoch suggested that employers were scared to call out DEI efforts that they think are not working.

She said: “Everybody's scared to say: 'I'm not sure this is working,' because you can immediately get pigeonholed as somebody who is bigoted or someone who doesn't care about [DEI]. 

“If everyone's walking on eggshells then you will not be able to get the very best out of your employees."

Liz Sebag-Montefiore, CEO of 10Eighty, told HR magazine that fear should not influence DEI efforts.

She said: “Instead, employers should focus on fostering an inclusive culture driven by genuine commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“DEI initiatives are not just about compliance; they're about creating environments where all employees feel valued, respected and empowered to contribute their best work. 

“True progress in DEI comes from a genuine desire to cultivate diverse perspectives and harness the collective strength of a diverse workforce to drive innovation and success.”

A fear-based approach to DEI will not be effective, explained Paul Sesay, CEO of DEI network Inclusive Companies.

Read more: Lack of diversity more expensive than ever

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “A fear-based approach won’t work. If a company is only focusing on DEI because they're afraid of what might happen if they don't, they're missing out because DEI is about so much more than just following rules. 

“It's about bringing together different viewpoints and experiences, which can lead to better ideas, better decisions and a better connection with customers all around the world. Just doing the minimum means losing out on all these benefits.”

Sesay noted that DEI initiatives ensure people have a chance to succeed.

He commented: “Moving past fear, the real reason that sits at the heart of DEI is about making sure everyone has a fair chance to succeed, especially people who haven't always had that chance. 

“It's about seeing the value in our differences and making the most of them, not just because it's good for business, but because it's the right way to build a team.

“Companies that get this right aren't just trying to avoid problems, they're working towards something much bigger; a workplace where everyone's talents are recognised and valued.”


The Inclusion at Work report laid out three recommendations for improving the UK's approach to DEI in the workplace:

  • That the government endorses a new framework which sets out criteria employers might apply to their D&I practice, for effectiveness and value for money.
  • That the government funds, and works with, a research partner to develop a digital tool similar to the Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’. This will allow all leaders and managers, in every sector, to assess the rigour, efficacy, and value for money of a range of D&I practices. It will also ‘nudge’ commercial or activist providers of interventions to evaluate and prove impact.
  • That the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) explains and clarifies the legal status for employers in relation to D&I practice, with particular focus on the implication of recent rulings for HR policies and staff networks.