Detoxifying DEI: How to Clean Up the Reality and Perception of DEI

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Detoxifying DEI blog: A simple illustration of a series of bottles, with contents ranging from murky green liquid on the left to clear blue water on the right, displaying the concept of detoxification of DEI and diversity programs.
Listening to criticisms of DEI with empathy may assist in detoxifying DEI.

As complaints about ill effects fuel criticism of diversity, equity, and inclusion—and companies “rebrand” their efforts to render them less obtrusive—is DEI destined to follow ESG in becoming the “latest dirty word in corporate America”?   

More important, is DEI in practice causing genuine, measurable harm? Notwithstanding good intentions, overzealous DEI efforts seem to effectively reduce the sense of psychological safety for some members of a workforce. In writing “Is DEI’s Bad Rap Justified?” workplace-inclusion professional Teresa Hopke concluded in 2022 that “both sides might be right.” She cited such common so-called training solutions as agreeing to disagree (which effectively means ignoring dissent) or being overly cautious to avoid offense (which stalls meaningful progress).   

DEI can in theory address many worthwhile goals and outcomes for an organization: the pursuit of diversity of various kinds; the correction of unjust disparities; a reduction in bias and judgmentalism; increased employee acceptance, voice, and comfort; and modifying management and systems to become more inclusive. These are commendable benefits. A given company’s values and culture should determine which of these prospects to tackle—and how to proceed.  

But by the time Elon Musk posted in December that “DEI must DIE,” DEI was being broadly denounced as harmful and discriminatory. In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision curbing affirmative action by universities, it has become challenging for companies to navigate the legal issues around DEI. Citicorp and Uber were hardly outliers in turning away from vocabulary that uses such terms as “anti-racist” practices.  

Disdain for DEI generally centers around concerns that its practitioners will enforce a single ideology or standpoint as true (thereby excluding disagreement) or that certain groups of people will be discriminated against, even vilified.  

There have been anecdotal reports of training programs that cause inappropriate levels of stress, paint problems with far too broad a brush, invite blaming and shaming, or simply exacerbate tensions stemming from disparate group identities. Such complaints are frequently written off as outliers, rare events that do not represent DEI efforts in general, or as problems imagined by individuals who can’t handle harsh truths that arise. Much backlash against DEI is dismissed as inauthentic, politically motivated, or attempts to defend traditional power structures.  

However difficult it may be to distinguish genuine backlash from political noise in this polarized climate, flat dismissal of criticism courts the very risks that DEI is purportedly intended to correct: It fails to improve anything and risks embedding mistakes. Valid accounts of mistreatment may be drowned out. It’s never wise to dismiss dissent as some monolithic expression of illegitimate resistance. Any minority is a minority, even if only for an hour in a conference room.  

Any organization pursuing such initiatives should therefore take care to see that its programs are free of what the harshest criticisms allege: group-based verbal assaults, ideological tyranny, and so forth.   

In approaching this difficult area, organizations ought to set ethical standards for what is appropriate and should pursue them consistently. An ethical line in the sand can be drawn at a familiar place: The psychological safety of employees should not be sacrificed at any altar, not least that of DEI. Whenever it’s compromised, detractors will be proven correct. In short, every DEI program should proffer psychological safety, which everyone needs at work.  

Those of us engaged in the areas of business ethics and organizational psychology are always ready with recommendations to make sure that everyone in an organization strongly feels a sense of assurance.  

However, when it comes time for employees to participate in a DEI training session or participate in DEI-driven policies, expressed concerns about psychological safety seem sometimes to be disregarded as manifestations of such pathological conditions as “fragility.” Anecdotal reports suggest that expressing any concerns about the process may be labeled self-serving (us versus them), stereotypical, or even phobic. From a high-profile AI scientist to a seasoned nurse, employees have claimed that opining about their companies’ diversity efforts got them fired.   

DEI resistance, frequently portrayed by DEI advocates as an effort to defend, deny, or distance, might best be greeted with empathy, wrote Eric Shuman, Eric Knowles, and Amit Goldenberg at last year. In addressing change management back in 1969 in Harvard Business Review, Paul R. Lawrence wrote: When resistance appears, it is time to listen carefully to find out what the trouble is.” In the case of DEI, the alternative can not only lead to reduced psychological safety and loss of voice but constitute a missed opportunity to understand and learn from criticism that might be constructive.  

So instead of countenancing a “tough love” approach toward people who may be facing harsh truths at the cost of their personal comfort, why not remove “lose-lose” elements that threaten employee safety and contribute little toward DEI success?   

In short, DEI needs work. The following recommendations might help detoxify your program.  

Resist essentialism in DEI training   

Essentialism is the notion that members of a group fundamentally and inescapably share certain physical or psychological characteristics. (For example, “all _____ are ____,” in which the first blank is filled with a race, gender, profession, or other characteristic.) While we all know that a single person’s actions cannot define the groups they belong to, and that the groups they belong to can’t define them, most human beings have indulged in stereotyping at some time in their lives.  

Essentialist thinking has provided justification for beliefs of inferiority or superiority based on racial distinction since time immemorial. Essentialism is what seems to cause the most backlash to DEI efforts.  

In attempting to address issues around race—the most salient and contentious aspect among diversity issues in recent years—a multicultural approach (promoting equality while maintaining distinctive identities) is generally considered more effective in creating change (enhancing equality, reducing bias) than approaches that are rooted in race blindness. However, one of the risks of a multicultural (versus a race-blind) approach to diversity is that it can invite essentialist thinking whereby a person’s membership in any group outweighs that individual’s unique characteristics. 

Multiculturalism confirms that group membership and differences among groups reflect valid, meaningful distinctions. When taken too far, however, this social categorization can increase stereotyping, categorical comparisons, interest in determining which groups individuals belong to—and sometimes, essentialism. DEI programs should never include or tolerate essentialism because it results from overweighting groups and judging individuals solely based on one or more of their group memberships.   

In a psychologically safe environment that curbs essentialism, conversation will shift to more productive discussion about humanity and the challenges people experience in varying degrees, reflecting individual situations and characteristics. Remember, the goal is to open people up, not close them off.  

Avoid pathologizing participants and participation  

We often forget how high the stakes in DEI can be—one driver of its problems and backlash. Particularly when the E (equity) aspect of DEI is emphasized, there is real danger that DEI is essentially asking businesses to do the impossible. Race and gender distinctions begin before birth and are reinforced in life by socioeconomic factors, culture, access to education, personal choices, historical events, and countless other factors. The resulting inequities cannot be remedied by a single organization and transformed into equal outcomes (equity). Doing something well-intended can commonly look insufficient, while doing enough to achieve genuine equity would require extreme, unpalatable measures. 

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In attempting to balance the pressure to remedy a lifetime of unequal treatment against realistic expectations, organizations must avoid becoming so zealous as to sacrifice the psychological safety of employees. The extent to which an organization wants to address DEI concerns must be thoughtfully determined by its leaders and members. The difficulties attending this choice—and acting on it—depend on the culture that the organization has previously established and its ability to adjust to change. As we often reiterate, prior failure to build a healthy and responsive organizational culture becomes a significant liability when leaders suddenly move to act in accordance with values that may strike staff as alien.   

When high-stakes explorations prompt people to defensively express strong emotions or advocate for hitherto-accepted positions that are being challenged, they are frequently pathologized by others. This typically manifests as accusations that they are being fragile, insecure, narcissistic, or egocentric. Or they might simply be dismissed with the dehumanizing insinuation that they are in some way too sensitive or defensive to participate constructively.   

While actual narcissism in the workplace can impede DEI efforts, what often happens is that someone displaying sensitivity to criticism is unjustly accused of being narcissistic. Members of the workforce should not be diagnosing each other casually—and displaying a single trait is not sufficient to justify such a claim. But if someone’s sensitivity is aroused by a legitimate threat to psychological safety, it’s hardly excessive. (A psychologist in a private session would welcome a spirited response to a good challenge, but we’re talking about the workplace.)  

Of particular interest is the concept of fragility. This form of pathologizing means that someone can’t successfully take part in the process because they are too weak or sensitive. An accepted sense of fragility is on the rise among younger generations, and this makes tough conversations increasingly difficult for individuals to endure. With higher rates of anxiety and depression accompanying fragility, it is a legitimate threat to well-being.  

Society’s traditional remedy for fragility has been repeated exposure to reasonable stressors. But when organizations onboard employees who were coddled by their parents and educational institutions, are they responsible for accommodating fragility? Or should they take it upon themselves to challenge and harden their employees?    

All individuals are fragile to some extent. It exists in all groups. Changing mores are a further factor. Soldiers in wartime were once expected to endure anything. Then came “shell shock” in World War I, followed by post-traumatic stress disorder—a condition asserted by countless civilians today.  

Fragility that is deemed excessive is often considered to have originated in unstable self-esteem or vulnerable narcissism. Both conditions tend to be more prevalent among minorities and are interpreted professionally as responses aimed at coping with experienced adversity.    

Fragility can also become noticeable when someone who has enjoyed advantages in life faces the loss of those benefits. Accordingly, white, male, cisgender people may display fragility if social change removes an advantage or put them at a disadvantage regarding others. Such a response should never lead to the deployment of toxic language such as accusations or references to “white fragility.” It is counterproductive and harmful. No member of any group will benefit from being dismissed as a “snowflake” among peers. Nor will the group’s efforts.  

There is indeed a set of circumstances and issues likely to reveal fragility more specific to white people than to other groups in general. This reflects human fragility. It is not unique. Such dismissive and condescending phrases as “angry black woman” entail a comparable error of generalization and stereotyping. All human beings get angry. When it comes to discussing issues of disadvantage and prejudice, it should surprise no one that some female people of color become agitated, given historical and present-day contexts.    

Again, we must ask ourselves: Would we take any other threat to psychological safety so widely reported as a source of worry to be a sign of fragility? No. Therefore, we should not pathologize typical human fears or anger that arise in the face of DEI training and policy.   


The question is not whether DEI should “die.” Organizations that value diversity, equity, and inclusion sufficiently to pursue such training should merely examine  criticism that arises for any truths it might contain. The organizations can proceed to prove critics wrong by averting harm.   

Once potential sources of toxicity have been addressed, attention can turn toward making progress in a psychologically safe, inclusive manner. In Part II of this blog, I share my thoughts on how to do this successfully.