Here’s How Workers Can Build Power Amid Corporate Co-optation of DEI Programs

In recent years, the right has targeted diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, and, as we barrel toward a presidential election, the scapegoating of DEI is worsening. According to the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, 18 states have banned spending public funds on DEI-related activities in K-12 schools, and eight have done the same for colleges and universities. Equally concerning, many corporations have now co-opted DEI language to deflect from anti-union activity. They have been aided by consultants and a DEI-industrial complex that strips away the social justice core of DEI and stresses talk over action.

As a longtime DEI practitioner and founder of a diversity, equity, inclusion and “belonging transformation” firm called Ethos that has helped 170 organizations implement effective DEI programs, Alida Miranda-Wolff is keenly aware of how corporations can instrumentalize DEI against economic justice. She has been a vocal advocate for unions and for making pay equity a cornerstone of DEI work. In her new book, The First-Time Manager: DEI, Miranda-Wolff lays out a vision for how organizations can go beyond symbolic gestures and implement DEI programs that expand social justice for historically marginalized communities and actually build workers’ power.

In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Miranda-Wolff breaks down the right-wing effort to dismantle DEI efforts as well as the corporate DEI-industrial complex approach, while offering advice for progressive managers about how to avoid corporate co-optation of more earnest DEI efforts. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Peter Handel: DEI efforts have become a favorite target of the right, and with the coming presidential election, we can expect to see more attacks on DEI programs in schools, the workplace and other institutions. Talk about some of the most common right-wing criticisms of DEI and how they stack up against reality.

Alida Miranda-Wolff: I think the right-wing characterization of DEI as “Didn’t Earn It” sums up the majority of arguments we’ve seen in the last two years. The biggest conservative critique of DEI is that it somehow promotes reverse discrimination by trying to even the playing field for those with fewer privileges through increased support and resources.

We saw this come to a head when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina to effectively end affirmative action. The argument that students from underserved communities have an “unfair advantage” they didn’t “earn” is a disingenuous one. You are much more likely to get into an elite university if you are rich. NPR reported last year that American families in the 1 percent were 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution. The “Didn’t Earn It” argument fails when placed under scrutiny in other contexts, too. The Economic Policy Institute found that CEOs were paid 344 times as much as a typical worker in 2022, and the average CEO is white and identifies as a man.

As a consultant, you’ve helped to implement DEI programs in 170 organizations. How do workers generally respond to them? What does the data tell us about how workers really feel about DEI efforts?

The Pew Research Center reports that the majority of American workers believe DEI is a good thing, though there is a significant divide along political lines. Specifically, 78 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning workers agree focusing on DEI at work is positive, compared with only 30 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning ones.

At Ethos, we don’t tend to experience significant resistance or backlash from workers on DEI efforts taking place. If anything, workers are more likely to be frustrated at the limited scope and scale of initiatives. One common point of tension is leaders at organizations tend to focus more on establishing employee resource groups and setting up training initiatives on implicit bias, whereas employees want better access to hiring data, greater transparency and accountability around compensation, and expanded benefits that take their identities into account, such as time off for religious and cultural observances, expanded parental and caregiving leaves, and the elimination of unpaid work activities generally categorized within the “duties as assigned” line item of their job descriptions.

You insist that pay equity must be a “cornerstone of DEI efforts.” First, what is pay equity and why do you want to see it at the heart of DEI?

Very simply, pay equity means compensating employees equally for the same or similar roles. Pay, generally, is the cornerstone of work. No matter how much you love what you do or find purpose in it, ultimately, you are working for a paycheck. The U.S. in particular has a long legacy of not paying people for their labor — slavery, indentured servitude and sharecropping fueled our economy for centuries — and the labor movement understands the vital importance of ensuring workers are paid for their labor. Diversity, equity and inclusion exists to protect workers made more vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, exploitation and mistreatment specifically because of the identities they hold. If we are going to do right by these workers, we have to look at what most impacts them: their wages.

While you are clearly a proponent of DEI, you also have criticisms of how corporations instrumentalize it to score public relations points and undermine unionization efforts. Tell us about this.

Corporations opposed to unionization frame DEI and unionization as an either/or when they should exist together.

Since 2020, there has been a notable rise in anti-union consultants rebranding themselves as DEI practitioners and leading union avoidance campaigns. By using the language of diversity, equity and inclusion, which employees continue to care about, these consultants co-opt very real concerns around closing the opportunity gap among workers from marginalized groups to push an anti-union message.

Their message tends to focus on the difficult history of racism and sexism within parts of the U.S. labor movement; for instance, the strikes against integration by white union workers in the South that Erik Loomis chronicles in one chapter of his book A History of America In Ten Strikes. This anti-union message ignores the parts of the labor movement that historically organized for social as well as economic justice, which labor journalist Kim Kelly chronicles countless examples of in her book Fight Like Hell on the role of marginalized groups in union organizing. Moreover, this message ignores how employers have consistently exploited racial, ethnic, gender, and other divisions to bust unions and undermine worker power.

Today’s approach now is more sophisticated. Those seeking to avoid union efforts make superficially progressive arguments against unionization. They may allege that union leadership is made up exclusively of white men (which, as efforts from high-profile campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks demonstrate, is not true), or they may suggest that it’s xenophobic to organize against offshoring campaigns. Subtler approaches exist, too. The reality is that workers want to be heard, and a DEI professional’s job is supposed to be to listen and make change. As The Intercept reported back in 2022, posing as a consultant concerned with DEI can be a strategy for gaining valuable intelligence on employees that organizations then leverage to distract them from bigger issues.

The clearest current example of an organization using the language of DEI to union-bust is REI, a co-op that has long been touted as a paragon of corporate social responsibility and progressivism. The outdoor equipment and apparel retailer is infamous among labor organizers for producing a podcast episode where the CEO and the chief diversity and social impact officer discuss and attempt to dissuade a unionization effort at one of its New York locations. Much has been written about the episode opening with the executives stating their chosen pronouns and making an Indigenous land acknowledgement, only to then dive into why unions aren’t right for REI.

What is most troubling to me is that corporations opposed to unionization frame DEI and unionization as an either/or when they should exist together. Unions should be (and to their credit, often are) bargaining for worker protections that consider social identity, like making sure transgender employees have the same medical leave options around hormone therapy that cisgender ones do, or disabled employees understand the physical requirements of their roles before they are hired and feel disempowered to advocate for their health needs.

What is the DEI-industrial complex?

The DEI-industrial complex refers to the multibillion-dollar industry that exploded with limited oversight in 2020 and 2021 and focuses mostly on expensive, unproductive and sometimes counterproductive initiatives, as a means of further funding itself. This kind of DEI tends to focus on branding and communication initiatives; on training as a solution rather than as an aid to more in-depth transformation work; and on implementing what those running a company want to accomplish rather than addressing worker needs.

Unfortunately, the DEI-industrial complex is what many have come to understand as DEI itself: All that matters is what we say, not what we do. This is not and should not be what DEI is meant for. When done ethically, DEI should help do things like minimize bias in performance reviews, ensure disabled employees are able to access the assistive technologies necessary to do their jobs, and promote systems that ensure real investigations into cases of discriminatory harassment are conducted and acted on. These types of interventions take time, cost money and go largely unnoticed outside an organization. But that doesn’t make them any less vital to cultivating work environments that honor the basic human dignity of workers.

Recently, some states have begun passing laws that ban DEI programs in schools. Tell us about these laws and how you think those concerned with social justice should respond.

So far, 18 states have banned spending public funds on DEI-related activities in K-12 institutions, and another eight have banned spending public funds at colleges and universities. These laws are part of a concerted campaign by conservative activists to defund and stop DEI efforts. For those focused on social justice, there are many reasons to be concerned. Banning DEI infringes on free speech, increases the likelihood of abuse and exploitation of students, and removes vital resources.

As schools are being forced to shut down multicultural centers, programs for undocumented students, and eliminate resources for queer people, there has not been a widespread, organized effort to counter these attacks. Where are the bills that counter these bans and fight for these resources to be reinstated or increased? Where are the local and state government officials pushing back? For those who want to see an end to these damaging behaviors, advocate to your legislators and organize in favor of what you do not want to lose.

What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about DEI?

With the rise of “anti-wokeism,” the term “DEI” is used interchangeably with wildly disparate concepts like critical race theory and social justice. DEI is a term developed to describe a set of practices meant to improve working conditions inside of organizations, not an obscure legal theory that few will encounter or a mode of political organizing. In many ways, the reason employees tend to be unhappy with or doubt DEI is precisely because its scope is so limited. The reality, for better or for worse, is that DEI is a lot closer to organizational development and change management than activism and advocacy. It should not be relied upon instead of the latter, but rather act as a kind of supplement to other actions.

Another misconception about DEI is that it is one unified theory or set of practices, and that everyone engaged in DEI is essentially out to do the same work. They aren’t.

What advice to you give to managers and others in positions of authority who want to maximize the benefits of DEI programs and minimize the potential for the kind of corporate co-optation you discuss above?

Remember, DEI’s intended purpose is to ensure that everyone, including people from a variety of marginalized groups, have their workplace needs met. To maximize the benefits of DEI and minimize the risk of co-optation, ask a simple question: Who is this for? In my experience, managers often struggle to ask this question and then seriously grapple with the answers.

For example, March was Women’s History Month, and all around the country, employees of all different levels were scrambling to put on programming, develop and publish content, and demonstrate their commitment to equality for women, including in closing the pay gap. If the goal here was to present a progressive message to customers, then it makes sense that the efforts would focus on ads centering women or elaborate Instagram stories around woman founders or leaders. If these efforts are for employees, the entire approach changes. First, we ask employees who identify as women what they want and need, and we use what we learn from them about the workplace to address challenges that are systemic.

As an employee, concrete actions like following through on auditing and correcting pay discrepancies between my colleague in the same position and myself, expanding leave policies around common but underresourced issues like domestic violence and caregiving, and investing in more robust tools to prevent harassment and discrimination — not just among but also between employees and their customers — will likely matter more to me than a media campaign.