“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
In an era marred by politicized attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Shaun Harper, a distinguished DEI expert, sheds light on the perilous trend of business leaders adopting a “lay low” strategy. In his compelling article entitled “Why A ‘Lay Low’ DEI Strategy Is Especially Bad Right Now,” Harper unearths the destructive consequences of this approach, challenging leaders to rise above the fear and safeguard the core principles of DEI. At SunShower Learning, we resonate with Harper’s perspective. In fact, we believe that a “lay low” strategy constitutes a betrayal of leadership responsibilities. We commend today’s great leaders who reject the veil of silence, staunchly advocate for DEI and actively contribute to a positive societal dialogue that champions diversity, equity and inclusion.
The political minefield of DEI
Harper opens with a stark reality – the fear-induced response of some leaders to politicized attacks on DEI. The reluctance to become targets in a polarizing landscape has led to a disturbing trend of renaming and concealing DEI initiatives.
Harper presents alarming statistics, revealing legislative bans on teaching DEI topics in 44 states. He emphasizes the success of these efforts in 18 states and the ripple effect in the form of DEI suppression policies by school boards in the remaining states. DEI initiatives have also been defunded at colleges and universities in states such as Florida, Texas and Tennessee. Harper calls out the deliberate efforts by opponents, including demands in the U.S. House to strip DEI activities from the military budget. The political landscape further adds to the challenge, with some actively mischaracterizing DEI programs as divisive indoctrination.
The rise of DEI skepticism and fear
Many leaders, unnerved by these challenges, are adopting a “lay low” approach. Some choose to rename and deemphasize DEI initiatives, believing it shields them from controversy. However, Harper argues that this strategy is counterproductive and detrimental to both organizations and society.
One driving force behind the “lay low” strategy is the successful spread of misinformation and disinformation campaigns, leading some leaders to believe baseless allegations against DEI programs. From intentional mischaracterizations by influential figures like Elon Musk to negative press and Supreme Court litigation, DEI has faced significant challenges since 2021. However, it is crucial for leaders to discern fact from fiction and resist succumbing to misleading narratives.
As Harper explains, “Across industries, businesses have significantly rolled back their internal DEI efforts. Some, but definitely not all of this is attributable to the negative press that DEI has received since 2021. Too many leaders have been duped by extraordinarily effective misinformation and disinformation campaigns; they actually believe what obstructionists baselessly allege. And then there are those who were never truly committed to DEI — any convenient excuse to abandon and disinvest is fine with them.”
The pitfalls of “laying low”
Harper goes on to unravel the nuanced consequences of choosing the seemingly inconspicuous stance of “laying low,” shedding light on its impact on DEI efforts and the overall organizational landscape.
- Perpetuating harmful stereotypes
When organizations opt for a “lay low” strategy, they inadvertently contribute to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. The lack of transparency allows misinformation to thrive, and the public may assume DEI initiatives are extreme or divisive, mirroring conservative broadcasts and social media narratives.
- Undermining trust and worth
Hiding DEI efforts sends a disheartening message to women, people of color, queer individuals, persons with disabilities and others who contribute to organizational diversity. It suggests that their worth and contributions are not worth fighting for and protecting. Additionally, it erodes trust among diverse stakeholders, including customers, clients, partners, investors and community members.
- Setting a poor leadership example
A “lay low” approach sets a detrimental precedent for current and future leaders. It signals that DEI can be treated as a disposable imperative when convenient, fostering a culture of spinelessness among employees and managers. Contradictory actions, such as loudly prioritizing DEI after significant events and then muting it, undermine the credibility of leadership.
- Limiting opportunities for learning
Successful DEI efforts should be showcased as inspiring examples for internal and external audiences. The “lay low” strategy, however, denies others access to replicable models of success, hindering opportunities for organizational learning and growth.
In the face of challenges and opposition, a “lay low” DEI strategy is not the solution our democracy needs. Transparency, open communication and a commitment to truth are essential in countering misinformation. Great leaders embrace the responsibility of dispelling myths, defending the importance of DEI and proudly showcasing successful initiatives. We urge leaders to stand firm in their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
In this critical moment, where misinformation spreads rapidly, leaders must be beacons of truth. By openly addressing concerns, debunking falsehoods and highlighting the tangible benefits of DEI, leaders contribute to a more informed and empowered community. The success of DEI initiatives relies on leaders who are unafraid to confront challenges, dismantle misconceptions and champion the values that truly make our organizations and society stronger. Stand tall, be a voice of reason and lead the way toward a more inclusive and equitable future.
SunShower Learning stands ready to support you. We are a recognized leader with over two decades of experience offering specialized diversity, equity and inclusion training to evolve your organization, create a culture of belonging and drive success. We have a team of distinguished world-class DEI experts, and we work with small businesses, multinational organizations and everything in between.