Jamie Ousterout, The Diversity Movement

Jamie Ousterout, The Diversity Movement

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) rhetoric is a lightning rod right now and bound to get more pressing as we approach the 2024 U.S. presidential election. The controversy is on the front pages of global media and in the high-profile squabbling of famous business leaders, like the recent battles between Mark Cuban and Elon Musk.

I’m here to present a different perspective, one built by working directly with hundreds of companies and organizations over the last several years in North Carolina and globally. From the front line of DEI, I have seen hundreds of organizations build and strengthen workplace culture by connecting measurable business outcomes to DEI initiatives.

You can watch the news and read social media feeds, but my experience is validation that helping people understand each other, respect one another, and build workplaces focused on trust is good for employees and good for business. This is the “news” that much of the media doesn’t report, but should.

At The Diversity Movement (a Workplace Options company), my team and I have led more than 400 training sessions and worked with thousands of individuals to capture nearly 1 million diversity-centric and culture-focused data points. Several critical macrotrends have emerged from our observations and our direct conversations with leaders just like you. It is clear from this list of macrotrends—especially the political arena—that the stakes for DEI have never been higher.

These six items should be top of mind for senior executives—whether they support DEI or they’re still weighing their options—because they will continue to shape the business environment in 2024 and beyond. Considering these key insights will enable you to plan strategies and objectives with a DEI lens.

1. CEOs have increased their commitment to employee mental health and well-being.

In conversations with clients, employee well-being is the highest priority for many CEOs. Savvy senior leaders understand that the well-being focus is not only the right thing to do (and it is the right thing to do), but these initiatives have serious business implications. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 12 billion workdays are lost each year globally due to depression and anxiety, resulting in a massive decrease in productivity—at an estimated cost of $1 trillion. Additionally, according to Gallup, poor mental health leads to burnout and employee turnover, which costs organizations lost revenue every single day.

2. Organizations are still adapting to changing work environments brought about by COVID-19 and need guidance, particularly on creating culture for hybrid workforces.

Some high-profile organizations mandated Return to Office (RTO) policies, but many were unsuccessful and faced a subsequent media firestorm. A majority of organizations are finding success–albeit it across a broad learning curve–in a hybrid work environment.

Our work with client teams has demonstrated that these hybrid environments work best when they focus time in the office on in-person collaboration, one-on-one meetings, and team meetings, rather than just forcing employees to “badge in.” For initiatives that require high levels of collaboration, ideation, and problem-solving, in-person sessions are best, while remote settings are better for creative and focused work, such as writing, designing, and reviewing. Hybrid environments also work best when organizations trust and respect employees and allow them to adjust their work schedule to accommodate family and life needs.

3. Economic uncertainty and layoffs remain a hot topic.

At this time last year, the United States faced a looming recession, predicted by many leading economics experts. A year later, economists are still debating why the recession did not happen. Yet, the global economy remains volatile. Many nations around the world are still dealing with skyrocketing inflation and prices, from mortgages and groceries to fuel and more.

While there was the “Great Resignation” and a frenzy of hiring and job-hopping in 2021 and into 2022, this has generally come to a close. In fact, layoffs surged 98% in 2023. Those employees who remain at organizations are being challenged to do more work with fewer resources. With hiring slowing down in many industries, successful organizations are investing in retaining their top talent now more than ever. As a result, talent managers and human resources leaders are doubling down on employee retention, which we believe will continue throughout the rest of the year.

4.  Workplace demographics continue to evolve.

Successful leaders understand their changing employee and customer base. By 2040, employees who are white will no longer make up the majority of the workforce. But, changes are happening now–this year, Generation Z will overtake baby boomers and by 2025 will comprise a quarter (25%) of the workforce. The significance of this shift for C-suite leaders can’t be understated. Gen Z is the most ethnically diverse generation, believes in the importance of diversity, and expects more from their workplace, especially in terms of inclusive workplace culture, focus on work-life integration and wellness. TDM CEO Donald Thompson has explored this generational transformation, based on discussions with senior executives in the U.S. and from across the globe.

“In the account profession, there’s a pipeline crisis around the number of CPAs and accounting graduates that are in the profession,” said Mark Soticheck, Chief Operating Officer, North Carolina Association of CPAs. “No matter what area of the country or world you’re in—because it’s a global economy—we all need to understand that we have to work together. And those who will are going to be very successful and thrive and those who don’t won’t be around.”

5. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is at the heart of rapidly developing technology, but caution is needed.

Successful organizations are exploring how to use AI as a tool to be more effective and efficient, as well as to develop richer ideas and solutions. Yet, there is still much to be learned, especially as it relates to bias within AI.

I attended MetLife’s Triangle Tech X conference in the fall of 2023 where a presenter shared that when searching generative AI tools for images of doctors and their patients, the results were all white doctors with white patients. He had to specifically search for Black doctors to see different results, and even when he did, the results were only of Black doctors with Black patients. This does not represent the reality of our society and shows the real impact of bias in the creation of these technologies. We need diverse talent involved in AI creation and training to help mitigate bias.

“One of the trends that I am really interested in is AI,” explained Nicole Simpson, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at RAPP, a global creative agency network with regional hubs in North America, Europe, UK, Latin America and APAC. “There’s some discontent there and some fear there…We are very well positioned to help combat some of the bias that we see in AI because it is a learning tool and it learns from us…We need to embrace the technology that is already upon us and learn how to help it move us to more equitable and inclusive environment.”

5 steps for leaders: Build a successful AI strategy

6.  Continued political shifts, especially in the United States, and a year of elections ahead will cause increased turmoil.

A significant ruling by The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2023 struck down affirmative action programs in colleges, preventing nearly all universities in the country from using race as a consideration in admissions. This has impacted higher education, but has cascaded more broadly, leaving organizations (and their leaders) fearful that they will face legal challenges due to their DEI programming.

In addition to the Supreme Court rulings, we are headed into a year that NPR is calling a “mega-election year,” with critical elections taking place in the United States, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, and other nations. Unfortunately, American voters can look forward to more opportunistic publicity-seekers and partisan groups using politics as an excuse to spew negative rhetoric about DEI.

The swirl of criticism, while uncomfortable, does pose an opportunity for successful organizations to rethink their DEI strategies to ensure they are not exposing themselves to risk. The Diversity Movement has always advocated for the creation of a diverse slate of candidates for positions, as well as interview and promotion processes that mitigate bias and ensure that the best talent is selected. Setting a particular intention and focus to hire and promote diverse candidates is critical, and avoids the legal risk of implementing quotas.

When I hear media reports or read an article on the “downfall” of DEI, I cringe at the way most of them skim over the real issues and just wallpaper the intense, real-world issues at the heart of diversity-led initiatives. What we’ve learned from our clients and their executives over the course of 2023 is that well-being and employee engagement are essential in creating successful, sustainable organizations.

While some still view DEI as a threat, I view it as the only way for businesses to survive in our increasingly complex world. Successful organizations embrace DEI as a business imperative that will help them attract and retain both employees and customers. Personally, I hope that my contributions have made a difference for our clients and their employees, so that more individuals feel they can be their authentic and successful selves in the workplace.

About the Author

Jamie Ousterout is Chief Experience Officer at The Diversity Movement, a Workplace Options company, where she creates employee-first, inclusive workplaces for TDM clients and leads internal communications. She is the architect of the firm’s noted Client Success team, achieving a client satisfaction score exceeding 90%, and has counseled hundreds of C-suite leaders.

A Certified Diversity Executive®, Jamie graduated from Cornell University with a degree in English and history. A noted thought leader in client service, project management and operations, she also founded Stabilimenta, an operational strategy consulting firm. Jamie is a board member at Raleigh City Farm and serves as an alumna ambassador for Cornell. She was previously named a Triangle Business Journal “40 Under 40” leader in Raleigh. Follow Jamie on LinkedIn for more news and analysis.