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As layoffs sweep the tech industry, companies risk the reversal of years of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) progress almost overnight. Leaders have a responsibility — to their employees, their businesses, the industry, and society at large — to conduct layoffs equitably. I know this firsthand because last month, my company made the difficult decision to eliminate 10% of our roles, and as the company’s DEIB lead, equity was my top concern. With a seat at the table, I was able to help coach decision-makers through the process and offer an equity-focused mindset as the conversations unfolded.
With more than 77,000 tech employees laid off in 2023 already, this moment is a vital one for the companies that have invested in DEIB. Simply put, layoffs should not counteract DEIB progress — two steps forward and one step back is still moving backward on a critically important journey. But if DEIB isn’t a part of these conversations, companies risk just that. It’s more than losing DEIB practitioners and teams; the entire tech industry has a newly diversified workforce and fresh opportunities, such as better diverse leadership, at stake.
Even so, the harsh reality is that most times, DEIB leaders don’t have a seat at the table during these tough conversations. That’s a major blunder, and it’s one we’re already seeing the consequences of as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are dissolved and entire DEIB teams are let go — by some estimations, DEI roles had a nearly 40% attrition rate at companies that laid off employees, compared with a 24% churn rate for other types of roles.
The insights and tools that DEIB leaders provide are shock absorbers for the broader impact of a layoff. Many companies experience increased attrition in the wake of layoffs, for example, and DEIB leaders can help with preserving morale and retaining diverse talent long-term. Companies are remiss to underutilize this expertise. DEIB leaders are trusted collaborators at all stages of the process of carrying out equitable layoffs. From eliminating unconscious discrimination in the reorganization itself to facilitating new DEIB commitments, DEIB leaders can help.
Related: The 7 Worst Mistakes Companies Make When Laying Off Employees
Eliminating bias and discrimination in reorganization
DEIB leaders’ bread and butter is shining a light on the truths that are often overlooked in business decisions: We have a unique purview that enables us to offer meaningful perspective to leaders developing a role elimination process sans bias and to develop a framework that works for the business at that time. The earlier the DEIB leader is brought into the decision-making process, the better.
For example, at my company, we mapped the current roles against business priorities to determine which to eliminate. Stripping these decisions of unconscious bias by removing names, tenure or other details about individual employees was central to this approach. Like many of my peers, I warn leaders about the risks of inadvertently eliminating roles in a way that creates a homogenous organization; if people aren’t asking the right questions, looking at the right data or conducting adverse impact analyses, layoffs in the industry may eliminate large swaths of underrepresented workers: women, people reentering the workforce, veterans and BIPOC employees, to name a few groups.
Improving transparency and support
DEIB leaders can help leaders communicate the news to employees empathetically, appropriately and transparently. Poorly written or delivered communications from executive leadership leave remaining employees sour and make departing employees feel unappreciated among the many other emotions that come with layoffs. Layoffs are unfortunate and heartbreaking; there’s no other way to slice it. But internal communication is key, and handling the news delicately — for example, prioritizing one-on-one, face-to-face conversations and preserving team communication channels — can keep backlash and blows to culture to a minimum.
Related: 8 Effective Tips for Conducting Layoffs
Facilitating support for departing employees
DEIB leaders are also experts in what types of benefits and support are important to the employees being let go (based on their roles, the market and the resources available) and can serve as a resource in operationalizing these initiatives. From determining appropriate severance timelines to offering outplacement services to allowing former employees to keep their company laptops, there are many considerations that other leaders may overlook.
Preserving culture and progress — and re-committing to DEIB
Companies are in a tough spot when emotions following layoffs are still raw. How they manage this time can make or break company growth in the long run. Employees will look to leaders for transparency and accountability related to corporate diversity and so will job-seekers. The experiences that remaining and laid-off employees have after a workforce reduction speak volumes about the DEIB commitment level of the organization and help solidify its place in the talent market. DEIB leaders can help executive leadership make their commitments to diversity clear and facilitate re-commitments in the wake of layoffs.
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” way to do layoffs, but when companies have to, those that are facilitated transparently, equitably and as thoughtfully as possible are more likely to be set up for near- and long-term success. Companies need to preserve the efforts they’ve invested in, and DEIB practitioners are an asset for operationalizing and sustaining that in these difficult times.
Related: 3 Things to Do When Layoffs Are Looming