Written by Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich
The past few years have seen popular culture swept away in dramatic media cycles about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), driven primarily by events in the United States such as the 2020 murder of George Floyd. American businesses, and their Canadian counterparts, made a big show of launching bold new EDI initiatives, media campaigns, and made loud statements and splashy investments, in EDI commitments. These initiatives were in turn often criticized as “performative” – a show without much substance.
The curtain is apparently falling on this latest episode of the EDI media and marketing spectacles. This year, US-based EDI professionals, hired in the wake of the 2020 death of George Floyd, have been fired in large numbers. Over the course of 2023 so far as reported by NBC, 33% of those EDI jobs have been eliminated by businesses. These firings have followed a cultural pivot away from EDI in the United States. The chief diversity officer for Virginia recently stated that “EDI is dead.” Martin D. Brown, who served as chief Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion officer for Virginia Governor Youngkin since November 2022 pronounced EDI dead in a speech at Virginia Military Institution. In a further statement to The Washington Post Brown asserted that “it’s proven that institutions achieve more with a more diverse and inclusive workforce…however, equity has become a trade-off for excellence.”
So, if the grand performance is over, for now, what should small and family-run businesses in Canada do About EDI if EDI is no longer trending?
I would argue that, notwithstanding shifts in the drama of our southern neighbour’s popular culture, there remains a solid financial and ethical case for businesses, including small and family-run businesses, in Canada, to not perform, but rather quietly engage in efforts to treat employees fairly in ways that recognize their individuality, social location, and human rights, and to ensure employees are meaningfully included in the social life of the workplace.
Of course, EDI did not start in 2020. Since the 1960s, EDI work in businesses has had a turbulent and controversial history, with human rights initiatives, affirmative action and antiharassment work being controversial at various times.
Businesses may no longer be facing imperatives to superficially showcase commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion through statements and marketing campaigns. However, the first principles of substantive engagement with the notion underlying EDI that employees are very differently situated and should be treated fairly in ways that enable them to succeed in their own particular circumstances, are important principles for businesses to apply whether or not the terminology or EDI infrastructure remain in place.
Indeed, maybe the dismantling of the high profile and noisy US-based EDI act is not necessarily bad for equality rights in Canada. What we lose in presentation and performativity, we need not squander in concrete action integrated into business operations.
As I previously wrote on this very blog, the Canadian conversation around substantive equality has never been synonymous with the American world of EDI. By the way, in 2022, when I wrote that, it was considered so controversial that there were formal complaints. Maybe the readership of 2023 is ready to hear what I then said. Canada’s context has always been different; and at the time of writing, the climax of cancel culture and American EDI infrastructure may have passed, but that is not necessarily a problem for equality rights in Canada.
We can still support substantive equality in our workplaces, big and small, family-run and otherwise, by doing things more than talking about them. Specifically, we can:
- Educate Leadership
- Support Diverse Hiring Practices
- Institute Inclusive Policies
- Offer training sessions and workshops on unconscious bias, cultural sensitivity, and inclusive communication.
- Support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
- Offer Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs
- Institute Flexible Work Policies
- Provide Regular Feedback
- Use Inclusive Language
- Review Compensation
- Set performance metrics for individuals and businesses to help counter biased reasoning
While the curtain is coming down on the most recent episode of the US-led EDI performative media cycle, we would do well to remember that, while a quieter approach might be chosen, less showy support for substantive equality and workplace inclusion can still make a significant positive impact on your business and its employees.
The views and opinions expressed in the blogs and case reporter are the views of their authors, and do not represent the views of the Desautels Centre for Private Enterprise and the Law, the Faculty of Law, or the University of Manitoba. Academic Members of the University of Manitoba are entitled to academic freedom in the context of a respectful working and learning environment.