• Since 2017, more than 2,400 CEOs have signed a pledge saying diversity and inclusion are priorities.
  • But recently, some companies have been laying off diversity professionals. 
  • Some of these professionals and others say the cuts signal companies weren't committed to diversity.

2020: Diversity matters. 

2023: Not so much.

For years, but especially after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, CEOs kept reassuring Americans that efforts around diversity, inclusion, and workplace culture weren't just window dressing.

More than 2,400 business chiefs from a range of industries have signed a pledge saying so since 2017.

"It's really important," Andy Jassy, now Amazon's CEO, said at a June 2020 event, speaking about diversity. "Frankly, as a technology industry, I think we can be much better. It's, in my opinion, still way too homogenous."

Jassy's comments are just one of many examples of corporate leaders talking up the benefits of diversity. Yet it seems some of them forgot to throw in a caveat: It matters only so long as profits are up. At least that's how things now seem, multiple people who work in corporate diversity told Insider.

"My former employer has probably set itself back by two years by letting me go," a recruiter who said he was laid off from a US tech company in January, told Insider. Insider granted his request for anonymity because of his concern that speaking out could hurt his job prospects. "One program I set up will likely continue, but everything else I was doing will likely fall to the wayside," he added.

The recruiter focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, known as DEI. He said the layoffs hitting diversity departments would do "long-term damage" to corporate America and showed CEOs' "empty promise" to bring change to their companies. 

The layoffs sweeping Big Tech and unfolding in some other industries are hitting the departments designed to make American companies more diverse. This puts corporate America's progress in this effort at risk, people in DEI told Insider. The cuts, they said, will hurt professionals who were already feeling burned out after the country's nascent racial reckoning spilled into the workplace in recent years. 

And, they said, the layoffs will create distrust among workers from underrepresented backgrounds who had developed relationships with leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion roles through daily interactions or through support systems like employee-resource groups.

"Leaders of ERG groups — Black workers, women workers — they are not going to trust leaders anymore because they felt they finally had someone who was making strides, and now the company is letting them go?" the former recruiter said. "What motivation do they have to be open to the next person who comes along?" 

Diversity roles are some of the first to go 

Corporate America's recent layoffs will create distrust among workers from underrepresented backgrounds who had developed relationships with leaders in DEI roles, a laid-off worker told Insider. Foto: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

At Lyft, one former employee on the diversity and inclusion team wrote on LinkedIn that she, along with most of her department, had been cut. Bloomberg reported Twitter's diversity, equity, and inclusion team had gone from 30 people to two. 

An Amazon spokesperson told Insider that the company's DEI priorities have not changed. "We remain committed to building a more inclusive and diverse Amazon for the long term," he said. Other companies that recently announced layoffs, including Twitter, Lyft, Netflix, and 3M, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the state of their diversity teams. Spokespersons from Google, a division of Alphabet, and Meta, parent of Facebook, declined to comment. 

Dee C. Marshall — the CEO of Diverse & Engaged, a DEI consultancy that works with Fortune 500 companies and tech clients — said several recently laid-off professionals in diversity had messaged her for career advice. 

"These layoffs show some CEOs weren't committed," Marshall said. "Their priority was performative. It was, in some cases, business; it's what they had to do for shareholders and stakeholders. It was situational, based on a situation — a reaction — and it was temporal." 

Difficult business conditions give skeptical corporate leaders an out, Marshall said.

"This was an opportunity for corporations and CEOs who were not necessarily bought in," Marshall said. 

Sandra Quince, the CEO of Paradigm for Parity, a nonprofit that helps companies increase diversity and equity, said that while she's not hearing about cuts to DEI functions, she is learning about slashed spending on diversity issues.

"What I am seeing is budgets being cut across the board," Quince said. "I am also continuing to hear and see fatigue with DEI officers due to lack of resources, positional power, and lack of progress. This will only be heightened during an economic downturn."

The recently laid-off tech recruiter said there's going to be a ripple effect in tech and beyond. Employees from underrepresented backgrounds might hesitate to recommend their employer to friends and contacts after seeing their peers in DEI get axed, he said. 

"My former employer breached the trust to an extreme degree," he added.

Underrepresented workers are more at risk 

In addition to DEI and human-resources departments getting cut, workers from underrepresented backgrounds can be especially at risk from the layoffs in tech.

Women and Latino workers made up about 47% and 11%, respectively, of tech layoffs from September to December, while those segments comprise about 39% and 10%, respectively, of the entire industry, according to data by Revelio Labs published by Reuters.

Amy Zimmerman, the chief people officer of Relay Payments, a fintech company, said that cuts to DEI and HR departments would hurt some companies' efforts around diversity. But, she added, there are ways for companies to distribute DEI work to others in the company.

Bloomberg reported that laid-off DEI professionals said they expected much of their work would be passed off to unpaid members of employee-resource groups, who are often people of color and women.

For Marshall, the layoffs hitting DEI professionals and people of color represent a full-circle moment from 2020. 

"People have been asking, 'Are these CEOs really committed to DEI? Are they serious about it?' And we now know that, for many, the answer is no."

Samantha Delouya contributed reporting to this article.

Read the original article on Business Insider