Dealing with the DEI/flexible working backlash

The backlash against diversity and inclusion and flexible working was a big topic at this week’s WM People Top Employer Awards. What can we do about it?



One of the undercurrents at this year’s Top Employer Awards was backlash and how to deal with it – backlash against flexible working and backlash against diversity and inclusion, which many anticipate getting worse in the run-up to the general election. The Award judges were asked about in the Q & A panel session. Advice ranges from seeking out those who have a passionate interest in the senior leadership team and leveraging that to challenging senior leadership through data. The evidence from workforce surveys is that employees want greater flexibility, are asking for it at interview and are willing to turn jobs down or leave if they don’t get it. Our annual survey shows that very clearly and it is interesting to compare current statistics with ones from other years.

82% of respondents to our most recent survey said they would investigate an employer’s flexible working policy before applying for a new job. 75% would ask about flexible working at interview and 73% say that flexible working is a deal breaker for them when applying for a new job. 52% have turned down a new job due to lack of flexibility. 32% have had flexible working taken from them at some point and of these 55% said that they left their job as a result.

Let those figures sink in. When I started at there were a lot of questions about when to ask for flexible working at interview and if it was a good idea. People were cautious about bringing the issue up, fearing they would not get the job if they mentioned it. was indeed set up because women – and it was mainly mums back in the day because the flexible working legislation only applied to parents and carers – might ask for flexible working in the job they were in and then feel trapped because it was nigh on impossible to find a job advertised at the time which was open to flexible working.

Contrast that and today’s figures and you can see a remarkable turnaround. In part it is the result of Covid. In part it is due to technological advances, particularly on the home working front and in part it is because more women are remaining in the workforce when they have children, which itself is a mix of wanting to stay in work and having to stay in work due to the cost of living rises we have seen. In part, over the last few years confidence has grown due to labour shortages, although this may be ebbing somewhat now, depending on job and sector.

Then there are the demographic issues at play – we know that our population is ageing. A report out this week suggested that there is an argument for raising the retirement age to 70 possibly by 2040 because of the mismatch between the working population and the older population. Aside from the need for a much stronger safety net for those who simply cannot work longer, there are implications for how we work in order to make it possible for people to stay in work for more years and for helping those who can and want to work back to work. That means greater efforts at inclusion.

Yet there is so much backlash against diversity and inclusion, despite the strong business and social case for it underlying everything we do. If we are omitting certain parts of the population from policies or workplaces – or stopping them from progressing – it makes absolutely no sense and, to put it in cold economic terms, it will cost more in the longer term for all of us – for those who are excluded, but also for those who are, for instance, still in work and struggling with overload because of the lack of colleagues.

The backlash is exhausting. Every day there are negative stories from the usual sources – some of whom seem positively obsessive in their opposition to flexible working and DEI – and it is demotivating, but ceremonies like the Top Employer Awards which bring people together who are doing the work on the ground and know the benefits are galvanising. The evidence and the argument is on our side. We keep pushing on.

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