How can we stop diversity and inclusion washing becoming the next big corporate problem?

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) has become a point of brand differentiation, almost of bragging rights. But if you look into it closely, can anyone say that we are closer to an inclusive, fair, and representative workplace for all?
Aicha Zerrouky
Oct 06, 2022

Probably not. If anything, we are getting dangerously close to woke washing, a phenomenon that Erin Dowel and Marlette Jackson have identified in the Harvard Business Review.

This is when organisations do an enormous amount of lip service with very little action which presents devastating risks to a company and its people.

In the same vein, diversity washing referred to by Vern Howard is the focus on representation at the expense of inclusion and equity.

As an HR professional, you might be pressured by your organisation to deliver quick visible wins in this area. Except, real change in this case comes with a caveat: you can’t fake it until you make it.

So, how can HR help mitigate those risks and turn promises into action?

Rephrase the question

In 2022, according to a survey by Fawcett Society, 75% of women of colour have experienced racism at work and 61% of women reported themselves having to fit in at work.

Another survey by Totaljobs conducted in 2021 showed that 65% of trans people hide their gender status at work.

We cannot fool ourselves that change happens overnight nor can we deny that it takes an educated, holistic and consistent approach to transforming the system that oppresses marginalised individuals and communities.

Let’s be clear: diversity without putting equity and inclusion first will never bring sustainable change.

Most organisations have spent tremendous time collecting data and crunching the numbers. But while understanding these gaps is important, we’ve yet to see a consistent move towards creating a state of true equity and inclusion. The focus in HR, and at board level, now needs to be on making meaningful systemic changes.

Invest in change

Anyone can pay lip service but it takes money to show that you’re taking this seriously.

Cutting your L&D budgets to focus on hiring diverse talents will not fix DE&I. It will only breed frustration towards your organisation.

Your people, especially your managers and high-potential talents, know when you are not willing to invest in their development. They disengage with you and leave, whilst problematic behaviours thrive.

Give your leaders and managers the resources they need to implement change and transform themselves and their teams. Education has the power to unlock people’s true potential.

From an HR perspective, that may be time or training.

It might also be mentoring or coaching but it will mean earning back the eroded trust between you and your people, equipping them with the skills and tools required to create an inclusive and equitable ecosystem for everyone and giving them the confidence that you are taking steady steps.

Work from the top down

It is clear that HR needs to sit in the uncomfortable driver’s seat. What’s becoming more apparent is the need to exert great influence on board members and shareholders who can sometimes be slow to support ethical and cultural change.

It might require having difficult conversations with your stakeholders, holding them accountable and from time to time, refreshing their memory on what’s at stake.


Accountability has come to the forefront in business in the last couple of years, but momentum seems to be waning. Clarifying who is responsible for integration and diversity within your business – is it the HR manager or the CEO? – is one of the first steps towards action. The issue remains everyone’s problem but nobody’s responsibility.

Stop using DE&I for self-promotion

If we’ve learnt anything from greenwashing, it’s that in the areas that matter, self-promotion is never necessary.

If you’re shouting about your DE&I stance but not making changes, people will find out. And it will be very damaging to your business and your personal reputation. If you do things well, people will notice.

DE&I washing has become HR’s problem. Not because it should be. But because in many organisations, no one else is stepping up to the plate.

Being on the frontline of the issue, the people with the expertise, knowledge, and experience in personnel management, HR professionals need to take the lead. To ensure that good intentions become good actions, and don’t just evaporate as the focus moves elsewhere.

This article was first published in HR Magazine. 

Aicha Zerrouky

Business Development Director

Aicha studied History at the University of Caen, France after which she began a career in Business Development working for tech startups. She has an extensive background in strategic Business Development and in managing global multi-million dollar projects. Before joining Headspring Executive, Aicha worked at the University of Oxford-Said Business School where she helped leaders drive growth with executive education. Aicha is impact-driven and is passionate about empowering people transform their organisations through immersive and innovative learning. She is an advocate for positive change and a champion for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.