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DEI in the Face of Change: Sustaining Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts After a RIF

Cara Pelletier

Over the last few months, layoffs and reductions in force (RIFs) have hit tech companies large and small, with announcements and goodbye Linkedin posts a seemingly daily occurrence. While the decision to reduce the size of your workforce may be made by your CEO, CFO or Board, the burden to manage the fallout of the decision and mitigate the impact on your remaining employees often falls to HR. Studies show that even a small RIF can create a snowball effect of contagious turnover as remaining employees are tasked with changing job responsibilities, doing additional work, decreased organizational trust, demoralization and disengagement

For DEI leaders, there are even more reasons to be concerned about the impact of a RIF: Layoffs have been shown to disproportionately impact employees of color, which can erase hard-earned gains in diversity. And, the fear and uncertainty associated with a RIF can lead to reduced feelings of psychological safety, which are essential to inclusion and belonging.

So how can HR & DEI leaders sustain DEI efforts after a RIF? 

First, you can mitigate some of the negative effects by centering fairness and equity in the RIF process, from start to finish.

Often, DEI and HR leaders are included in layoff planning only after the decision is made about how many and which employees to cut. Unfortunately, common ways to approach employee reductions include looking only at title and tenure: taking a “last in, first out” approach, for example, or cutting contract or gig positions. While these methods may seem fair and equitable on the surface, research has shown that they can have an outsized impact on corporate diversity efforts, as tenure-based decisions and contract/gig reductions are more likely to disproportionately impact historically underrepresented groups, including women, Black and Hispanic employees.

When DEI and HR leaders are included at the beginning of the conversation, they can advocate for a more balanced and fair process that considers multiple factors, including performance and employee potential, and whether employees are contributing to initiatives outside of their daily responsibilities, such as leading an Employee Resource Group. 

DEI leaders should provide executives an analysis of the effect the RIF will have on diversity and equity metrics before final decisions are made: 

  • Will there be an outsized impact on women in leadership roles? 
  • Will the progress your organization has made on hiring Black employees be cut in half?
  • Does the layoff list include leaders of your Employee Resource Groups or other employees who are culture champions?
  •  Would someone looking at your DEI metrics pre- and post-RIF believe that employees were treated equitably? 
  • If employees ask about the impact to diversity, what will you tell them?

And, executives and HR leaders should be prepared to answer the question about why and how people were chosen for the RIF. While you may be able to share the details of the process due to confidentiality or legal concerns, knowing you’ve made decisions with integrity and being able to share that the process aligned with your corporate values will provide leaders with confidence and peace of mind when navigating these challenges. Having a holistic employee performance management process that includes ongoing performance conversations, fair and objective performance ratings, and company-wide performance calibrations will enable HR to lead thoughtful and data-based conversations with executives and make the most equitable decisions possible. 

Second, communicate the RIF with transparency and empathy. 

Rebuilding trust, psychological safety, and engagement starts with executives creating space for people to process the changes in an environment of candor and kindness. Executive communications should acknowledge the pain and loss associated with the layoff, take responsibility for how the organization got to this point, and recast a compelling vision of the future. According to the Harvard Business Review, “surviving and prospective employees want to hear three messages: We treated your colleagues well. We have a credible strategy to improve the company’s prospects. There is a clear role for you to play in the future success of the company.”

Leaders should be transparent in sharing where the organization may have experienced a setback in DEI progress and restate their commitment to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. At a previous employer, a restructure eliminated a team that included the executive sponsor of the Asian and Pacific Islander Employee Resource Group. The CEO stepped in as an interim sponsor, committing publicly that the executive team would prioritize diverse candidate slates for all open and upcoming VP and Executive jobs.

Employees also need to be able to ask questions and express concerns without fear of repercussions. Having a mechanism to submit anonymous questions and have them answered in a timely manner, whether in writing or during a town hall meeting, is vital to reestablishing trust in leadership. 

Third, reevaluate and refocus your DEI strategy for quick wins and the greatest impact.

A RIF may not only impact current employees, it could also affect your organization’s overall hiring and headcount. If your current DEI plan is focused heavily on diversity sourcing and recruiting, it’s a good time to pivot into equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives until hiring resumes. 

Some ways to boost equity, inclusion and belonging include:

  • Conduct a thorough review of benefits plans, employee handbooks, reasonable accommodations processes and other HR policies to ensure equitable and inclusive treatment of all employees.
  • Partner with your compensation/total rewards team to tackle pay equity and pay transparency.
  • Develop or enhance your leadership development and succession planning programs with an eye toward growing and retaining underrepresented talent.
  • Develop a mentoring program designed to connect early career, diverse talent with executives and senior leaders across the organization.
  • Ensure your Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have engaged executive sponsors.
  • Support ERGs in facilitating community-building activities to build and strengthen cross-functional relationships.
  • Offer a DEI speaker series that spotlights the talents and passions of a wide variety of employees. 
  • Provide training for all employees and managers on giving unbiased feedback.
  • Review and update onboarding materials to include DEI-related learning materials.

Finally, tap into the power of your managers to re-engage your employees. 

Managers who are new to their role or haven’t experienced layoffs in the past may struggle to understand their role as a leader during times of change. Support your managers by providing timely training on how to lead through the grief and uncertainty associated with a RIF. In addition to helping employees process loss and cope with survivor’s guilt, managers should be able to confidently share their commitment to the vision of the organization and focus their team’s efforts on contributing to that vision. 

Most of what employees experience as the culture of your organization is the day-to-day interactions they have with their immediate manager and team. Managers have an outsized impact on how employees feel at work, and when employees are feeling anxious or fearful, skilled and caring managers are the key to rebuilding inclusion, belonging, and psychological safety.

Whether managers have inherited new team members due to restructuring or they have a smaller team, conducting role clarity conversations with each team member can help employees feel grounded in what’s expected of them and confident in their ability to deliver on their new responsibilities. A role clarity conversation is an opportunity to review the job description for a role and refine it to meet the changing needs of the business. When done collaboratively, this can be an exciting and energizing opportunity for employees to shape their roles in a way that helps to further their own growth and development.

These questions provide a good starting point when reviewing a job description:

  • Does the role mission accurately describe what you’re actually doing in your day-to-day work?
    • What is missing? 
    • What is no longer relevant?
  • Do the desired outcomes of the role still align with what you are expected to accomplish?
    • If not, what is missing?
    • What is no longer relevant?
  • How will your success be measured in this role?
    • What are we measuring today?
    • What’s not being measured that needs to be?
  • What does satisfactory, high, and exceptional impact look like for this role?
  • What goals are you currently working towards that will impact your outcomes?
    • What goals do you have that are not aligned with the mission or outcomes of your role?
    • Are these goals important enough to be part of your job description?
    • What growth or development goal would you like to pursue that will impact your outcomes?
  • What projects are you currently working on in support of your goals?
    • What projects are you working on that do not support your goals, outcomes, or mission?
    • What needs to be reprioritized or dropped in order to allow you to focus on your goals and outcomes?
  • How do your goals and projects align with our company-wide goals?

Build Organizational Resilience

Layoffs and RIFs are never easy, but by intentionally building a fair and transparent process, communicating with empathy, realigning your DEI efforts to focus on equity, inclusion, and belonging, and engaging your managers to rebuild trust and psychological safety, HR and DEI leaders can decrease the impact of a layoff on their DEI efforts and reduce unwanted attrition.

For more insights into how HR leaders can cultivate organizational resilience in the midst of layoffs or RIFs, get 15Five’s eBook Building Organizational Resilience: The HR Leaders’ Guide to Maintaining Engagement After a RIF or Layoff.