As the talent squeeze continues, and unemployment sits at historic lows, HR leaders are—not surprisingly—pouring their efforts almost exclusively into recruiting and retention. In fact, HRE’s 2022 What’s Keeping HR Up at Night? survey found that nearly half of respondents cited hiring and retaining key talent as their biggest challenge today. And almost one-third said they were spending most of their time on recruiting.

Now, HR has another concern complicating that work: economic uncertainty, which is prompting some organizations to dial back on hiring spend—putting HR further into a talent quandary.

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Where does that demand on HR’s attention leave other priorities—namely, diversity, equity and inclusion?

According to Dr. Denise Caleb, president of the HR Standards Institute and a keynoter at next week’s HR Technology Conference Virtual, HR leaders need to be cognizant that the current hiring market, exacerbated by the economy, could become a real distraction from their DE&I work—but that they need to maintain their commitments.

“It’s easy to be tempted to cut consulting work or cut DE&I strategies when other organizational priorities mean you’re having to make choices,” she says. “But [DE&I] is essential.”

Denise Caleb, HRSI
Denise Caleb, HRSI

For one, an unfaltering investment in DE&I—despite financial or other challenges—helps maintain company culture through turbulent times and communicates to employees their value.

“With the level of uncertainty there is now, if employees can rely on their employer being fully committed to having the appropriate practices, processes and procedures in regard to DE&I work, it can provide a level of comfort in this environment,” Caleb says. “It helps the uncertainty to not be as complicated if employees feel like, ‘Wow, even despite everything with the economy right now, my organization is committed to this work.’ ”

And when employees—and candidates—believe a company is invested in them, it can secure long-term wins for the organization in the way of recruiting and retention, Caleb notes.

Staying the course on DE&I is also important given how many organizations have made significant strides on this front in the last few years—driven by the murder of George Floyd, civil unrest and the pandemic.

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“I do think more organizations than not stepped up and made commitments and did the work, and there are some that did too little, which is disappointing, and some that exceeded our wildest expectations,” Caleb says.

Some organizations over-committed and some haven’t figured out how to bring their pledges to advance DE&I to fruition, Caleb adds.

“What’s complicated is that people often have good intentions; they want to be able to do this work but often don’t know how to execute, they don’t have a guidebook or a playbook to help facilitate how to make it sustainable,” she says.

That can lead employers to rely on DE&I councils or committees—but without a single point person working on DE&I every day. And in cases where there is a lead, such as a chief DE&I officer, the role is often under-resourced.

“This isn’t new—the ups and downs of DE&I and the work to try to get it to stick within organizations,” Caleb says.

One way some organizations are finding to take their DE&I initiatives forward, even despite today’s financial challenges, is through the strategic use of technology.

In particular, Caleb says, when HR and DE&I leaders can more effectively use the data generated by tech—and intentionally work to guard against bias being promulgated by tech processes—they can realize DE&I progress.

“Whatever tools you decide to use, they need to be utilized appropriately. People are pulling data from these tech systems—and we all have biases we come to work with,” she says. “So, since people are the ones receiving this data and reviewing it, we need to be careful we’re managing the data appropriately. Because that’s how decisions about promotions, about who gets paid more, about performance management all get made.”

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