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After positive discrimination, new target of conservative activists: the corporate DEI : NPR

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Companies’ DEI programs have suffered setbacks in an uncertain economy and now under political pressure from the right.

Adrienne Bresnahan


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Adrienne Bresnahan


Companies’ DEI programs have suffered setbacks in an uncertain economy and now under political pressure from the right.

Adrienne Bresnahan

Just three years after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a torrent of hiring of diversity officers and other similar roles, companies are under attack from conservative legal activists who argue their DEI policies and programs are a racial discrimination.

The challenges come as companies, facing an uncertain economy, have already laid off large numbers of people, many of whom were only recently hired to implement their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies ).

The one-two punch has divided legal experts on what lies ahead for these efforts, while longtime diversity advocates argue that companies should view these setbacks as an opportunity to reset.

“We can’t place reasoning on something as subjective as the right thing to do. It has to be the smart thing to do,” says Janet Stovall, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion for the NeuroLeadership Institute, a consulting firm. focused on culture and leadership.

An increase in hiring, followed by dramatic cuts

In the DEI corporate world, the story of Catalina Colman is a familiar one.

In 2020, she was working at a small tech company as a human resources generalist, handling tasks such as employee onboarding and exiting.

She had already thought about how to help the company grow in a more diverse and equitable way, when in May of that year George Floyd was murdered. Suddenly, everything accelerated.

A protester holds up a portrait of George Floyd during a Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn, New York on June 5, 2020. After Floyd’s murder, businesses rushed to respond to the moment, creating posts to address diversity , equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images


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Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images


A protester holds up a portrait of George Floyd during a Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn, New York on June 5, 2020. After Floyd’s murder, businesses rushed to respond to the moment, creating posts to address diversity , equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

“We recognized that we just had to move quickly and we had to start implementing things quickly,” Colman says.

The racial reckoning unfolding across the country has sparked demands for change. Companies rushed to react at the time. According to job site Indeed, job postings with DEI in the title jumped 92% from July 2020 to July 2021.

But the deceleration also came quickly. Economic pressures led companies to pull out, cutting DEI jobs, including Colman’s, as well as other HR positions. Since last July, Indeed has seen DEI job openings drop 38%.

And then in June, in another blow to diversity advocates, the Supreme Court rejected the use of race-conscious admissions in higher education, triggering predictions that corporate diversity policies will soon meet the same fate.

Next Step Predictions for Enterprise DEI

To be clear, the court’s decision applies to affirmative action at colleges and universities, not employers’ efforts to foster diversity in the workplace.

In a statement released after the ruling, Charlotte Burrows, Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, wrote: “It remains legal for employers to implement diversity, equity, of inclusion and accessibility that seek to ensure that workers from all backgrounds have equal opportunities in the workplace.”

But in a Bloomberg opinion piece, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman cited Judge Neil Gorsuch’s concurring opinion, in which “he made it clear that in his view the court’s rule that an educational institution “can never discriminate on the basis of race” now applies with equal force to employers.”

Feldman told NPR the writing was on the wall.

“There is a high probability, a very high probability, that a majority of this current Supreme Court will say the exact same thing,” he said in an interview last month.

But other lawyers say such assumptions are premature. Bonnie Levine, founder of law firm Verse Legal, points out that a day after the affirmative action ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that a Christian marriage website designer could refuse to work with same-sex couples. .

“The Supreme Court was very clear that it didn’t want to infringe on the rights of private parties,” Levine said.

Be that as it may, conservative activists are already waging a new fight.

In early August, Edward Blum, the strategist behind affirmative action, filed a lawsuit against venture capital group Fearless Fund over grants it gives to black women entrepreneurs. Blum argues that the program amounts to “express and intentional racial discrimination in entering into contracts,” according to the lawsuit.

Edward Blum, a longtime opponent of affirmative action in higher education, leaves the United States Supreme Court after oral arguments October 31, 2022 in Washington, D.C. In August, Blum’s group sued a fund of venture capitalist, alleging that the grants it gives to black women entrepreneurs violate anti-discrimination laws.

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Edward Blum, a longtime opponent of affirmative action in higher education, leaves the United States Supreme Court after oral arguments October 31, 2022 in Washington, D.C. In August, Blum’s group sued a fund of venture capitalist, alleging that the grants it gives to black women entrepreneurs violate anti-discrimination laws.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former Trump adviser Stephen Miller has also been busy, asking the EEOC to investigate hiring practices aimed at increasing minority representation at a long list of companies, including Kellogg’s, Hershey’s and Alaska. Airlines.

“They bring these cases to lay down the law. That’s why they bring them,” Levine says.

A time to exit or double

Even before this year, corporate diversity, equity and inclusion efforts have come under heavy criticism, including for being costly, performative, and even divisive themselves.

In companies where DEI has never been a priority, this can be a time to step out.

“It makes sense that you don’t want to just jump into something that’s going to be more complicated if you don’t feel you have to,” says consultant Stovall.

But for customers who are in it for the long haul, Stovall doubles down on the advice it has always given: Focus on the purpose. Make a business case for bringing in a diversity of backgrounds and experiences.

“Each organization basically has only three goals: to make money, to save money, to achieve a vision,” she says. “If you can tie DEI directly to any of these goals, it becomes a little harder, even for those who want to destroy it, to argue that they should.”

For Catalina Colman, trying to find another DEI job after her layoff in April was daunting. The positions she applied for were eliminated midway through the interview process.

This summer, she decided to launch herself as an independent consultant. It bets on companies that want to continue the work they started, recognizing a business imperative.

“Consumers, users will always – ultimately – want diversity to be a key pillar for an organization,” she says.

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