The June 2023 ruling by the Supreme Court on Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard College and SFFA v. University of North Carolina made big news. The case took on affirmative action in college admissions. In short, the Court’s decision states that programs meant to build student body diversity, “however well-intentioned and implemented in good faith,” were essentially discriminatory. The ruling orders these learning institutions to “(do) away with all governmentally imposed discrimination based on race.”So what does a Supreme Court case about college admissions have to do with businesses and human resources? While there is no direct impact on corporate diversity training, some companies see the ruling as a sign—or an excuse—for scaling back or canceling their corporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs to avoid potential legal challenges. Some might even welcome the opportunity to do away with initiatives that have become cumbersome or just another box to check, especially when they want to trim the budget.
But this misses the broader point of diversity training in the workplace. There are many benefits of a culture of DEI—for employees, employers, and the business itself. There is value in choosing to build a diverse workplace, as long as it is done with everyone’s best interests in mind.
The fate of DEI after recent
Charlotte A. Burrows, Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission points out that the recent ruling “does not address employer efforts to foster diverse and inclusive workforces or to engage the talents of all qualified workers, regardless of their background. It remains lawful for employers to implement diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility programs to ensure workers of all backgrounds are afforded equal opportunity in the workplace.”
In other words, it is legal for companies to continue doing what they are doing, provided they are not discriminating. One problem that the Court had with college admissions is that their decisions are zero-sum, meaning that if a black or Latino student were accepted, it meant that potentially a white student was turned away. By contrast, most companies can add multiple qualified candidates to their roster. If there is only one position available and two candidates are equally qualified, the company can not make the decision based on race—or gender, religion, marital status, or any other differentiating characteristic.
Setting and working toward DEI goals and encouraging awareness in their workforce is not prohibited either. These efforts can include things like:
- Unconscious bias training
- Removing bias from hiring and promotion decisions
- Reaching out to diverse candidates from colleges and underserved communities
- Including diverse suppliers and vendors in requests for proposals (RFPs)
- Establishing mentoring for the retention of diverse employees
- Flexible work options or accommodations that may benefit certain groups (for example single parents, those with disabilities, LGBTQ+, etc.)
In light of the ruling, however, it is a good idea for businesses to reassess their programs to make sure they are fair and not discriminatory.
Why a diverse workplace still matters
Not only can companies keep their DEI programs, but there are plenty of reasons why they should want to:
- Widening the net to include all walks of life helps companies attract and retain the best talent.
- Bringing people together from diverse backgrounds and varied perspectives increases creativity, innovation, and productivity.
- Improving cultural awareness opens communication, empathy, and trust.
- Creating a culture of acceptance fosters team relationships, engagement, and conflict resolution.
- Having a diverse workforce is a source of greater job satisfaction and enhanced personal and professional development.
- Embracing diversity gives companies a positive reputation with shareholders, customers, suppliers, and the general public.
Simply put, a diverse workplace is viewed as a positive thing, and the concept has become mainstream. Likewise, diversity programs have been seen as worthwhile and a good investment. Case in point: In 2021, Nasdaq proposed that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission mandate board diversity and disclosure, and the SEC approved the rule. By July 2022, the DEI efforts were becoming mainstream, with every Fortune 100 company making a public commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Regardless of whether diversity training is mandated or voluntary, business owners have to instate policies that further the long-term value of their companies. And the ability of a diverse workforce to provide diverse perspectives, better decision-making, and good business outcomes does just that.
Overcoming DEI fatigue and resistance
While the Supreme Court’s ruling is for colleges, some opponents of affirmative action feel that corporate DEI programs are both unpopular and unlawful. They predict future litigation if businesses don’t stop them entirely.
Aside from potential legal fights similar to the SFFA cases, resistance to diversity training, sometimes called DEI fatigue, is something many companies have grappled with for years. Detractors might see it as “virtue signaling” or at the very least, a waste of time. While employers should review their programs to ensure they are not crossing a line (for example, making sure policies are not based on quotas), they need to also convey to the workforce that a corporate culture of inclusion is worthwhile for all.
The following practices can help overcome defensiveness and backlash to DEI programs:
- Find measurable ways to track the benefits of a diverse workforce. For example, the company may gain new customers (and revenue) if they can identify with the staff.
- Encourage feedback on DEI initiatives to make sure the programs are in alignment with employees’ goals and values.
- Keep hiring and promoting decisions separate from candidates’ race/sex/identity.
- Build diversity from the top down by having executives lead by example.
It may not be possible to eliminate all pushback to DEI programs, but creating them mindfully will help. The goal should be to encourage everyone to seek a deeper understanding of their coworkers, not necessarily change their minds.
The future of diversity training
One positive outcome of the SFFA case for businesses is that it encourages them to take a closer look at their approach to diversity. Having a program just because they feel they should is not likely to have much of an impact. Companies will perhaps feel free to customize their DEI programs to fit their needs, rather than to meet some arbitrary standard.
A diversity initiative that incorporates microlearning is ideal for a company adjusting from a one-size-fits-all program to something that’s customized. Leaders can pick and choose the diversity training lessons that will most benefit their organization and meet their employees wherever they are in their understanding of DEI.
The bottom line is that a diverse workplace is—and always will be—beneficial to employees, managers, and the company as a whole. While laws and court rulings might change the legal aspect of DEI in the workplace, there will always be a place for training that encourages people to work together despite their differences.