Navigating the DEIB fallout after the ‘fall’ of affirmative action

Here’s how to respond to the unwanted scope creep of the Supreme Court decision.

Just days after The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina effectively ended affirmative action in higher education institutions, conservative activists took direct legal action against corporations and 13 Republican state attorneys general addressed a warning letter to Fortune 100 CEOs. 

Many talent leaders find themselves caught in the middle of this political firestorm, with in-house legal teams urging caution. Yet, hiring managers and prospective employees increasingly expect DEIB to be at the center of an organization’s talent strategy. If you are one of these talent leaders, you might feel at a loss: How can you protect the company’s interests while still honoring the dignity and fulfilling the expectations of your employees? 

Define your non-negotiables

To start, you must know what you are willing to fight for and why. Not only that, if you have been living in a corporate culture that broadly supports DEIB but has not yet developed an Equity Action Plan, now is the time to draw some lines. Nothing spells the end of an initiative like external pressures on poorly defined boundaries. With your executive team, answer these questions:

  1. How do we define diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging? 
  2. What does DEIB have to do with our business? Relatedly, what DEIB commitments will we make and keep to our employees? And, what will we ask of them? 
  3. What tangible actions will we commit to, not only as pilots, but over a clearly defined period longer than 12 months?

If you have a gestating idea around a mentorship program for employees of color that has received some vague nods of approval without firm backing behind it, now is the time to reevaluate. Your non-negotiable goals must be the ones that your employees have already named as most impactful and that you know you have the resources to execute. Remember, your mission is getting important things done for your people, not generating as much activity as possible. 

Prepare your talking points 

Once you know what you will not compromise on or abandon, even if faced with pressures (external or internal), it’s time to develop your talking points about your non-negotiables. These should be short, easy-to-understand, and most importantly, memorable enough that every leader in your organization can repeat them at a moment’s notice. 

To develop these talking points, consider what the opposition is saying or could say in the future. 

For example, let’s say you’re preparing to launch that mentorship program for employees of color. Opponents of the program might say that a mentoring program that includes only certain groups is discriminatory, not to mention in opposition to the Supreme Court decision. Apart from the obvious response, which is that the Supreme Court decision is limited to higher education admissions, you might consider a few additional rebuttals, which will become talking points.

  1. This mentorship program is one of many we offer. All employees at our organization have access to mentorship resources. 
  2. This program is meant to address a group of people with less opportunities with individualized attention, but other resources exist for employees. 
  3. Employees who can prove some other kind of historical barrier to growth and achievement can make a case for themselves, which can be reviewed by an objective third party.

Broadcast inclusion

While the terms “diversity” and “equity” are becoming increasingly politicized, belonging and inclusion are not. Go out of your way to showcase all the ways you support employees. When you announce your identity-focused mentoring program, make sure to name all the other mentoring programs or resources you offer, too. 

Data is also important. Being able to demonstrate how employees from underrepresented or underserved groups aren’t being included supports efforts to give all employees “a fair shot.” In one of our client organizations, their incoming cohort of new grad recruits generally align with the demographics of their agency headquarters. However, longitudinal data shows that for BIPOC employees, the rates of attrition are higher and those of promotion are lower than their white counterparts despite comparable performance ratings, which are recorded in a centralized system. Keeping and growing the employees you have, especially proven higher performers, by investing in their mentorship is a compelling case for your initiatives. 

As a DEIB practitioner for the better part of my career, I can attest to the fact that the resistance we’re seeing after the SCOTUS ruling has just made the implicit, hidden resistance come to the fore. While many in my field expect the anti-DEIB sentiment to spike around the election, and then settle into a less charged discussion, it’s worth noting that this kind of preparation is a best practice. This is far from the last time talent leaders will find themselves facing opposition to DEIB policies and practices. Best develop the skills now.