Texas governor Greg Abbott’s chief of staff recently issued a memo attacking diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the workplace (and offices that support them) as problematic and discriminatory against unnamed groups. This was on the back of Florida’s efforts, blocked for now, to quash DEI workplace training programs, and moves by Florida governor Ron DeSantis to eliminate DEI-themed programs and workplace commitments from the state’s education system.
And now, disingenuous arguments are proliferating that DEI is somehow to blame for business failures such as the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, or the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (even though DEI commitments are in place across the Fortune 500, which is generally doing just fine).
Layered on those and related efforts, the US Supreme Court will soon decide whether diversity-related considerations in university admissions are permissible. Prevailing thinking is that the court’s answer to this will be some version of “no.” We can expect language in such an opinion to broadly question the value of DEI-related factors and thinking. (As justice Clarence Thomas said while hearing arguments, “I’ve heard the word diversity quite a few times…and I don’t have a clue what it means.”) And then we can expect the language of the court’s decision to be shoe-horned into other contexts, like the workplace.
What does this mean for leaders who remain committed to DEI efforts, which, by their nature, take ongoing and sustained focus to achieve impact?
First, starting now, organizations should look for every opportunity to reaffirm, especially to employees and in external messaging, the values underlying their DEI commitments. They should explain why their commitments actually advance their organizations’ stated values, and evangelize how the combination of values and commitments actually benefits employees, customers, or other key stakeholders.
It’s not enough to just shrug off “I don’t know what diversity means” statements; directly taking on or anticipating a professed lack of understanding, whether among policy makers or workplace colleagues, provides preemptive context and understanding for those who would too quickly dismiss valuable efforts that advance core values and the dignity of workers.
Second, organizations should actively reject false framing about what DEI commitments actually do. Follow the example of a local legal expert in Texas, who pushed back on attacks against DEI by noting: “Anti-discrimination laws protect all Americans by ensuring that employers do not make hiring decisions based on race, religion, or gender, while DEI initiatives work in tandem with those laws to encourage companies to solicit applications from a wide range of applicants, which is legal and beneficial.”
Expanding the pool of qualified job candidates is good for any organization and promotes equal employment opportunity, rather than taking anything away from anyone or subordinating candidate merit. Reiterate this as often as necessary.
In politicizing organizational DEI commitments, DeSantis and others seem to forget that diversity and inclusion are simply part of the values or missions that many universities (and companies and other organizations) have long built into their operating models as a matter of purpose. So, there is nothing momentous about expecting goals to be built around such things and for leaders to be asked, essentially, as they were in Florida, how they will advance those goals.
Unless… Unless, one wants to cancel the underlying commitments and values. While that may be the point here, potentially aided by what the Supreme Court ultimately says about diversity, it is on each organization that has made DEI commitments—often rightly ratcheted up in recent years in the face of divisive rhetoric, violence, and community harm—to double-down on what they have said they believe to be true.
As University of Virginia professor Laura Morgan Roberts has written, “If businesses truly stand behind their statements that Black Lives Matter, they will need moral conviction to stay the course of transforming workspaces into more humane, liberatory environments that celebrate racial differences and recognize the brilliance and talents of all people.”
It is precisely when values are under strain—whether from economic or political or other pressures—that purpose-led organizations need to not only rely on, but affirmatively shore up, their commitments and their cultural DNA.
In the end, this builds trust with employees and prospective employees, who increasingly care about matters of inclusion. Why? Because it shows them that core values are firmly rooted and don’t quickly yield to such pressures, particularly when the pressures either derive from misunderstanding about what the commitments actually are or are rooted in divisive narratives that put under-represented or vulnerable groups at even greater risk.
Jeffrey Siminoff is senior vice president of the Workplace Dignity program at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, which equips organizations with resources to foster more just, inclusive, and equitable workplaces.