Employers express worry that SCOTUS affirmative action ruling will hinder DEI

About 86% of companies that participated in Coqual’s Black Equity Index voiced concerns about the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling — and the implications for workplaces, according to a new report from Coqual, a global think tank.

Compared with last year, according to the report, companies’ public involvement in diversity, equity and inclusion has declined due to public and legal scrutiny. In addition, some companies are shrinking their investment in DEI.

However, more companies participated in this year’s Black Equity Index, Coqual said, which is a benchmarking tool created for companies to track progress, promote change and show commitment to racial equity in the workplace. 

“Despite the recent attacks on DE&I initiatives nationwide, companies have maintained ongoing efforts to improve equity in the workplace,” Lanaya Irvin, CEO of Coqual, said in a statement.

“Participating companies are committed to driving racial equity, transparency and are dedicated to making meaningful strides in the workplace,” she said.

In a survey of 43 companies across various industries, fewer than 2 in 5 companies had 10% or greater Black representation in their workforce. In addition, only 7% of people managers and 3% of executive roles featured Black workers.

In general, Black professionals were more likely to be represented in HR and support roles, the survey found. On average, 13% of support professionals and 12% of HR employees were Black.

At the board of directors level, half of the participating companies had more than 10% Black representation. At the same time, 13% of companies didn’t have a Black board member.

When it comes to accountability around DEI efforts, Coqual emphasized the necessity of transparency. About 67% of participating companies said they include a DEI-related focus in their C-suite performance evaluations. About 58% consider workforce diversity in performance evaluations, and 44% tie C-suite pay to progress on diversity metrics.

Beyond that, Coqual looked at commitment to and investment in DEI initiatives. About 81% of respondents said they have an organization-wide DEI task force, council or working group that is separate from their DEI team. Among the companies that provide anti-bias training, 55% mandate it for senior leaders.

“Coqual’s 2023 BEI results indicate great progress, as well as great opportunity for increased investment,” according to the report. “This is not the time to slow down.”

To stay on top of these goals, HR professionals could be asked to reinvent DEI initiatives in 2024, according to a recent HR panel discussion hosted by the Florida Bar. For instance, some programs are “shifting to supporting acceptance of uniqueness and focusing on commonalities for a sense of belonging,” one expert said.

Since the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling in July, experts have warned about a chilling effect on corporate DEI efforts. Employers should expect ongoing scrutiny next year and assess their current policies for necessary updates, sources said.

For instance, conservative nonprofit America First Legal has filed numerous complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, calling for investigations into the DEI initiatives at American, United and Southwest Airlines, as well as Starbucks, NASCAR and Major League Baseball. In response, leaders and workers involved with DEI efforts will need to adapt their efforts to continue to make a difference, experts said at a Society for Human Resource Management Inclusion conference.