Conservative group takes aim at DEI policies of 3 major airlines

Dive Brief:

  • In its latest challenge to corporate diversity, equity and inclusion practices, the conservative group America First Legal — a nonprofit led by former members of the Trump administration — filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission calling for investigations into the DEI initiatives of American, United and Southwest Airlines, the group announced in a Nov. 1 press release.
  • American Airlines “openly acknowledges — even touts — its racial, sexual and gender discrimination in its recruiting and hiring programs,” America First Legal alleged in a letter to the EEOC. The group pointed to the airline’s focus on “expanding [its] Cadet Academy to ensure prospective pilots, particularly people of color and women, have access to the support needed to enter the profession.” The letter also called out airline statements that it met “companywide diversity goals for any underrepresented positions,” including “Black representation and retention.”
  • Such practices violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because they are “based on the race or color of the individuals involved,” the group’s letter argued. It made similar arguments in complaints to the EEOC against Southwest and United, which it accused of using unlawful quota systems to further DEI goals. The group also sent letters to the airlines’ CEOs and boards of directors, “alerting” them to “management’s patent and overt violations of federal civil rights laws” — which, the letters warned, signal “possible waste of the Company’s assets and breaches of fiduciary duty.”

Dive Insight:

On Nov. 2, the day after it called for an EEOC inquiry into the airlines’ DEI practices, America First Legal filed a race and sex discrimination complaint with the agency against NASCAR and Rev Racing, according to its press release. The group focused on NASCAR’s past diversity mentoring and paid internship programs, which it alleged limited admission to women and specific racial/ethnic minority classifications.

These actions are the most recent in a string of complaints America First Legal filed with the EEOC, including a letter it sent to the agency last month alleging discrimination by Major League Baseball for running diversity programs it said exclusively provide opportunities for qualified minorities and female candidates. In October 2022, the group urged the EEOC to investigate Starbucks for running mentorship programs that allegedly discriminate against White and Asian employees.

The complaints underscore challenges employers face implementing DEI strategies, not the least of which is opposition, the CEO of a DEI consulting firm told attendees last week at a Society for Human Resource Management Inclusion conference.

The backlash isn’t just external. In a 2021 Gartner survey, 42% of employees said they resented their employers’ DEI efforts. And in a November 2022 online survey by and Pollfish, 52% of hiring managers who work for a company with a DEI initiative said they believed their company practices “reverse discrimination” in hiring; nearly half said they’ve been told to prioritize diversity over qualifications.

This makes the moment ripe for DEI professionals to adapt so their work continues to make a difference, the DEI consultant told SHRM attendees. He suggested several ways they can overcome potential opposition.

First, be willing to listen to what all employees have to say and show care for all, the consultant recommended. Also, anticipate obstruction and transition from a “blaming and shaming” approach to one that recognizes personal biases and considers others’ perspectives. The consultant said he learned from White men what it is about DEI that doesn’t work for them and incorporated some of that into his approach.

Complaints about DEI initiatives aren’t new, but they are likely to increase due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last June striking down race-based college admissions programs, attorneys Amber Rogers and Meredith Gregston noted in a September op-ed to HR Dive. America First Legal cited the ruling in its EEOC complaints against the airlines, asserting that “quotas and employment practices aimed to achieve such ‘balancing’ are strictly prohibited.”

Employees and others are also raising reverse discrimination allegations as a pushback to DEI initiatives they say discriminate against them because they are White.

In 2021, a federal jury awarded $10 million to a White male plaintiff who claimed he was fired because of his race and gender and replaced with two women to further the employer’s diversity initiative. A court later slashed the award to conform to Title VII’s cap on damages, but it found ample evidence to support the verdict.

To ensure fair policies regarding DEI, HR professionals need to make sure managers aren’t translating their objectives into comments or goals that can be taken as reverse discrimination, Stacie Haller, ResumeBuilder’s career expert, told HR Dive last year. Companies should also try to avoid financially incentivizing managers or leaders to meet related diversity goals, Rogers and Gregston cautioned.