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Some Companies Play Down DEI Initiatives in Response to Backlash; Others Extend Them

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Jan 22, 2024


Recent challenges to corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs have caused human resources professionals to keep such efforts “under the radar,” The New York Times reported.

“When the economy is booming and when the politics are amenable, we see a lot of growth in diversity programming,” Frank Dobbin, an expert on DEI at Harvard and author of the 2022 book “Getting to Diversity,” told the Times. “When there’s either a change in the political winds—which is what’s happening now—or a recession, we’ve seen cutbacks.”

Some companies have considered moving away from more high-profile initiatives, such as mandatory anti-bias trainings, opting instead to convene diversity task forces that bring together leaders from different corporate departments, according to the Times.

“If companies lighten up on things that are ineffective, that could be a good outcome,” Dobbin told the Times, noting that mandatory anti-bias trainings have been shown to sometimes even worsen bias. “But I do worry that the baby will go out with the bath water.”

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down race-conscious college admissions in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College, and despite threatened litigation as a result of the decision, few companies seem to have cut back their programs. Three-quarters of employers polled by employment law firm Littler Mendelson P.C.  said they had not changed their approach to DEI because of the ruling last year, and only 1 percent reported a significant decrease in their efforts, according to a survey released this month, the Times reported.

Instead, some are increasing their DEI efforts, according to the Times. One, Crystal Castille-Cromedy, who leads DEI strategy for real estate company Hines, has overseen a number of diversity efforts, including the creation of a mentoring program for underrepresented groups in real estate.

Other groups are responding to the high court’s decision by launching legal action. The American Alliance for Equal Rights, a conservative nonprofit organization devoted to challenging race-based policies, sued law firms Perkins Coie, Morrison Foerster, and Winston & Strawn over their diversity fellowship programs, arguing that these programs discriminate against white and Asian applicants.

“These lawsuits have sent a powerful message to corporate America: The law firms upon which you turn to for legal advice concerning DEI are themselves violating the law,” said the organization’s founder, Edward Blum. Those firms have all since opened their diversity fellowships to applicants of all races and backgrounds, and the group dropped the suits.

Other prominent business leaders, such as billionaire financier Bill Ackman, have recently criticized diversity programs. But many executives still argue that their efforts to recruit diverse employees contribute to company performance. One of them is Armughan Ahmad, the chief executive of Appen, an artificial intelligence (AI) company. A diverse talent pool allows the company to build products that are trained on diverse users, helping to prevent racial bias in AI algorithms, he told the Times.

Kenji Yoshino, the director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU School of Law, told the Times that that some DEI critics have a limited view of what the programs are. Many corporate diversity programs extend beyond hiring processes to touch on mentoring, training and career development, he said.

“The pessimists say, ‘This is a terrible moment for DEI, DEI is over, the sky is falling,” he said. “I want to ask people what they think DEI actually is.”