top of page

DEI & Affirmative Action: The Differences of Impact


Marilyn Nagel | Co-Founder & Chief Advocacy Officer, RISEQUITY

Lady Justice white statue holding sword pointing down and scale with background of blue sky.

The recent US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruling on Affirmative Action and some political rhetoric mischaracterizing DEI work in corporations raises questions for many companies.

First, let's clarify that good corporate DEI is not an Affirmative Action program. Then we can discuss how companies can ensure they have the right strategy to recruit, retain, develop, and leverage diverse populations, considering the unique issues that affect the DEI community.

In this ruling, SCOTUS determined that the use of race as a factor in undergraduate admissions was unconstitutional. The move has presented a new legal test for colleges and universities trying to achieve diverse student bodies. Unfortunately, it also reignited the political debate around Affirmative Action and DEI in general in the corporate world.

To clarify, Affirmative Action or AA is a policy of the US Government intended to increase racial diversity and equity in institutions such as universities and government agencies. It was created to combat discrimination against minority groups, particularly Blacks and Latino/a individuals. There are ways schools can address the ramifications of this ruling, but the focus of this blog is on corporate DEI.

"DEI is not just a proxy for fairness; it is about building better companies by maximizing the potential in everyone and minimizing employee attrition through more inclusive cultures."

Unlike AA, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is the conscious and deliberate design, development, and management of an inclusive culture for the benefit of all employees and, most importantly, the benefit of the company. It is critical to the economic and social well-being of companies, workplaces, and communities. DEI is not just a proxy for fairness; it is about building better companies by maximizing the potential in everyone and minimizing employee attrition through more inclusive cultures.

Multiple studies have proven that diverse talent helps companies understand and deliver on customers' needs. In addition, diverse workplaces create a culture of innovation and help drive the company toward goals through collaborative methods. The best teams include people with diverse skills and backgrounds, and research consistently shows that diverse teams make better decisions. Successful companies understand the business value of developing all employees by growing talent at every level of an organization to fulfill its mission while aligning with its values.

Confusion arises when companies share diversity goals/targets with a focus on talent acquisition (TA). While still not AA, this is a short-sighted in many ways: numeric goals for TA can drive bad behavior on the part of a hiring manager who, in order to meet a goal, may hire someone less qualified and doesn't put support mechanisms in place to ensure success. This is bad for the new hire who is labeled a "diverse hire" and bad for the overall culture giving the impression that underrepresented candidates are not qualified or cannot succeed at the company. Hiring targets are neither advisable nor beneficial. Many companies are now rethinking and removing educational requirements that are tied to socioeconomic factors but may not impact on the job success, improving socioeconomic diversity in the process. And innovative companies are finding other ways to attract, develop, and retain the best and brightest from all backgrounds without imposing representation targets.

The purpose of adding diversity on a team is to increase the overall quality by adding new perspectives, new points of view and ensuring the team avoids groupthink; it is the opposite of sacrificing quality. Developing existing talent and casting a wider net for qualified candidates that bring skills and new thinking are great DEI strategies, showcasing the diversity of a company's high-performing workforce – these all add value. Organizations can work toward being diverse in multiple ways, with the most significant impact realized when a diverse leadership team incorporates DEI into the rhythm of the business.

These shifts in the way we look at DEI strategies might take longer, and leaders need patience to see cultural change. As in any business process, we want to measure the effectiveness of all DEI initiatives. However they are KPIs, not quotas, to be met. DEI is not AA and should not take on its characteristics (we also do not teach critical race theory in our courses on inclusive leadership or removing bias from decision-making – another myth to be cleared up in another blog).

A company's DEI strategy must focus on Inclusion and Equity, not simply be a Diversity numbers initiative. It must ensure that everyone has opportunities to work towards their full potential, that leaders create an inclusive culture, and are representative of the whole organization and reflective of clients and customers.

In our current climate of reductions in force, agility, and globalization requires holistic strategies that clearly connect how DEI advances your business goals.

Please join the conversation and share the innovative strategies your company has put in place to increase diversity and inclusion other than targets, quotas, or numerical goals on representation.

117 views0 comments


bottom of page