Affirmative Action… Supreme Court’s Action

Experts debate how much—or how little—the justices’ ruling on affirmative action could alter three years of diversity efforts.

Ever since the Supreme Court put the case on its docket, millions with an interest in diversity have been waiting for the justices’ ruling in a big affirmative-action case involving colleges and universities. And that includes a lot of DE&I pros in the business world.

The court was asked whether the admissions offices of Harvard and the University of North Carolina should continue to hold spaces for underrepresented groups. The court’s answer, in a 6-3 decision: No.

It’s a ruling that private organizations aren’t obligated to follow, but experts say they might take cues from it and potentially strike a blow to diversity hiring and promoting. “I don’t think it’ll roll anything back, but I do wonder, for those that have not acted affirmatively, whether it might take a little pressure off,” says Juan Pablo Gonz⁠ález, sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Professional Services practice.

The case comes at a tough time for DE&I efforts, which have fallen off after a surge following the George Floyd murder in 2020. According to a survey of more than 1,000 firms, leadership support for DEI initiatives has declined by 18% in two years. Today, one-fifth of companies offer no diversity programming. But some DE&I pros say the court's striking down of affirmative action might not be as harmful for the corporate world as it might seem.

“The need for diversity won’t necessarily go away, even if hiring mandates do,” says Flo Falayi, a Korn Ferry associate client partner specializing in diversity, equity, and inclusion. “The mandates here are training wheels. At some point you have to take them off.” Instead of relying on mandates, leaders should communicate how diversity will help the business, says Falayi. “You have to weave diversity and inclusiveness into the fabric of the business itself for it to take root.”

Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity and inclusion, says that the real issue for companies today—more than hiring—should be prioritizing development and retention of underrepresented groups. That would bolster representation in the higher ranks. “Affirmative action is an old battle. Let’s move to an area where we’re losing—advancement and retention,” Tapia says.

Some of the decline in DE&I support has been caused by a tough economy, which shifted many firms’ focus. Support has also fallen because ESG has become a controversial term in some parts of the country. The Supreme Court's ruling might deprioritize these programs even further. 

Experts say that the court’s decision will almost certainly lead more employees to ask about their company’s own hiring policies, says Maria Amato, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who works with human-resources executives. “Few topics are less understood than affirmative action. I doubt the ruling will increase clarity,” she says.

Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion capabilities.