Black History Month: 3 Diversity Headwinds—and 3 Solutions

Everything from the economy to the Supreme Court might hinder DE&I efforts at firms this year. How leaders can respond. 

For decades, company leaders have been saying they want to make their organizations more inclusive and diverse. Those efforts became even more widespread in the wake of the George Floyd killing. Now, as the US celebrates Black History month, experts worry that there will be three headwinds that could make DEI efforts harder for leaders who aren’t diligent. 

No matter how leaders face these challenges, the steps they take will reverberate for years, says JT Saunders, Korn Ferry’s chief diversity officer. Generation Z, which has grown up believing that diverse, inclusive environments are essential, is just now entering the workforce. Employers whose DEI efforts falter risk damaging their reputations with this essential segment of the workforce, he says.

So, what are the headwinds leaders are facing? We examine each one—and offer solutions. 

The economy is slowing.

Almost everyone expects economic growth either to stall or go backwards in 2023. That could spell trouble for DEI programs—which often don’t have revenue goals associated with them—as well as impact the hiring of underrepresented groups. Many US technology companies have already embarked on rounds of restructuring and layoffs. 

Women and Latino workers represent 46.7% and 11.5%, respectively, of tech layoffs from September to December 2022—even as these groups make up 39.0% and 10.0%, respectively, of the entire industry, according to an analysis by Revelio Labs, Inc. Those layoffs have set back some of the major efforts tech firms have made to diversify their employee bases over the last few years. 

The onus is on senior leaders to keep DEI a priority even amid a business retrenchment, says Saunders. Creating and sustaining an inclusive culture is something that can be pursued independent of the macroeconomic environment. Make underrepresented groups feel appreciated and respected, he says. Reach out to existing Black, Latino, and other non-white employees and ask them what they need. Find leadership and stretch assignments for those with high potential in those groups. 

Affirmative Action may end.

The US Supreme Court appears ready to rule that race-conscious admissions programs—which have been the basis of affirmative action efforts at many universities across the country—are unconstitutional. For the last several decades, these initiatives have enabled organizations to use legal precedent to prioritize hiring of underrepresented groups.

While an official court ruling isn’t likely until June, the prospect of affirmative action programs being dismissed alarms many DEI practitioners. “Organizations, even more so than universities, may start to backslide,” Saunders says. Indeed, without a legal precedent, many executives may wonder why they are engaging in DEI efforts at all. 

To counter that argument, experts recommend leading with the data, which suggests that diverse, inclusive organizations make better decisions, build market share in new markets faster, and earn more money than their homogeneous counterparts. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 4.0, a report by the World Health Organization, says that companies with diverse employees may have “up to 20% higher rate of innovation and 19% higher innovation revenues.”

George Floyd’s murder was long ago.

After the 2020 police murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd and the mass protests that ensued, many organizations made commitments to support underrepresented groups by, among other things, hiring more Black workers and buying supplies from Black-owned businesses

But it’s 2023 now, an eternity in the business world, and at many organizations, priorities such as remote work, supply-chain snarls, inflation, and other issues likely are more top of mind. Plus, there’s evidence that many organizations haven’t even met the DEI commitments they made. 

To sustain the momentum of DEI programs, experts say leaders need to engage middle management. “Black talent has a tough time rising from individual contributor to manager. CEOs don’t make those decisions, middle management does,” says Saunders. Leaders must hold middle managers accountable for creating a more inclusive environment. And they must make those accountability measures permanent.

That doesn’t necessarily mean having hiring quotas, Saunders says. Rather, it means incentivizing managers to be more inclusive with regard to who they interview for jobs, consider for promotions, and assign to high-profile teams. Those efforts are ways to keep workers of all ethnicities, races, and backgrounds engaged. As Saunders says, “Engaged workers are less likely to quit.”