In June, the Supreme Court sent shockwaves through college admissions offices when it ruled to terminate race-based affirmative action in higher education. University presidents worried that the decision would lead to lower enrollment of Black, Latino, and Indigenous applicants. Prestigious campuses, advocates fear, will become whiter and wealthier.
In boardrooms across the country, companies sat with another speculative question: Is the workplace next?
The court’s ruling does not apply to employers or workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives — many of which only rolled out in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. But a swath of companies took the federal decision as an encouragement to quietly back off their DEI promises, a recent report shows. And a legal assault is underway, too, as conservative organizations launch challenges to eradicate race-based preferences in corporate America.
Despite this moment of unprecedented hostility, choice employers are rising above the discourse. Many remain unwilling to reverse their equity efforts, or have even defiantly expanded their agendas since the ruling came down. Their message is clear: The fight for a fairer workplace is not a trend that will disappear with time, says Christie Lindor, founder of Tessi Consulting, a Boston-based consulting firm. The DEI movement is here to stay.
“This year has been a reflection point for many companies on their DEI journey,” Lindor adds. “During the pandemic, organizations became more declarative about centering the work around marginalized communities, specifically women and people of color. What comes next is a reflection of who they are.”
Take Wayside Youth & Family Support Network. The Framingham-based social services organization launched its DEI program in 2016 amidst an uptick in hate crimes and violent rhetoric. Donald Trump’s election and the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally, for example, were taking a mental toll on the staff. Something needed to be done, recalls chief diversity officer Guimel DeCarvalho.
Wayside created a plan with action items for its 20-some locations across Eastern Massachusetts. Within two years, the company had addressed 57 lower-hanging agenda items. A flurry of successes followed: Wayside launched multiple affinity groups for employees; added gender-neutral pronouns to the employee handbook; introduced new ways to measure bias in the office; created an annual DEI employee survey; and rolled out educational benefits for staff members, among other initiatives. The improvements also extended to clients, who finally saw their demographic information embedded in health records — a key step, DeCarvalho says, to narrowing the racial disparities in the field.
After the rollout, company culture improved quickly. Turnover among staff of color dropped 10 percent by 2017. By last year, Wayside had a majority-minority staff. Today, the proportion of staff of color is equal to the proportion of clients of color.
Regardless of the affirmative action ruling, now is not the time to step away from the work of inclusivity, DeCarvalho says. Instead, Wayside is renewing its focus on protecting LGBTQIA employees amid the wave of anti-transgender legislation. That means solidifying the process for staff who are transitioning and ensuring managers ask for preferred names and pronouns when onboarding new hires.
“We win contracts over other organizations because of our equity work, and our employees are happier. It’s a win-win,” DeCarvalho says. “Our approach now is that we are not going to overreact and proactively limit ourselves from doing what we know is the right thing to do for our people, and for our business.”
Not everyone agrees. A recent report from research firm DDI found that the number of organizations with DEI programs worldwide has dropped from 20 percent to 15 percent since 2020. Over the past two years, there has been an 18 percent decrease in leaders endorsing their organizations’ DEI efforts nationwide. The disinvestment often starts at the top, such as with the exodus of high-profile diversity executives at companies including Netflix, Disney, and Warner Bros. Discovery.
Fadia Nordtveit, a DEI consultant and Springfield College professor, says companies’ commitment to inclusion is often tied to when they started paying attention.
Employers who launched DEI programs in 2020 were forming a “reactive, rather than proactive, agenda” during a time of turmoil, she says, and are more likely to change course when it becomes inconvenient or potentially litigious.
Nordtveit encourages companies to integrate inclusion initiatives into the foundations of their structure, making them permanent. In the business model framework she designed, brands must also decide their “anti pillars,” values the company will never comply with, do, or represent. Without those, she says, this is a moment of mayhem. “We are in a real acid test that will show companies are in this for the right reasons, and for the long haul.”
But looking at the long haul is easy when little has to change, says Ciara Gogan, the senior manager of DEIB (B for “belonging”) at CarGurus. The Cambridge tech company — widely known for selling cars online — focused intentionally on diversity in 2019 and never looked back. Some of its offerings are small: access to professional counseling, a free gym membership, and the option to work remotely over half the time. Other larger practices may catch the eye of the anti-DEI crowd, but are continuing nonetheless. Think gender-affirming and infertility care, partnerships with minority-owned businesses, and efforts to hire from traditionally marginalized groups. This year, CarGurus launched a pilot hiring program that aims to reduce bias in the interviewing process within the sales and engineering departments. In January, it will expand to the entire company.
“We keep a pulse on what’s happening politically and how we as an organization do on DEI,” Gogan says. “We’re thinking, Does this [Supreme Court] ruling mean anything? Does it change anything? But right now, I don’t feel like something needs to happen internally.”
Simon Lusty, chief marketing officer of Boston-based staffing firm Aquent, says that ongoing commitment to diversity is key to keeping employees. In this political climate, people have faith in leaders who make their intentions clear and their message consistent. “DEI is not a now-and-then-never-again type of affair,” Lusty says. “It requires dedicated resources over a long period of time. That includes this precarious, and sometimes explosive, time.”
Ultragenyx watched the impact of that advice firsthand. The biotechnology company, which has a Somerville location, has long threaded inclusive practices into its hiring process by finding diverse applicants and ensuring they are judged on qualifications, rather than by race or gender, says DEIB director Kenyatta Parker. Ultragenyx then focuses equally on fostering an inviting atmosphere after an interviewee levels up to an employee.
Nearly 80 percent of Ultragenyx employees now identify as being from a diverse background, and 90 percent of those surveyed recently said their managers supported and represented the company’s DEI initiatives. Without that support, the company would lose out, Parker says.
“It’s so essential that the message that we care is getting to employees,” he adds. “What good is it if we roll back on our dedication right now? We are doing the work that we have been doing.”
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