Trump Era Brings 'Wake-Up' Call for Diversity

Workplace rules might be loosened, but many firms will embrace inclusive values

By Steve Bates April 20, 2017
Trump Era Brings Wake-Up Call for Diversity

President Donald Trump's actions and words since taking office in January are providing "a wake-up call" for many diversity and inclusion (D&I) professionals.

Though Trump has vowed to deregulate businesses and rescind many of former President Barack Obama's executive orders—the Obama administration enacted rules encouraging diversity, such as protections for gay and transgender people working for the federal government—the president has not laid out a specific agenda to roll back worker protections. Nor has he specifically mentioned laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that prohibit discrimination against a job applicant or an employee based on sex, race, color, religion, national origin and several other attributes.

However, many D&I professionals say they are concerned about potential changes and the tone set during the presidential campaign, and are worried that some businesses might take advantage of relaxed regulations to scale back their diversity efforts. Their hope is that most employers will stay true to the inclusive values that their executives, employees and customers support. To help ensure that approach, they say they are communicating to employees that diversity and inclusion matter, and they are asking their top executives to reiterate to workers their commitment to inclusiveness.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: How to Build a Diversity Initiative from the Ground Up]

For many D&I professionals, "The sense of responsibility has grown in response to the political leadership. They're being called to action," said Jennifer Brown, a New York City-based diversity consultant to Fortune 500 corporations.

That action includes telling employees: "You are welcome here; you are valued here."

For Terri Hartwell Easter, principal of Washington, D.C.-based T.H. Easter Consulting, the big question is: "Will corporate America take up the leadership void?" She added: "In a lot of cases, it's too early to tell."

Some Americans interpreted Trump's campaign statements as being denigrating to women, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants and others.

"[Those campaign statements] gave license to some people's bias," observed Shirley Davis, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, speaker and diversity expert. As a result, "We [diversity experts] feel like our work has been taken to a whole new level. We're having to do extra work to recover from a lot of this darkness and divisiveness."

Stan Kimer, president of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer in the Raleigh Durham, N.C. area, expects regulatory changes that will loosen protections for workers. 

"There will be more wiggle room for employers to do the wrong thing. It will probably be harder for employees to bring lawsuits," Kimer said. He is also concerned about Trump's broader message.

"It might scare away needed talent," Kimer said, he referring to people coming from other countries to work in the U.S. In addition, "When employees are fearful, it makes them less productive."

Initiatives De-Emphasized, Put on Hold 

Glenn Llopis, an author, speaker and business consultant based in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., said he has been told by D&I leaders at several organizations that diversity initiatives are being de-emphasized or put on hold because of expected changes in Washington, D.C. Llopis acknowledged that, at least in the short term, some of the progress of recent years might be reversed.

However, Llopis said that the Trump administration's approach might be a good thing for D&I leaders—if it forces them to shift from a compliance mindset to a business mindset. Too many organizations equate diversity with protecting employees, said Llopis, who is Hispanic. While he supports recourse for discrimination and other unfair practices, he said businesses must use diversity and inclusion to drive growth and profits.

"The grand majority of organizations" are so focused on the compliance side that they do not focus on linking people with business goals, he said. Bringing in and promoting the best people—regardless of their background—is a necessity, Llopis said. "HR is the function that will be transformed the most in the next five years" as organizations shift their focus to growth.

Mark Babbitt, CEO of internship service YouTern, which is based near Denver, said that while companies are motivated by profits, they are also driven by demographics. For example, he said, a car dealer in the South has a different talent pool and a different customer base than a car dealer in Silicon Valley.

But Babbitt added that he can't imagine a national or global company deciding that it will turn back the clock and favor white men in hiring and promotions. Instead, a company's approach is more likely to be: "We're going to be who we are" and embrace the diversity of the workforce.

There's a practical reason for maintaining corporate values that center on diversity and inclusion, he said. They foster innovation and success. 

"Look at the countries that are doing well now," Babbitt said of the relative economic strength of some countries. "It's not because of protectionism and nationalism. Are we going to shut that door?"

Easter agreed that market forces will promote diversity and inclusion in the long run. The growth in minorities in the U.S. will continue to change the pool of available workers such that employers will have no choice but to hire and promote qualified minorities, Easter said.

"What happens in larger society," she said, "finds its way into businesses and board rooms."

In the meantime, "Companies need to double down and do more internal messaging" to assure diverse populations that they are welcome, Kimer said. "The message has to be crafted well" so that it does not sound like a political one.

Yet Davis said that some companies will have to explain to their global partners that "the president of the United States does not speak for every person."

It all comes down to leadership, Brown said. Employees want to hear what executives have to say in reaction to the president's words and actions.

"It's probably terrifying for a lot of leaders. They've never been so visible," she said. Brown is optimistic that most organizations will stick to their values and that D&I professionals will continue to play an essential role.

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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