A new executive order from President Joe Biden will require federal agencies to find ways to make their services more accessible to underserved communities—including in the workplace.
Biden issued the executive order, "Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government," in February, mandating government agencies to create "equity teams" to address the barriers underserved communities face in accessing agencies' policies, programs and activities.
"This executive order fosters greater collaboration and accountability, and streamlines agencies' reporting of progress and planning in order to advance equity in support of all those who face overlapping discrimination and bias," the White House said in a statement.
Per the executive order:
- Each equity team is tasked with supporting continued equity training and equity leadership development for staff across all levels of the agency's workforce.
- Each agency must appoint a senior official for each equity team to implement the Biden administration's equity initiatives.
- Government agencies must set up equity teams within 30 days of the order.
- A White House Steering Committee on Equity will also be created to coordinate efforts and oversee the agencies' activities.
The action is intended to build upon Executive Order 13985, which Biden issued in January 2021, mandating that all federal agencies revise their policies to account for racial inequities in their implementation.
'Smart, Strategic and Necessary'
Dee C. Marshall, CEO of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) consulting firm Diverse & Engaged in New York City, called the executive order "smart, strategic and necessary."
"It sends a message that racial equity is still a priority for the highest office in the land," she said. "While the commercial, enterprise or private sectors may be scaling back on racial equity, diversity and inclusion, [the Biden administration is] doubling down on racial equity."
As Marshall noted, DE&I programs, particularly those in the technology industry, have taken a hit in the wake of mass layoffs in recent months. Some DE&I departments have been almost entirely gutted, according to a recent Bloomberg report.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the "Stop WOKE Act" into law in April 2022, preventing schools and businesses from teaching that members of one identity group are morally superior and inherently racist or oppressive.
In August 2022, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker deemed parts of the law relating to workplace diversity training unconstitutional. Three months later, he issued a temporary injunction preventing the law from being enforced in higher education.
The Challenge of Defining Equity
The executive order defines equity as, "the consistent and systematic treatment of all individuals in a fair, just and impartial manner, including individuals who belong to communities that often have been denied such treatment."
The White House noted that these communities include:
- Black, Latino, Indigenous and Native American, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people, and other individuals of color.
- Members of religious minorities.
- Women and girls.
- LGBTQ individuals.
- People with disabilities.
- Individuals who live in rural areas.
- Those who live in U.S. territories.
- People "otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality."
Stephen Paskoff, CEO of training company Employment Learning Innovations in Atlanta, said the term "equity" has generated much discussion and disagreement in workplaces regarding whether it refers to assurance of:
- Consistent methods of setting standards and qualifications that reach out to disadvantaged communities or identified members of certain groups, or;
- Equal outcomes to disadvantaged groups as the core focus.
"The difference between the two needs to be addressed," Paskoff said. "The [executive order] indicates that [the term 'equity'] is meant to be based on what is lawful; what that means is increasingly being challenged in the Supreme Court—affirmative action in educational admissions, as an example—in federal and state lawsuits and in the political world."
Paskoff encourages HR, DE&I and legal professionals to read the recent executive order, note the number of agencies and departments involved, and carefully assess the breadth of the order's reach relating to their organization.
"Watch for the critical regulations that will be issued, providing specifics as to how particular functions will be affected going forward," he said. "Overall, I suggest proceeding with caution before making broad judgments about the [executive order] until we learn more about how it will be interpreted and applied in its multiple applications."