A new law may soon go into effect in Florida that would require employers to rethink their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) programs.
In March, Florida's legislature approved the "Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act." The bill restricts how workplaces and classrooms around the state handle discussions surrounding race, gender and discrimination.
The legislation now moves to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a vocal supporter of the bill.
"We won't allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other," DeSantis said in December 2021. "Finally, we must protect Florida workers against the hostile work environment that is created when large corporations force their employees to endure [critical race theory]-inspired 'training' and indoctrination."
Critical race theory is a controversial concept that says race is a social construct and racism is embedded in the U.S. legal system and policies. This concept is taught in many college classrooms, and it informs workplace DE&I initiatives nationwide.
"As the daughter of Cuban exiles who fled from Marxist ideology, I am proud to stand alongside Gov. DeSantis and support this proposed legislation that will put an end to wokeness that is permeating our schools and workforce," Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez said in a statement. "This important legislation gives students and employees the resources they need to fight back against discrimination, critical race theory and indoctrination. I'm proud to stand alongside the governor not only of the free state of Florida but the woke-free state of Florida."
What Florida Businesses Need to Know
If signed into law, the Stop WOKE Act would force many companies in Florida to alter their DE&I strategies.
The bill would prevent companies from subjecting "any individual, as a condition of employment … to training, instruction or any other required activity that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels such individual to believe" a defined list of concepts related to DE&I.
For example, the legislation would prevent any business with at least 15 employees from conducting a training or credentials course that tries to teach that an individual's "moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex or national origin."
It also prohibits employers from teaching concepts that suggest an individual should feel guilt or anguish because of their race or sex; that anyone is inherently racist or sexist because of their race or sex; or that "racial colorblindness" is a negative attribute.
Andrew M. Gordon, an attorney with the law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., strongly encourages employers to consult with their attorneys before offering any diversity and inclusion trainings at the workplace.
He said that any DE&I training program that makes an individual feel guilty or uncomfortable could be considered an unlawful employment practice in Florida and could subject a company to legal action under the act.
"The Stop WOKE Act could result in the removal of much of the context that DE&I training programs rely on to get important points across," Gordon said. "Without this context, DE&I programs could arguably lose some of their meaningful impact and make them less of a culture-changing tool."
Gordon also noted that companywide DE&I programs that span several states may no longer be legal in Florida.
"Because of this, multi-state employers with employees in Florida need to know that a one-size-fits-all approach to employee trainings may no longer work, at least here in Florida," he added.
Strong Reaction to the Bill
Cathryn M. Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), condemned the Stop WOKE Act for restricting honest dialogue about systemic racism and urged DeSantis to veto the bill.
"Anti-equality legislators in Florida must stop advancing discriminatory bills that attack marginalized groups," Oakley said in a statement. "Injustice on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and racial identity exists, despite any attempts by the state legislature to sweep it under the rug. The so-called Stop WOKE Act will have negative consequences across the state of Florida, not just for individuals but also for businesses."
The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), the largest organization representing trade and professional associations and the professionals who lead them, strongly opposes the legislation because it censors "thoughtful considerations" of DE&I.
"Beyond the immediate implications for Florida workplaces and for national associations with members or employees in the state, this legislation is regressive and sets back society in our collective quest for progress on issues that plague this nation," the organization said in a statement.
Sheryle Woodruff, an employment mediator and conflict coach in Orlando, Fla., said diversity-related issues do not go away just because they aren't being discussed. She said the law would put HR professionals in a difficult position, with few tools to manage conflicts around race and discrimination.
"I would argue that this hit to DE&I will increase misunderstandings and conflict, which will likely lead to higher organizational turnover, lower team cohesiveness, and possibly an uptick in EEO [equal employment opportunity] cases and even workplace violence," she explained.
But Traci Copeland, the director of human resources for the Myles Restaurant Group in Miami, thinks that the Stop WOKE Act may inspire some employees to become more engaged in DE&I programs.
"I think that even though it may cause lower participation in company initiatives, it also allows employees to decide on their own if they want to participate," she said. "Having employees who are truly engaged in participating can create a much more powerful environment for change."