The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 2 ruled that the U.S. Military Academy at West Point may continue to consider race in its upcoming admissions cycle, a rare victory for advocates of inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D). But new research indicates that many Americans do not consider IE&D in the workplace to be a highly important issue.
In an emergency decision, the court denied a request brought by Students for Fair Admissions, the same conservative group that brought the cases that led to the end of affirmative action in higher education in June 2023.
"The record before this Court is underdeveloped, and this order should not be construed as expressing any view on the merits of the constitutional question," the court said in its unsigned order, which came without any noted dissents.
The news comes as IE&D in the workplace continues to receive backlash from conservative groups, politicians and business leaders. But a recent report has showed that people in the U.S. largely do not place great importance on IE&D in the workplace when compared with other societal issues.
A survey of 1,668 people in the U.S., by stakeholder intelligence firm Caliber, found that just 9 percent of respondents viewed IE&D in the workplace as a top priority when asked to pick the most important issues to them from a list of issues affecting the U.S.
They were more concerned with gun violence (33 percent), job opportunities (31 percent), immigration (30 percent), access to affordable health care (30 percent) climate change (26 percent) and the rise of artificial intelligence (15 percent).
“Many of the other possible answers are literally life-and-death issues,” said Shahar Silbershatz, CEO and co-founder of Caliber. He added that diversity and inclusion in employment is more of a “would like to have” than a “must have” for survey respondents.
Just 2 percent of people ages 65-75 said IE&D in employment was their top issue, compared with 21 percent of respondents ages 18-24—although even the younger age bracket didn’t view it as important as issues such as gun violence and climate change.
The three issues deemed the least important by Americans of all ages are all currently causing social discord in the U.S.: racial inequality (13 percent), gender inequality (10 percent) and IE&D in employment (9 percent).
Is IE&D Losing Its Luster?
The waning popularity and rising backlash against IE&D have caused many HR professionals to keep their IE&D efforts “under the radar” and broach the topic in subtler ways, according to The New York Times.
Frank Dobbin, an IE&D expert and professor of sociology at Harvard University, told The Times that many companies have explored moving away from IE&D initiatives that attract public attention, such as mandatory anti-bias trainings, in favor of lower-profile strategies, such as diversity task forces that bring together leaders from different corporate departments.
Some leaders, including SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, have said that IE&D will continue to be a hot-button issue. IE&D policies will “come under full-out attack in 2024,” Taylor said in an article in The Guardian.
Lauran Star, an IE&D expert and author of Evidence Based Inclusion: It’s Time to Focus on the Right Needle (LS Publishing, 2022), believes IE&D is “losing its luster” because it has become so stigmatized in recent years.
“Many places are dumping the DEI label altogether in favor of titles like ‘VP of people and culture,’ ” Star said.
She added that some companies have scaled back their public IE&D proclamations because they are embarrassed by their own IE&D failures. Conversely, other companies that are implementing IE&D correctly refuse to concede to the backlash because they understand and are enjoying the benefits of inclusion.
“If you're doing DEI right, it should never lose its luster,” she said. “It becomes part of company culture. It's something to be proud of, and the impact of having effective DEI programs cannot be understated.”
The Stakeholder Component
Based on the Caliber survey, Silbershatz surmised that employers addressing IE&D in the workplace are less likely to “ruffle feathers” than if they speak out on certain other social or political issues, such as gun violence or immigration.
“In that respect, we think companies are on relatively safe ground if they address diversity and inclusion in employment,” he said.
However, Silbershatz didn’t dismiss the possibility that IE&D initiatives could still be a potential minefield for companies. As backlash against IE&D continues, employers are learning they can’t please all their stakeholders all the time.
Anheuser-Busch can attest to the reputational cost of appearing “woke” after losing billions of dollars in response to partnering with a transgender influencer and activist in 2023. Some LGBTQ+ people and allies then criticized the company for its tepid response to the backlash.
Some organizations can safely address IE&D through their HR practices, but they should still track stakeholder perceptions and get insights that “allow them to hit the gas, pump the brakes or course-correct, if need be,” Silbershatz said.
“However they address the thorny issue of diversity and inclusion in employment, [HR’s] chosen position or policy should be authentic—as in, clearly aligned with their values and purpose,” he explained. “And they should articulate their position or policy in as honest and human a manner as possible.”