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IE&D in 2023: Affirmative Action, ‘Woke’ Backlash and Employment Gains for People with Disabilities

Diverse workers smile at each other

In 2023, inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D) withstood several blows that threatened its existence.

The U.S. Supreme Court repealed decades-old legislation that helped people of color more easily matriculate into colleges and universities, customers boycotted major companies for their IE&D efforts and fervent debates about ongoing issues related to race and gender dragged on. But some positive developments took shape as well.

Here’s how IE&D influenced the workplace in 2023.

Supreme Court Guts Affirmative Action

In June, the Supreme Court voted to dismantle affirmative action in higher education—ending a four-decade precedent that allowed colleges and universities to broadly consider applicants' race in their admissions processes.

However, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the ruling does not address employer efforts to foster diverse and inclusive workforces or to engage the talents of all qualified workers, regardless of their background.

“It remains lawful for employers to implement diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility programs that seek to ensure workers of all backgrounds are afforded equal opportunity in the workplace," EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows said in a statement.

But that didn’t stop conservative groups from targeting corporate IE&D programs. Starbucks directors and executives were sued by a shareholder who argued that the company violated its duty to investors by supporting diversity policies. Further, Comcast settled a case accusing the employer of illegally favoring small-business customers who are people of color with grants and marketing advice.

In July, 13 Republican state attorneys general warned Fortune 100 leaders to end racial preferences in hiring practices in light of the Supreme Court decision. Just days later, a group of Democratic politicians encouraged these same companies to continue pursuing IE&D goals because, they said, racial discrimination continues to plague workplaces.

Annette Tyman, an attorney with Seyfarth, told SHRM Online in August that employers must review their IE&D efforts to avoid litigation, while also noting, “The polarizing viewpoints should not stop employers from ensuring they have equitable practices in the workplace.”

The Rise of the Anti-Woke Movement

Anheuser-Busch received backlash in April after partnering with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who promoted the company's Bud Light brand in a sponsored social media video. In response, many customers called for a boycott of Anheuser-Busch products.

“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people," Brendan Whitworth, Anheuser-Busch's CEO, said in response to the backlash. "We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”

Soon after, corporations such as Target and Disney received ridicule for perceived “wokeness” within their companies—giving rise to a conversation about being too woke at work. Opponents of social movements such as Black Lives Matter use the term "woke" mockingly, suggesting it is an insincere form of activism.

Jay McDonald, a business consultant and former CEO, told SHRM Online in April that companies can avoid negative reactions by being transparent about their commitment to IE&D while responding promptly and appropriately to any criticism or feedback received.

Despite the anti-woke movement, workplaces have increasingly embraced LGBTQ+ employees. A survey of 1,887 U.S. workers and 1,045 HR professionals indicated that about 3 in 4 employees who identify as LGBTQ+ agree that they are treated fairly at work. Further, the number of companies incorporating policies to protect transgender workers has surged in recent years.

Federal Government Pushes IE&D

President Joe Biden in February issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to identify ways to make their services more accessible to underserved communities—including in the workplace.

In a statement, the White House announced that the 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 federal government also made efforts to:

People with disabilities made strides in landing jobs in 2023. As of October, about 40 percent of individuals ages 16 to 64 with a disability participated in the labor force. Additional federal data released in 2023 showed that about 21 percent of people with a disability in the U.S. were employed in 2022— the highest rate since the government began tracking this statistic in 2008.

And the federal government remains committed to helping these individuals find employment: The EEOC and the Department of Labor released a resource guide in October to help companies better understand the recruitment, hiring and employment of disabled people, who historically have encountered barriers to employment.

Hate Crimes Surge as Global Conflicts Ensue

In February, Russia invaded Ukraine in the largest attack on a European country since World War II. Eight months later, Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, launched one of the most destructive attacks on Israel in decades. Israel responded with force, leading to thousands of Palestinian deaths.

Images of war often trigger personal trauma and stress, impacting employees’ psychological well-being. Global conflicts also increase the likelihood of harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

In the weeks after Hamas’ attack, incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia ballooned. EEOC Commissioner Andrea Lucas told SHRM Online that employers should consider reminding employees that depending on the facts, employees could face discipline for harassment, threats or violent conduct that occurs outside the workplace, even in a nonwork-related context, if that conduct comes to the employer's attention and has consequences in the workplace.


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