Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) policies have come under increased legal scrutiny over the past year. In perhaps the most illustrative case, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed race-based affirmative action in college admissions in June 2023—a landmark ruling that is leading private employers to move forward with trepidation.

JM Search recently partnered with C2HR to present a webinar on how workplace DE&I has changed following the Supreme Court decision. Hosted by Parthavi Das, Executive Director at C2HR, and guided by Katherine Barnett, SPHR, SVP of HR at Hearst Television, I had the opportunity to share insights on how businesses are prioritizing DE&I efforts in the face of legal challenges.

Here are a few key takeaways from our webinar discussion.

Establishing a Dedicated DE&I Role

Following the Supreme Court decision, 13 attorneys general signed a letter that threatened legal consequences for race-based employment preferences—but a perhaps lesser-known fact is 21 other attorneys general issued a response in support of diversity policies. As some organizations pull back on diversity initiatives, we are seeing proactive business leaders viewing this as an opportunity to secure high-impact DE&I leaders in the market. With unreserved focus in their area of expertise, a DE&I professional can accelerate movement toward DE&I goals and spark organizational and cultural change.

Optimizing the role of a DE&I Leader

Despite a recent push for chief diversity officers to report to CEOs, we find that these leaders can make a meaningful  impact when they report to the head of HR or Chief Talent Officer. Most CEOs support and are active champions of DE&I but simply don’t have time to focus on organizational change initiatives—and DE&I leaders should ideally have direct access to the chief executive and other senior leaders within their organizations. On the other hand, DE&I leaders and heads of HR are both focused on cultural changes, hiring initiatives, and employee engagement and development. This alignment allows the DE&I leader to gain adequate support while still maintaining organizational influence.

Winning Senior Leadership Buy-in

Maintaining the momentum of DE&I initiatives requires support from the top decision-makers within an organization. When senior leaders view DE&I as a business imperative, rather than only a social imperative, diversity professionals gain the traction needed to enable long-term progress. Framing DE&I initiatives as an opportunity for proactivity can help DE&I leaders gain buy-in. Senior leaders must be urged to prepare for the future—in which the workforce and consumers are expected to grow more multiculturally and ethnically diverse—rather than solely react to present challenges.

Preparing the Organization for Success

DE&I leaders who experienced setbacks in 2023 don’t have to be discouraged. In the present landscape, strong planning—rather than speed—is key to long-term organizational change. Rather than simply planting the seeds for DE&I, smart companies prepare the ground—their employees and organization—to accept the seed. This can involve discovering the pain points of different employee groups, identifying the most valuable DE&I initiatives, and implementing diversity training to promote stronger collaboration and increase awareness about implicit biases.

In the increasingly complex DE&I landscape, the role of a diversity leader is more critical than ever. These leaders can help the organization navigate legal challenges while spurring organization-wide change. Reach out to JM Search to learn more about recent trends we are seeing across businesses seeking DE&I-focused talent.

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