I still remember the opportunity I had as a law student to attend a presentation by the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno. The topic of Reno’s speech was a ballot proposition in California to prohibit state governmental institutions from considering race, sex, and ethnicity in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education. At the core of her remarks, Reno proclaimed: “we are the beneficiaries, almost all of us of some affirmative action or another. Actions that gave each of us the opportunity to be what we dreamed to be.” Voters nevertheless supported the proposition. And the consequences were rapid and profound, including a stunning 60 percent drop in enrollment of students from underrepresented minority groups at the crown jewels of the University of California system, Berkeley and UCLA.
Now nearly a quarter century later, the United States Supreme Court appears poised to strike down affirmative action nationwide. As we await the ruling, we will hear plenty of arguments from both sides, but ultimately this debate will be futile: the decision rests in the hands of just nine justices, and there is no evidence to suggest the conservative majority will waver.
While many will focus on the consequences for higher education, the consequences in the workplace will be significant as well, ranging from choked talent pipelines to opportunity gaps that hinder career and financial success for marginalized groups. Fortunately, there are steps corporate leaders can take now to prepare and even mitigate the negative outcomes of this near-certain decision.
On issue after issue, we are living in an age in which the private sector is increasingly called upon to fill in gaps where public sector institutions and leadership fail us. In part, this is why the private sector created ESGs (Environmental Social and Governance committees and strategies). When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, many companies stepped up with new benefits to protect the health and rights of their employees. As governments have failed to enact bold enough legislation to combat climate change, major companies are increasingly expected to take action.
As the President & CEO of the Global Black Economic Forum, I am frequently in conversations about how to make sure that equity, equality, diversity and inclusion are more than hashtags or buzzwords. This means committing to accountability, defining what good social governance looks like, and measuring results across the core areas of recruiting, retaining, and mentoring employees from diverse backgrounds.
First, as a threshold matter, accountability is critical for any company seeking to shift the concepts of equity and equality from buzzwords and hashtags into belief systems. It is now commonplace for companies to have policies and value statements reflecting equity, equality, diversity and/or inclusion. But without accountability, those values are often illusory in both practice and impact. One concrete step companies can take to raise the stakes is tying performance for all leaders to the performance and achievement of tangible goals and actions across an organization. It’s important to note that successful equitable solutions might be different across the organization. While some departments may adopt similar strategies, such as engaging a more diverse group of vendors, some solutions must be specific to particular work streams. An example of this might be a communications department ensuring that images used across internal and external departments reflect the company’s audience and values. However, that approach would not be a primary equity strategy for an operations or government affairs department.
Second, it is time to focus on the “S” in ESG. What does good social governance look like for an organization? Improved social governance requires a culture that instills belief with both words and actions that diversity is central to the cultural success of an organization. Creating strong employee resource groups (ERGs) should be a priority, and the members of your team that lead them should receive fair remuneration and support for their impact on the organization’s culture. Further, ERGs should be stakeholders in building internal policies. Sharing lived experience and perspectives on decisions impacting the organization can proactively address community concerns. Firm commitments relating to mentoring, teaching, and investing in employees of color will benefit the organization over time. For example, a comprehensive leadership development program for leaders of color will benefit the organization in both the short and long term. We already know that sharing skill development opportunities and creating clear and objective growth goals help sustain a productive culture and organization.
Third, recruiting and retaining diverse talent is essential to building a company that reflects the audience the company seeks to serve. Strategies for recruiting diverse talent cannot be successful without an inherent plan to retain diverse talent. A company could have a strong recruitment strategy at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSI). Still, those recruitment efforts will fall flat if the company is not building a culture and infrastructure that sets up HBCU and MSI students for success. Recruitment should not be the only tactic for engagement with HBCUs and MSIs. There should be a robust partnership developed to understand best practices for reaching students and talent at HBCUs and MSIs.
Every CEO with whom I work agrees that building a workforce with a diverse set of skills, backgrounds, and perspectives is essential to resilience and success. In fact, companies with a diverse workforce are 35% more likely to experience greater financial returns. Companies with greater diversity are 70% more likely to capture more markets. And 87% of the time, decision-making of diverse teams outperforms that of non-diverse teams. Homogenous companies are brittle, less able to see around corners and react quickly to unexpected challenges. Regardless of changes in federal or state laws, all institutions must embrace the reality that they need diverse representation. This is why forward-thinking CEOs are not waiting around to invest in better DEI solutions, not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because getting diversity right — and more importantly building cultures where this diversity can contribute to higher levels of collaboration and innovation — is essential to their bottom-line success. There is no reason or time to wait.
Alphonso David is President & CEO of the Global Black Economic Forum. He previously served as chief counsel to the Governor of New York and has served as an adjunct professor of law at Fordham University Law School and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.