Workplace diversity, equity and inclusion is not a new concept. It dates back to the 1960s alongside the Civil Rights Movement, a driving force for integrating the American workplace following anti-discrimination legislation. The tragic death of George Floyd in May 2020 reinvigorated the push for racial justice, which was reflected in the workplace with an increase in DE&I programs aimed at combating discrimination and promoting equity.

Only four years later, many of those programs have been reduced and eliminated. The reported driving force has been a shift in priorities due to layoffs. A more often unspoken fear is the threat of discrimination lawsuits. New laws limiting its practice have sprung up in Florida and Texas, among at least a dozen other states.

Following the June 2023 Supreme Court decision overturning racially focused admission policies at universities, politicians began waging war on affirmative action and DE&I initiatives everywhere. For example, the Fearless Fund, a venture capital firm that focuses on investing in businesses led by women of color, has been called out recently for alleged discrimination against non-Black women.

But leadership teams and investors continue to recognize the value of DE&I not only as a moral imperative but also as a strategic one, given that diversity and inclusion efforts have been demonstrated to lead to better financial performance. The current DE&I approach in the workplace is holistic, with initiatives at all levels and across all departments within organizations, demonstrating the importance of DE&I in corporate talent strategies.

The Facts

Research shows that diverse teams are more innovative, productive and better able to solve complex problems. A May 2023 Pew Research poll indicated that 56% of workers saw DE&I as a good practice, with only 16% calling it “bad.” Programs that support DE&I are designed to promote inclusivity and ensure all employees have equitable opportunities for growth and advancement.

Diversity in leadership fosters innovation and creativity, which are the foundations of growth. There is a saying that if two people walk together and agree on everything, one is unnecessary. Bringing different views, experiences and perspectives to the table — which is what diversity does — sets the stage for more effective overall outcomes. In addition, diversity in leadership is a powerful recruitment and marketing tool. It opens the door to a broader and better talent pool. It demonstrates to customers and clients that this business is connected to what matters to them — seeing representations of themselves in spaces where they do business.

So, what should businesses do to maintain their diversity initiatives in this challenging time?

Don’t panic. The fear of lawsuits is real but not impossible to overcome. Despite the organized attacks on DE&I agendas, the majority of businesses are still committed to diversity practices. A factor to consider is that lawsuits may follow the removal of DE&I programs, as some experts believe litigation may intensify with the elimination of programs that promote equity and inclusivity in the workplace.

Establish how you want to show up as a business. Create a plan that works for your environment, culture and team that clearly articulates your stance. Remember, this plan is not just about you, so don’t do it alone. Assemble a diverse team of trusted thought leaders (i.e., diversity of thought). Do your research on the underlying issues that are fueling resistance. Think about what it looks like, create key messages and even discuss how you will identify your program. Using the terms “diversity” and “DE&I” have increasingly become controversial. Are there alternative phrases? Here is the big one: Provide opportunities for feedback from all employees and stakeholders. Inclusion and two-way communication reduce dissension.

Educate and communicate with all employees. Write it. Share it. Repeat it. Live it. Leaders must create and engage in environments where all employees are valued and feel included. If done right, DE&I doesn’t diminish anyone’s importance. It enhances collaboration and innovation across all corporate levels.

Embracing DE&I principles is essential for long-term success in any organization. Integrating these values into the company’s strategy, providing thorough education and support to all employees, and encouraging open communication can create a foundation for lasting progress and achievement, especially in a competitive labor market.