BOSTONAugust 17, 2023—In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action and after more than 40 years of failed corporate diversity efforts, CEOs, general counsels and others are quietly pondering how to proceed with diversity initiatives.

They’re asking questions such as: Should we keep our racial targets, scorecards and other forms of DEI initiatives? Could we be sued? If we scrap plans, will we face fallout from our employees, shareholders, communities or consumers?

To help shed light on this historic moment for C-suite leaders, I asked Georgetown University Law Professor Jamillah Bowman Williams for her insights. Williams is an employment lawyer and leading U.S. legal scholar on diversity programs and a visiting fellow at HBS’s Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society. She previously worked in the employment law practice of Paul Hastings, LLP in Chicago, advising corporate clients on DEI policies and practices.

Based on her experience and research, Williams told me that corporate leaders who are sincere about recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce must double down on their programs—with a focus on reimagining their messaging. Here are six steps they can use to change:

1. Don’t ‘cancel’ DEI: The law is in your favor

Stay the course, because corporate diversity programs and goals are legal, Williams says. While no one can guarantee there won’t be a future challenge, existing workplace law was not affected by the recent Supreme Court ruling on college admissions.

Williams cited the work of another law professor, Atinuke Adediran of Fordham University, who researches racial targets for corporate hiring and promotion pledges and recently published a paper saying they are legally defensible.

This is important since 44% of public companies already have these types of goals, according to Adediran’s analysis of 901 public and privately held companies. Among the examples she cites: Meta’s goal to raise the representation of people of color, including Black leadership, by 30% between 2020 and 2025; Hartford Prudential Financial’s goal to have 20% people of color in senior leadership roles by 2030, and Procter & Gamble’s open-ended plan to achieve 40% representation of multicultural employees at every level of management.

2. Hold up the mirror

Do the work you need to do to acknowledge the inequality that may exist in your organization. Ask tough questions of yourself and your senior leadership team. What might we be doing in our culture and practices to actually reinforce inequalities, not only in society, but right here in our company? This is often a challenging step for leaders.

You could start by digging deeply into existing data or identify someone who can begin to collect it. Your data or existing metrics should reveal good, actionable intelligence to inform next steps. If you’re not using scorecards, dashboards or some other measurement system to analyze how everyone’s doing with hiring, promotions, retention and pay equity, then you’ve just discovered your Step No. 1. Another great source of qualitative data? Listen to employees from underrepresented groups.

3. Create an action plan

Once you and your leaders have identified internal systems and messaging that are stymieing efforts to boost diversity at various ranks, think about what must change. Then, craft a plan of action and implement it, Williams says.

4. Be accountable for change

Once you start implementing the plan, Williams says it’s best to regularly assess your progress. Here, persistence and follow-up is required to ensure that key leaders remain committed over time – and that commitment can withstand turnover among both management and frontline ranks. Know that it is not an easy task to combat generations of subconscious learning and socialization around what workplace merit, leadership, and belonging “look like.”

5. Integrate across the enterprise

The most successful DEI efforts are those that don’t sit in a single office, but that get woven into different functions across levels, geographics and workflows, Williams says. This may seem intuitive, but it is common to miss this step. For instance, a chief diversity officer, diversity task force, and diversity recruiters can offer guidance and accountability, but they cannot do this work for the entire company. The CEO, hiring managers and team leads across the enterprise should not only work in partnership with DEI professionals, but also should work on the front line to promote change, according to Williams.

6. Move from transactional to transformational messaging

The most critical part of this process is rethinking your motivations and messaging, Williams says.

Move away from justifying diversity programs by claiming the “transactional” benefits of diversity. Instead, focus on the people involved. Shift to programs that humanize your employees and prompt leaders within your organization to care about their dreams and hardships they face.

“Once we as a society move away from monetizing and extracting profit from people's identities, we can move on to something where we are further connecting with people. We're relating to them, we're hearing their stories, and that's what helps us get to equity and dignity on a daily basis, and closing these inequality gaps in the bigger picture.”

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