Calling a Truce in the Diversity Wars Requires a Common Goal

overhead view of multicultural colleagues talking and sitting at table during meeting

By Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., President and CEO, Employment Learning Innovations, Inc.

Anyone charged with ensuring EEO compliance and related initiatives can attest that establishing and maintaining behavioral standards across an organization is a challenging assignment. I’ve spent decades working with employers to help reduce the risk of illegal and uncivil behaviors, first as an EEO investigator and attorney, then in private practice supporting organizations facing compliance liabilities and related risks. Ultimately, I founded a firm that helps organizations proactively establish behavioral standards that mitigate risk exposure and build civil, inclusive, diverse, and compliant workplace cultures.

With this foundation of experience, I’ve watched the evolution of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives from a unique perspective. I agree with the overall objectives of most such efforts. However, I’ve often questioned the tactics to achieve them. In fact, in August 1996, I authored an article for TRAINING Magazine entitled ‘Ending the Workplace Diversity Wars.’ I challenged the popular strategy of focusing on people’s differences—including proposing unique communications to acknowledge them and teaching persons of particular groups specific means of dealing with and hiring those from other backgrounds. I suggested then that many such programs included legal risks that were already appearing in compliance claims and case law.

In the past few years, multiple social and regulatory developments have rocked the DEI world. In 2020, George Floyd’s homicide in police custody and subsequent protests sparked an uptick in establishing DEI programs and roles across America. Last summer, the SCOTUS ruling to abolish Affirmative Action in college admissions created an opening for DEI critics to challenge the legality of such efforts in other spaces. Some felt that race-conscious admissions criteria showed favoritism to certain groups at the expense of others. Even supporters of DEI questioned how to best align the efforts with constantly evolving needs with potential compliance and other risks.

None of this is to challenge the goals of DEI, which are increasingly important. Just as with compliance with EEO standards, an organization should consider offering a fair, inclusive, and respectful workplace environment to be mission critical.

However, pursuing these goals through standalone programs that call out and create new differences and discrimination is not only ineffective but increases compliance risks. DEI and EEO efforts should be paired and consistent, but their often-conflicting approaches to workplace employment practices can increase legal risk. These dueling approaches also lead to the kinds of backlash we frequently see in the news, causing many organizations to significantly scale back their initiatives.

In our workplaces, there are several unique tools in plain sight that, when properly employed, can further the goals for DEI while improving talent pools and team performance while actually reducing legal risks.

Virtually all organizations have a stated mission, vision, and values, which should serve as a ‘North Star’ for establishing behavioral standards. If a conscious effort to activate those values was undertaken—starting with leadership—and reinforced through daily behaviors, organizational cultures would operate in a manner that reduces exposure to EEO violations while also supporting fair, inclusive, and respectful workplaces.

Activating the organization’s values–specifically by setting core behaviors to prevent, detect and correct problems–is not only a core compliance mantra but also a roadmap for building an inclusive, welcoming culture.

With these benefits, it’s no wonder that a Conference Board survey of CHROs reports that 75% of them listed employee engagement and corporate culture as their top human capital investment for 2024.

EEO and DEI efforts share a common goal of creating a fair, respectful, diverse, welcoming, and productive environment for all employees. Establishing consistent behavioral standards aligned with the organization’s mission and values will help proactively support these efforts, while also positioning the company for operational and financial success. That’s an outcome everyone can get behind.