C-Suite Executives Committed to Inclusion, Equity and Diversity Despite Backlash and Legal Challenges, Littler Survey Finds

(January 10, 2024) – Littler, the world’s largest employment and labor law practice representing management, has released its Inclusion, Equity and Diversity (IE&D) C-Suite Survey Report, completed by more than 320 C-suite executives across the United States. The survey finds that despite an increasingly challenging environment for diversity-related initiatives, many employers have deepened their commitment to IE&D, though there is room for growth in actions taken to support such programs.

Employers Remain Committed to IE&D Amid Legal and Workplace Complexities

The majority of the executives surveyed (57%) say their organizations have expanded their IE&D commitments and level of activity over the past year, even while nearly the same proportion (59%) believe backlash toward corporate diversity programs has increased since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions to roll back affirmative action college admissions policies in June 2023. More than a third of organizations (36%) have maintained their IE&D efforts, while just 1% reported a significant decrease.

“We’re seeing many employers maintain — or even double down on — their commitment to IE&D, even as backlash spikes,” said Jeanine Conley Daves, Littler shareholder and member of the firm’s IE&D Consulting Practice. “Demonstrating that IE&D is part of their core values, many organizations are taking the prudent step of auditing and assessing their current initiatives, rather than eliminating them amid the challenges in today’s political and legal environment.”

Reflecting specifically on the impact of the Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action, 91% of C-suite leaders say the rulings have not lessened their prioritization of IE&D. More than two-thirds (69%) say the rulings have not even changed their approach to IE&D in any way.

CLOs and CDOs Differ on Key IE&D Issues

The survey also revealed notable differences in perspectives between Chief Legal Officers (CLOs) and Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) on IE&D programs and approaches, demonstrating how the outlooks are changing as such initiatives face new legal and political challenges. Responses from CEOs indicate that their views often fall somewhere between those of their C-suite colleagues.

For instance, only 41% of CDOs said their organizations had not changed their IE&D approach in any way as a result of the court’s decisions, compared to 69% of respondents overall. Discrepancies also emerged in the specific actions taken to support IE&D programs, with a lower percentage of CDOs – in comparison to their CLO counterparts – saying their organizations offer diversity fellowship programs, provide IE&D-related incentives to executives and define metrics for IE&D progress. Reversing the trend, 61% of CLOs say their organizations are increasing efforts around social justice initiatives, compared to just 11% of CDOs.

The lack of alignment in the C-suite suggests an opportunity for increased communication across roles to minimize legal risks and allow for the effective implementation of IE&D programs.

IE&D Programs Are Maturing, But Important Steps Remain

Even as organizations maintain or increase their IE&D commitments, 35% of executives do not feel that their organizations have clear plans and goals in place.

The survey found that many organizations have been slower to implement legally thorny IE&D goals, such as defining benchmarks and metrics (a step taken by 34% of respondents) and providing incentives to executives to advance diversity priorities (23%). Higher percentages of C-suite executives say their organizations have opted for more established initiatives, such as providing training and professional development opportunities to diverse employees (58%).

That said, many organizations have made strides in recruiting and promoting diverse employees following increased pressure on companies to address racial inequality. More than half (55%) say their organizations are elevating diverse employees into leadership positions.

“As IE&D initiatives face more legal challenges and receive greater attention in the public discourse, it raises the stakes for employers to develop programs that are compliant with federal and state laws,” said Kate Mrkonich Wilson, Littler shareholder and member of the firm’s IE&D Consulting Practice. “In today’s environment, it’s more important than ever for organizations to assess whether their investments in IE&D are achieving their desired outcomes without creating new liabilities.”

Employers Wrestle with Contradictory Expectations

Beyond IE&D programs, employers also face challenges in managing social issues in the workplace. As political polarization in the U.S. increases, nearly three quarters of C-suite leaders surveyed (73%) say they face at least some degree of challenge in handling potentially divisive social and political beliefs among employees and/or navigating pressure for the company to take a stance on social issues.

Reflecting more broadly on how their organizations manage workplace legal issues, the majority of respondents (62%) say that in recent years such issues have been viewed by their leadership teams as key areas of focus that can have high-stakes consequences for their core business and reputation.

“The past few years have shown that IE&D is not a self-contained concept, but rather something that is embedded into nearly every aspect of an organization, from employee engagement and hiring to data privacy and pay equity,” said Erin Webber, Littler’s managing director and president. “As companies take a more holistic look at their business interests and commitments in IE&D programs, they are more likely to view such initiatives in the context of other high-stakes workplace legal issues for their organizations.”

Littler’s Inclusion, Equity and Diversity C-Suite Survey was completed by 322 U.S.-based executives, mainly comprising CEOs, CLOs, CDOs, Chief Human Resources Officers and Chief People Officers. Respondents represented a range of industries and company sizes, and all indicated playing leading or supporting roles with regard to IE&D initiatives and decision-making.

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