What Does the SCOTUS Affirmative Action Decision Mean for Corporate DEI?

Posted October 19, 2023 | Leadership |
What Does the SCOTUS Affirmative Action Decision Mean for Corporate DEI?

The recent US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision on affirmative action in higher education is creating a ripple of anxiety that reaches far beyond the education sector.1 A 2022 article in Bloomberg warned, “Whether gradually or quickly, every chief diversity officer in the country will need a new job title — and perhaps a new job. The pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] will require rebranding and reimagining.” 

Throughout the US, the SCOTUS decision has left many DEI leaders pondering their programs, practices, and positions. In this Advisor, I offer a few thoughts based on my years of experience leading DEI transformation efforts.

The numerous questions and concerns prompted by the court’s decision include the following:

  • Will my organization have to abandon its DEI efforts? Definitely not! As experts tell us, the SCOTUS decision was about affirmative action in higher education admissions, not affirmative action in private workplaces. While the court held that affirmative action violates the Equal Protection Clause in the US Constitution (and, by extension, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), it did not hold that affirmative action violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the main statute governing the employment relationship. And the ruling does not directly impact employment laws — federal contractors with mandatory affirmative action programs still have those obligations. Nothing in this opinion directly impacts private employers with voluntary DEI efforts because these efforts “do not involve employers taking race or other legally protected characteristics into account when making hiring or promotion decisions.” That has already been prohibited in decision-making under Title VII. The conflation of the higher education decision with organizational DEI efforts is simply wrong. However, it is an opportunity for organizations to take a hard look at their DEI approaches and ensure that they are getting it right. What does that mean? It means being holistic, being inclusive of all diversity, approaching the entire ecosystem, and taking a systems approach.

  • Does this mean that we can no longer recruit underrepresented populations? You can continue to reach out to a range of colleges and universities. It is true that as a result of the SCOTUS decision in higher education, the pipeline of students will likely get less diverse and organizations will have to work harder to reach out earlier to a broad range of students through internships and scholarships based on established criteria such as life experiences. And organizations will have to invest in middle and high school education in order to build the pipeline of diverse talent.

  • Can I gather data on underrepresented populations? Yes, you can gather aggregated data and use it to determine adverse impact in the talent lifecycle. With that understanding, you can implement initiatives to address the pain points. Initiatives can be designed to remove bias for all employees. The data is also effective in demonstrating the why of your DEI initiatives and in demonstrating the impact.

  • What do I say to my employees? Reaffirm your organization’s commitment to DEI as a business imperative and link it to your business strategy. Stay the course — you have made some hard-won gains; now is not the time to let them slip away, or you risk losing credibility with your employees as well as jeopardizing their commitment and engagement.

  • What about my organization’s DEI incentive program? Ensure that your DEI incentives include both lag and lead indicators or both the outcome numbers and the processes, behaviors, and actions that, if done consistently, will get you to the outcomes. Make sure you provide enough weight to the inclusive actions in your incentives. These are simply good inclusive leadership practices and can include mentoring and sponsoring talent, sponsoring employee resource groups (ERGs), engagement in the community, and developing a range of diverse successors. By including the lead indicators, you are not focused only on numeric race outcomes but instead are incenting managers for inclusive leadership practices that address barriers to advancement of talent.

  • Will I have a job as a corporate DEI professional? Despite recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times about exits by chief diversity officers as organizational priorities shift, my guess is that the DEI role is here to stay. It might evolve to be broader than DEI and include other aspects of HR or the business. Over the past few years, the importance of DEI accelerated as organizations actively recruited DEI professionals to address the impact of COVID-19 and tragic deaths of Black men and women such as the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing global outrage. Those organizations that simply reacted to external events as opposed to integrating the criticality of DEI to the business and its employees will likely scale back their DEI efforts until the next crisis. The DEI professional’s job will likely be harder as they play the role of “Influencer in Chief” — but DEI professionals know this drill only too well having been there before! They are up to the challenge!

So What Can DEI Professionals Do? 

Consider the following tips:

  • Stay tuned to external trends and consider the DEI implications; evolve your strategy to align and address these trends.

  • Focus on understanding your organization’s business and build a bridge between your DEI goals and the business in a practical way.

  • Hone the business case for your organization and continue to ensure that DEI adds value to the organization.

  • Gather aggregated data to identify adverse impact and develop initiatives to address bias in the system for all employees.

  • Know what you are solving for and how to position it for most inclusion and least backlash.

  • Broaden your DEI efforts beyond HR and continue to be inclusive of a broad range of identities.

  • Build your base of allies with your business leaders.

  • Audit your DEI initiatives and partner with your legal teams to see how you can together mitigate risk while meeting your organization’s desired DEI goals.

  • Communicate with your employees because if you are anxious, they most certainly are!

  • Find ways to nurture yourselves and stay resilient.

What Can Organizations Do? 

Here are some things that organizations should keep in mind:

  • The “D” remains important. Focus on diversity and widening the talent pool so you can hire the best qualified regardless of identity. And focus your efforts widely on all aspects of our multifaced identity.

  • Move from “D” to “I.” Focus on fostering a culture of inclusion where all talent can participate fully. Ensure that you are nurturing a broad range of ERGs, including allies, and encourage them to partner across ERGs. Make sure that each employee has an ERG they can identify with: veteran, generational, etc.

  • Address the “E.” Ensure that your systems are unbiassed for all talent. Eliminate systemic barriers that inhibit full participation and equal access to opportunities in your talent lifecycle, including hiring, promotion, succession planning, pay, etc. Focus on enforcing equal opportunities, not equitable outcomes.

  • Open to all. Ensure that your development initiatives to diversify the pipeline are open to all while addressing those who need these opportunities the most. In your mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship programs, consider “oversampling” certain populations based on their life experiences.

  • Move beyond HR. Embed DEI in all your systems and processes including marketing, supply chain, business development, and more.


We have seen these DEI ebbs and flows before, and we have always risen to the occasion. This is another inflection point. It is an opportunity to redouble our efforts — to commit to making our DEI efforts stick — to look for innovative solutions. It feels overwhelming, I know. And it is good to be humble in the face of what lies ahead. But each of us has the power to influence our corner of the world, regardless of who we are. If not you, then who?


1 For an excellent assessment of the legal implications of the ruling, see: “Does the Supreme Court Decision on Affirmative Action Affect Your Company’s Diversity Initiatives?” Catalyst blog, 29 June 2023.

About The Author
Rohini Anand
Rohini Anand is founder and CEO of Rohini Anand LLC, providing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) advisory services to clients in the public and private sectors. She is recognized as a pioneer in the DEI field. With expertise that spans executive leadership, human capital, global corporate responsibility, wellness, and DEI, Dr. Anand brings a unique perspective on the critical alignment of the business culture and the triple bottom line to… Read More