Affirmative Action Ruling May Upend Diversity Hiring Policies, Too

As a legal matter, the Supreme Court’s rejection of race-conscious admissions in higher education does not in itself impede employers from pursuing diversity in the workplace.

That, at least, is the conclusion of lawyers, diversity experts and political activists across the spectrum — from conservatives who say robust affirmative action programs are already illegal to liberals who argue that they are on firm legal ground.

But many experts argue that as a practical matter, the ruling will discourage corporations from putting in place ambitious diversity policies in hiring and promotion — or prompt them to rein in existing policies — by encouraging lawsuits under the existing legal standard.

After the decision on Thursday affecting college admissions, law firms encouraged companies to review their diversity policies.

“I do worry about corporate counsels who see their main job as keeping organizations from getting sued — I do worry about hyper-compliance,” said Alvin B. Tillery Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, who advises employers on diversity policies.

Programs to foster the hiring and promotion of African Americans and other minority workers have been prominent in corporate America in recent years, especially in the reckoning over race after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Even before the ruling in the college cases, corporations were feeling legal pressure over their diversity efforts. Over the past two years, a lawyer representing a free-market group has sent letters to American Airlines, McDonald’s and many other corporations demanding that they undo hiring policies that the group says are illegal.

The free-market group, the National Center for Public Policy Research, acknowledged that the outcome on Thursday did not bear directly on its fight against affirmative-action in corporate America. “Today’s decision is not relevant; it dealt with a special carve-out for education,” said Scott Shepard, a fellow at the center.

Mr. Shepard claimed victory nonetheless, arguing that the ruling would help deter employers who might be tempted overstep the law. “It couldn’t be clearer after the decision that fudging it at the edges” is not allowed, he said.

(American Airlines and McDonald’s did not respond to requests for comment about their hiring and promotion policies.)

Charlotte A. Burrows, who was designated chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by President Biden, was also quick to declare that nothing had changed. She said the decision “does not address employer efforts to foster diverse and inclusive work forces or to engage the talents of all qualified workers, regardless of their background.”

Some companies in the cross hairs of conservative groups underscored the point. “Novartis’s D.E.I. programs are narrowly tailored, fair, equitable and comply with existing law,” the drugmaker said in a statement, referring to diversity, equity and inclusion. Novartis, too, has received a letter from a lawyer representing Mr. Shepard’s group, demanding that it change its policy on hiring law firms.

Beyond government contractors, affirmative action policies in the private sector are largely voluntary and governed by state and federal civil rights law. These laws prohibit employers from basing hiring or promotion decisions on a characteristic like race or gender, whether in favor of a candidate or against.

The exception, said Jason Schwartz, a partner at the law firm Gibson Dunn, is that companies can take race into account if members of a racial minority were previously excluded from a job category — say, an investment bank recruiting Black bankers after it excluded Black people from such jobs for decades. In some cases, employers can also take into account the historical exclusion of a minority group from an industry — like Black and Latino people in the software industry.

In principle, the logic of the Supreme Court’s ruling on college admissions could threaten some of these programs, like those intended to address industrywide discrimination. But even here, the legal case may be a stretch because the way employers typically make decisions about hiring and promotion differs from the way colleges make admissions decisions.

“What seems to bother the court is that the admissions programs at issue treated race as a plus without regard to the individual student,” Pauline Kim, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in employment law, said in an email. But “employment decisions are more often individualized decisions,” focusing on the fit between a candidate and a job, she said.

The more meaningful effect of the court’s decision is likely to be greater pressure on policies that were already on questionable legal ground. Those could include leadership acceleration programs or internship programs that are open only to members of underrepresented minority groups.

Many companies may also find themselves vulnerable over policies that comply with civil rights law on paper but violate it in practice, said Mike Delikat, a partner at Orrick who specializes in employment law. For example, a company’s policy may encourage recruiters to seek a more diverse pool of candidates, from which hiring decisions are made without regard to race. But if recruiters carry out the policy in a way that effectively creates a racial quota, he said, that is illegal.

“The devil is in the details,” Mr. Delikat said. “Were they interpreting that to mean, ‘Come back with 25 percent of the internship class that has to be from an underrepresented group, and if not you get dinged as a bad recruiter’?”

The college admissions cases before the Supreme Court were largely silent on these employment-related questions. Nonetheless, Mr. Delikat said, his firm has been counseling clients ever since the court agreed to hear the cases that they should ensure that their policies are airtight because an increase in litigation is likely.

That is partly because of the growing attack from the political right on corporate policies aimed at diversity in hiring and other social and environmental goals.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has deplored “the woke mind virus” and proclaimed Florida “the state where woke goes to die.” The state has enacted legislation to limit diversity training in the workplace and has restricted state pension funds from basing investments on “woke environmental, social and corporate governance” considerations.

Conservative legal groups have also mobilized on this front. A group run by Stephen Miller, a White House adviser in the Trump administration, contended in letters to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the diversity and inclusion policies of several large companies were illegal and asked the commission to investigate. (Mr. Miller’s group did not respond to a request for comment about those cases.)

The National Center for Public Policy Research, which is challenging corporate diversity policies, has sued Starbucks directors and officers after they refused to undo the company’s diversity and inclusion policies in response to a letter demanding that they do so. A Starbucks spokeswoman said in an email on Friday, “Through our commitments to inclusion and diversity, we continue to strive to make Starbucks a welcoming place for our partners (employees).”

Mr. Shepard, the fellow at the center, said more lawsuits were “reasonably likely” if other companies did not accede to demands to rein in their diversity and inclusion policies.

One modest way to do so, said David Lopez, a former general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is to design policies that are race neutral but nonetheless likely to promote diversity — such as giving weight to whether a candidate has overcome significant obstacles.

Mr. Lopez noted that, in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. argued that a university could take into account the effect on a candidate of having overcome racial discrimination, as long as the school didn’t consider the candidate’s race per se.

But Dr. Tillery of Northwestern said making such changes to business diversity programs could be an overreaction to the ruling. While the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 generally precludes basing individual hiring and promotion decisions explicitly on race, it allows employers to remove obstacles that prevent companies from having a more diverse work force. Examples include training managers and recruiters to ensure that they aren’t unconsciously discriminating against racial minorities, or advertising jobs on certain campuses to increase the universe of potential applicants.

In the end, companies appear to face a greater threat of litigation over discrimination against members of minority groups than from litigation over discrimination against white people. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there were about 2,350 charges of that latter form of discrimination in employment in 2021, among about 21,000 race-based charges overall.

“There’s an inherent interest in picking your poison,” Dr. Tillery said. “Is it a lawsuit from Stephen Miller’s right-wing group that doesn’t live in the real world? Or is it a lawsuit from someone who says you’re discriminating against your work force and can tweet about how sexist or racist you are?”

He added, “I’ll take the Stephen Miller poison any day.”

J. Edward Moreno contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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