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What the Court's affirmative action ruling means for the workplace

As higher education institutions adjust, companies have to be mindful.
What the Court's affirmative action ruling means for the workplace
Posted at 1:06 PM, Jul 10, 2023

In a historic decision, the United States Supreme Court ended race-conscious admissions programs in higher education last month. 

The court declared that race cannot be a factor in admissions, invalidating affirmative action plans at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The ruling forces colleges and universities to look for new ways to achieve diverse student bodies.

As higher education institutions adjust, will companies and its human resources departments have to adjust as well? Many legal experts say that the Supreme Court's decisions in higher education will have repercussions in the employment context.

"It puts what may be a chilling effect on those looking at what to do about diversity in the workforce," said attorney Alice Young, retired partner at Arnold & Porter, a global law firm, who is now a business consultant in the New York City area. 

The Supreme Court's decision addresses admissions based on race at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, but does not go into the issue of diversity at institutions, Young noted. The decision may spur action on other state or federal laws pertaining to all areas of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), she said.

Under existing employment law standards, there is probably already much less leeway for employers to consider race, ethnicity or even gender when making employment decisions, even in the interest of diversity, Stacy Hawkins, vice dean and professor of law at Rutgers Law School and a senior faculty fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice wrote in a statement. 

The decision not only impacts colleges, it will be equally disruptive for employers, many of whom have embedded diversity into their institutional missions and operations, Hawkins added. 

SEE MORE: Lawsuit: Harvard's legacy admissions puts minorities at disadvantage

Ways to maintain diversity goals without using race can include increasing consideration of socioeconomic status, which is correlated with race and ethnicity, Hawkins said. Race-neutral efforts also can involve targeting certain high schools for recruitment, which can yield greater racial and ethnic diversity given how racially segregated most American high schools continue to be, she added.

For employers, it’s important to take a holistic view of candidates, Young said. Understand what each candidate brings to the table. For example, if a person of color has five years of experience versus another candidate with eight years of experience, consider the skills and backgrounds of what the candidates offer to the role, Young said. Perhaps an effective communicator is needed for a role. Or a skilled negotiator. What employers should not do is set quotas. 

Diversity is important in business as its customers seek to identify with business partners who reflect the makeup of the community. With the recent Supreme Court decision, employers generally have to be more cautious about making hiring or promotion decisions, Young said. 

“There are quantitative and qualitative ways to look at candidates,” Young said. “Ask what kinds of voices in a workplace will be best served?”      

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