Amid attacks on DEI, local execs talk rebranding, legal compliance

Local professionals are reconsidering how they talk about DEI, re-evaluating current policies and fiercely arguing the business case for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Sherrice Sledge-Thomas, chief people and culture officer at the Community Shelter Board and president of the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium
Sherrice Sledge-Thomas, chief people and culture officer at the Community Shelter Board and president of the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium Courtesy Sherrice Sledge-Thomas

In January, Margaret Finley invited 10 women working in diversity, equity and inclusion to discuss headwinds in the industry at her home. 

What she heard was discouraging, she said. 

“One woman said she finds herself now needing to have a conversation with her employer because they want to do a pivot,” said Finley, head of DEI and corporate affairs at Advanced Drainage Systems in Hilliard. “It was really eye-opening. I knew what the vibe [in the industry] was, but it’s something quite different when you’re actually sitting at the table with women and hearing their stories around the lack of support, or funds being pulled. It’s very disheartening.”

The meeting happened amid ongoing attacks on DEI in the workplace following the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismantling of affirmative action in college admissions last year. DEI’s most vocal critics include tech billionaire Elon Musk, who accused United Airlines of prioritizing DEI over safety, and billionaire investor Bill Ackman, who advocated for the ousting of Claudine Gay, the first Black president of Harvard. 

The backlash has extended beyond social media and into the courts. Conservative-led nonprofits such as American Alliance for Equal Rights and America First Legal have filed race discrimination lawsuits against companies with DEI initiatives. 

In central Ohio, Finley said she also knows people who have lost DEI jobs. However, she and other local professionals say they have seen more evidence of local companies and organizations remaining committed to their DEI programs. But they also say they have noticed the following trends in their industry amid the attacks: practitioners are reconsidering how they talk about DEI or rebranding completely; reviewing their policies to ensure legal compliance; and fiercely arguing the business case for DEI. 

“We will survive,” said Finley, who also serves as vice president of the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium (CODC). “We can’t force this work on a company or an organization, but I do think that there are still companies and organizations out there that are staying the course.” 

DEI executives are rebranding 

Earlier this year, DEI executives addressed the issue at a panel hosted by the Columbus Chamber of Commerce at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus.

“Our colleagues [in the government space] are losing their jobs,” Franklin County Chief Economic Equity and Inclusion Officer Damika Withers said at the event. “So, we’ve had to reshape, we’ve had to pivot our language on how we are approaching this work. … Some of [our national partners] had to change the words ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ and make it more digestible to the folks around them.” 

One approach has been emphasizing the word “culture” more than “diversity, equity and inclusion,” according to multiple practitioners. 

“That, in some ways, probably reflects what we do and is appropriate, but in other ways, it takes some of the scrutiny off,” said panelist Ralph Smithers Jr., assistant vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and community relations at Encova Insurance in Columbus.

CODC President Sherrice Sledge-Thomas said that she has seen people change their titles from chief diversity officer to chief culture officer, chief people officer or chief inclusion officer. 

“The rebranding is political, no question,” said Sledge-Thomas, who is the chief people and culture officer at the Community Shelter Board in Columbus. “But I also believe that it was inevitable, meaning employees used to be afraid to speak up if they felt that diversity and inclusion programs were exclusive in their organization. Now, they're not afraid. … It is unfortunate that we had to rebrand it, but I also would suggest that there needs to be more change management and helping people see why they're a part of [DEI] – that it's not exclusive.”

Sledge-Thomas went on to say that she doesn’t support using a “white guilt narrative” in DEI work. “When you say things like, ‘You are privileged, you are racist, you’re a misogynist, you're patriarchal,’ we're already walking in with division,” she said. “So, I would suggest that strategies that some of our DEI leaders have employed may have contributed to the problem. … We should never have been leading with [that narrative]. A lot of DEI leaders disagree with me on that, and that's okay.” 

Other DEI professionals are encouraging their peers to be mindful about how they talk about recruiting.

“[People say,] ‘I want a diverse slate, but I want them to be qualified,’” said Rhonda Talford Knight, who owns her own DEI consulting firm, The Knight Consulting Group, based in Canal Winchester. “If I am your recruiter and I am providing my hiring manager with a slate, isn’t it supposed to be already qualified? It’s a microaggression. … We are using language incorrectly in this field.” 

Challenges to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Currently, many DEI practices — such as targeted efforts to increase the diversity of candidates and hires at companies — are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to Capital University law professor Mark Brown.

The law prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

“Title VII has always been interpreted historically to allow a good deal of diversity, equity and inclusion and affirmative action,” said Brown, who is also the Newton D. Baker/Baker and Hostetler Chair at the university. “Employers can take account of race and ethnicity to achieve a more diverse workplace. … It depends on how [the strategy] is constructed, and you need to get lawyers involved to make sure it’s okay.” 

However, conservative groups are also citing Title VII in lawsuits and complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that DEI programs discriminate against straight white men in the workplace. 

Brown said such lawsuits could prove successful, given appointments of conservative federal judges by former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). “They have so many appointments,” Brown said. “And on the Supreme Court, you’ve got a [conservative] supermajority. … So, all bets are off. Anything could happen.”

Additionally, the outcome of a pending Title VII Supreme Court case, Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, could pave the way for more “reverse discrimination” lawsuits against DEI programs. 

The case involves a female police sergeant who claims that, because she is a woman, she was reassigned to a less prestigious role. Justices are weighing whether Title VII requires claims of discriminatory job transfers to show additional harm, such as a decrease in salary or rank. 

If justices determine that showing of harm isn’t required, some legal experts believe that the courts will see an increase in employment discrimination claims, including those alleging “reverse discrimination.” 

In the meantime, central Ohio DEI experts said they are reviewing their current policies to ensure they are legally protected. 

Some haven’t had to change anything, Sledge-Thomas said. 

“In the diversity, equity and inclusion practice, one thing that we do is break up our population by a variety of demographics,” she said. “Race just happens to be one of them. Some companies look at zip codes where they are recruiting from.”

But Sledge-Thomas said she would caution companies against setting race-based quotas. “I would be careful about it because it’s being misinterpreted,” she said. “I definitely would not set percentage goals because then you open the door for people to say that you’re practicing tokenism.” 

Some CEOs have addressed the changes in the DEI industry following the dismantling of affirmative action. 

In January, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said the company – which has committed $30 billion to racial equity efforts – was planning to alter its racial and gender quotas to be compliant with the law, but remained committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, according to media reports

“We need other CEOs to be that bold and empowering,” Finley said.

Emphasizing the business case of diversity, equity and inclusion

Central Ohio executives say they are doing their part by emphasizing how DEI impacts companies’ bottom line. 

“There’s a lot of things out there that could keep us awake at night, but the business case is still there,” Smithers Jr. said.

Diverse and inclusive organizations are 70 percent more likely to tap into new markets, 19 percent more likely to see an increase in innovation revenue and 87 percent more likely to make better decisions, according to global consulting firm Korn Ferry.

“You get a very meaningful increase in retention,” Smithers Jr. added. “When you have an increase in retention, that cuts down on acquisition costs for new talent. It cuts down on training costs and it also increases customer satisfaction because newer people are less likely to be as capable as the people who just left.” 

Smithers Jr. said he appreciated Dallas Mavericks minority owner Mark Cuban’s advocacy for DEI on social media. Back in January, the entrepreneur and “Shark Tank” star replied to Elon Musk on X (formerly Twitter) with several posts about the competitive edge that DEI brings to companies. 

“[DEI] helps everyone,” Smithers Jr. said. “There’s always going to be detractors. There’s always going to be setbacks, but we have to keep doing this because it’s not just the right thing to do; it’s an excellent thing to help our companies prosper.”

Erica Thompson is a former Columbus Dispatch editor and currently works as a features writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. She will contribute occasional features to Matter News centered on racial and gender equity.

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