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Amid a slowing economy, some companies have been dropping DEI jobs

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This summer, conservative legal activists have focused their attention on a new target, corporate programs aimed at diversity, equity and inclusion. The challenges come as some companies have been shedding DEI jobs already amid a slowing economy. NPR's Andrea Hsu has this report.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Catalina Colman's story is a familiar one. Before 2020, she was working in human resources at a tech company as a generalist.

CATALINA COLMAN: Where I was focusing on everything from onboarding to exit.

HSU: She had been thinking about how to grow the company in a more diverse and equitable way. Then came the murder of George Floyd, and suddenly everything accelerated.

COLMAN: I think, like, most companies, 2020 was a real pivotal point.

HSU: The racial reckoning that followed unleashed demands for change nationwide. Companies scrambled to respond to the moment. According to the job site Indeed, job postings with DEI in the title nearly doubled from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2021. But then...

JANET STOVALL: It started decelerating almost as quickly.

HSU: That's Janet Stovall, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion for the NeuroLeadership Institute, a consulting group. Companies facing economic pressures began to pull back, cutting DEI jobs, including Catalina Colman's, alongside other HR roles. Over the last year, postings have seen a 40% decline. In the summer, another setback for diversity advocates, the Supreme Court's rejection of race-conscious admissions in higher education.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS")

LAURA JARRETT: A landmark decision from a bitterly divided Supreme Court.

HSU: Immediately following that ruling came predictions that corporate policies to diversify workplaces will soon meet the same fate. Now, lawyers, including those at the EEOC, point out corporate diversity programs are not covered by the court's affirmative action ruling. But already, conservative activists are waging a new fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tonight, the owners of a local investment firm, Fearless Fund, are speaking out against a racial discrimination lawsuit.

HSU: The other week, Edward Blum, the strategist behind the affirmative action case, filed a lawsuit against a venture capital fund calling into question grants and awards to Black female entrepreneurs. Former Trump adviser Stephen Miller has also been busy, asking the government to investigate hiring practices aimed at increasing minority representation at a long list of companies, including Kellogg, Hershey's and Alaska Airlines. Even before this, diversity, equity and inclusion efforts have come under other criticism, including that they're expensive, performative, even a source of division. Consultant Janet Stovall says, under the current climate, she expects some companies will bow out.

STOVALL: Those that were not really committed in the first place. It makes sense that you wouldn't want to just jump into something that's going to be more complicated if you don't feel like you have to.

HSU: But for clients who are in it for the long haul, Stovall is doubling down on advice she's always given - focus on the rationale. Make the case that having a diversity of backgrounds and experiences is the smart thing to do.

STOVALL: Every organization has, basically, only three goals, make money, save money, achieve a vision. And if you can tie DEI directly to one of those goals, it gets a little bit harder for even those who want to destroy it to argue that they should.

HSU: For Catalina Colman, trying to find another DEI job after her layoff was disheartening. Positions she applied for were eliminated midway through the interview process. So now she's putting herself out there as an independent consultant. She's banking on companies wanting to continue the work they started.

COLMAN: Consumers, users are still going to want, at the end of the day, diversity to be a key pillar for an organization.

HSU: No matter what the Supreme Court does, she says, that's not going to change.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEBS' "WHILE YOU DOOOOO (EXTENDED)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
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