In the last twenty-five plus years, it appeared that America had reached something of a consensus about the value of diversity and inclusion in our society, particularly in the workplace. Indeed, it is now unusual to find a large corporation or professional services firm that does NOT have a formal diversity and inclusion program, generally headed by a C-suite level executive. The Federal government has addressed issues of bias, whether conscious or unconscious, through laws and regulations promulgated by all three branches. These efforts were not just a response to discrimination in isolation; they were also an overt nod to the idea that inclusion is integral to improving socioeconomic conditions for diverse populations.
And there are copious studies that support the idea that diversity and inclusion are good not just for workers, they’re good for the bottom line. A McKinsey & Company study, for example, found that the increase in women’s overall share of labor in the United States—women went from holding 37 percent of all jobs to 47 percent over the past 40 years—has accounted for about a quarter of current GDP.
While there always have been dissenting voices who insist that we are now a color-blind society negating the need for assertive government action, the plethora of statistics that demonstrate the lag between the progress of the white majority and minority populations in terms of wealth, compensation, professional achievement and education, among other things, is difficult to ignore. In what has become a global crisis of income inequality, appreciation of difference and efforts toward inclusion have been seen as integral to providing broader economic opportunity for all.
The election of Donald Trump suggests that it may be time to reassess this “consensus.” Trump’s message was two-fold and “Make America Great Again,” was merely the predicate. The necessary mindset for this, he suggested, was “America First.” What does this mean? And now that he is the president, what are the implications of the seeming success of this message? And finally, where does this leave efforts toward inclusion in our society, and more specifically, in the American workplace?
It has been only three months since Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States, yet the flurry of activity that has accompanied his young administration warrants taking a step back to see whether and where that activity has translated into concrete policy. Nothing is more central to those policies than the American workplace. Campaign promises to bring jobs back were central to Trump’s appeal, so scrutiny of those efforts and their impact are in order.
Initial reports suggested the private sector would continue its inclusion efforts, notwithstanding the election result and its potential legal and regulatory implications. In a Bloomberg piece from November 16, 2016, just a week after the election, corporate leaders were steadfast. “Jeffrey Immelt affirmed GE’s commitment to ‘people of all races, genders and sexual orientations’ in an internal blog post Wednesday musing on the election. That echoed Apple CEO Tim Cook’s message to workers that the tech giant welcomes everyone, ‘regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship or who they love.’ Oscar Munoz of United Continental Holdings Inc. said in a message to employees that they represent ‘every creed and conviction, background and belief.’” And this response made perfect business sense. These leaders for years had recognized and embraced the demographic evolution the U.S. is experiencing, and its implications both for their workforces and their customers. When it comes to the bottom line, these leaders endorsed the idea that it makes business sense to stand on the side of diversity and inclusion.
It is no secret that our demographics are changing. Census data tell us that by 2050 there will be no racial or ethnic majority in our country. Further, between 2000 and 2050 new immigrants and their children may account for 83 percent of the growth in the working-age population. Our economy will grow and benefit from these changing demographics if businesses commit to meeting the needs of diverse communities as workers and consumers.
But the new administration is not only giving voice to a portion of America that is less interested in diversity and inclusion, it is putting the power of the Federal government behind the sentiment. The President’s rhetoric alone seems to indicate that America First means the exclusion of some immigrant populations. Such an approach seems destined to have a disproportionate impact on specific industries including technology, medicine, engineering and agriculture.
He has attempted twice to translate this rhetoric into policy via Executive Orders limiting visas from some predominantly Muslim countries. He also has included provisions in his proposed budget for the wall he wishes to erect to block migrants from crossing the Southern border.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun taking undocumented immigrants into custody when they access any government services. They have gone so far as to arrest a woman who was appearing in court to get a restraining order against her abusive partner. And according to Fox News, DHS will not rule out arresting undocumented immigrant victims of or witnesses to crimes.
Efforts such as these would seem to be at cross-purposes with the forces that have contributed to the vitality of the American economy, particularly when the rest of the developed world has languished in recession for the last nine years.
In a 2011 Forbes study,” Global Diversity and Inclusion Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce,” the authors surveyed 321 global corporate executives and found that they do not view diversity and inclusion efforts as separate from their other business practices. In fact, there was consensus that a diverse workforce can be a key differentiator in capturing new clients.
And it appears the government’s efforts are not limited to immigration. There are also strong indications that Trump’s Department of Justice will not enforce civil rights laws protecting citizens from discrimination in the workplace. His Department of Labor is more likely to ease workplace regulations governing discrimination than enforce them, as Trump believes that these regulations stifle rather than invigorate businesses.
Decisions to rollback Obama-era worker protection policies already have taken shape with a revocation of the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order that was implemented to require that federal contractors comply with 14 different labor and civil rights laws. According to an April 3, 2017 NBC News report, “the Fair Pay order included two rules that impacted women workers: paycheck transparency and a ban on forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment, sexual assault or discrimination claims.” As its title indicates, the order was two-fold: 1) it required paycheck transparency to ensure women were being paid the same as their male colleagues; and 2) the “safe workplaces” requirement precluded forced secret arbitration for those who sought relief for sexual violations in the workplace, a provision which disproportionately impacted women to their detriment.
The question that is outstanding is how will the private sector respond to this “unburdening?” As discussed, initial indications were that corporations would proceed as though little had changed. And perhaps the diversity and inclusion train left the station too long ago to turn back now. But were these “indicators” merely smart public relations? Recent events may provide some clues as to how the larger culture will respond to this. And interestingly, Fox News may end up being either a harbinger of a more freewheeling, unleashed approach, or a cautionary tale of “freedom” run amuck.
On April 2, 2017, The New York Times reported that Fox News has paid around $13 million in settlements to five women who alleged they were sexually harassed by Bill O’Reilly. This revelation comes on the heels of a particularly challenging year for Fox News with the forced departure of Roger Ailes, Fox News’s Chairman and CEO, last summer for the exact same reason. The reaction to the story from advertisers was swift and unflinching. According to CNN, more than 50 companies pulled their ads from The O’Reilly Factor, the single most popular program in cable news. Companies including Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, BMW of North America, T. Rowe Price and GlaxoSmithKline have distanced themselves from the show in the short term.
More telling than the act of pulling the ads was the consistency of the rationale offered by the various companies for it. For instance, Allstate Insurance stated it was “concerned about the issues surrounding the program” and that “inclusivity and support for women” are important company values. The clothing company UNTUCKit said it was pulling ads because women are a majority of their workforce. But beyond that, on April 4th CNN reported that UNTUCKit stated it is “important our corporate partners reflect the same principals of inclusivity and equality upon which we have built our brand.” Hyundai released its own statement on April 3rd explaining its actions by stating that “as a company we seek to partner with companies and programming that share our values of inclusion and diversity.” These responses cannot just be PR-driven, companies are loathe to take these types of actions in such a public manner if they might negatively impact their bottom line. This is about money. And it was money that ultimately led to O’Reilly’s dismissal, as Fox continued to bleed advertisers.
This one story may have huge implications for what’s acceptable in the workplace in Trump’s America. Perhaps not surprisingly, President Trump publicly placed himself firmly in the O’Reilly camp, stating that he believed O’Reilly to be a good person who shouldn’t have settled. This endorsement cannot be dismissed merely as someone coming to the aid of a friend. Trump’s position as president gives his words added potency.
The big unanswered question is what taking this kind of public position coupled with the power of the federal government means for workplace protections over the next four years, at a minimum. And an even more interesting or disturbing question, depending on your perspective, is whether or how the president’s example sets the tone for the country writ large. While for the time being, it appears the bottom line is dictating the terms in the marketplace, this tells us little if anything about what might happen in the less public sphere of the average company or small business. It cannot be assumed that this example is representative of the entire private sector.
The values of diversity and inclusion seem to be in tension with the values of “America First.”
What should not be forgotten is that President Trump’s campaign unleashed an undercurrent of grievance against what was characterized as “political correctness” that was stifling “real” Americans. We may be experiencing a reckoning as to what being a “real” American means.
Cultural and demographic imperatives appear to be driving the private sector’s continuing embrace of the value of diversity and inclusion. The government, in its current incarnation, is pushing back hard. Whose version of America will prevail is anyone’s guess. To paraphrase Bette Davis, it might be wise to buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.