By Pamela Coukos and Cyrus Mehri, Co-Founders of Working IDEAL

A Call to Leadership for America’s Employers as the Supreme Court Considers Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Pamela Coukos and Cyrus Mehri, Co-Founders of Working IDEAL

Updated June 30: Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled against Harvard and the University of North Carolina in the case about affirmative action in college admissions. This is a deeply disappointing decision that goes against decades of precedent — and despite long standing support from the employer community for the kinds of inclusive admissions practices at stake in that case. We are confident that our nation’s higher education institutions and our nation’s employers will continue to ensure the doors of opportunity remain open for all. This ruling does not change any legal standards that apply to the workplace.  We continue to call on our nation’s employers to practice courageous leadership, align with their values and recognize the importance of their equity and inclusion work for their workers, their business and our democracy.


In the next few days, we expect the Supreme Court to rule on two cases about affirmative action in college admissions. No matter what the Court decides, we know this is a time for your leadership and institutional courage — to carry forward equal opportunity for all, and to build a nation where anyone can succeed. Nothing at stake in these legal rulings calls into question the values and experience you bring to your existing work on equality and inclusion, or the right and duty to fairly hire, promote, pay and support workers of all backgrounds and experiences. You can and should hold fast to your commitments to creating a vibrant and effective workforce by removing barriers to opportunity, and ensuring every worker has the freedom and support to bring their full perspectives, experiences and talents to the job.

We recognize that this is a challenging time to hold true to a robust vision of inclusion and belonging. Extremist political leaders are sowing conflict and division. They seek to cast doubt on the need for programs that bring employees together and enhance opportunity, when that is needed now more than ever.  A few are even attempting to erase our nation’s complex history of exclusion, and our collective power to overcome it. We want to share a path forward to overcome polarized politics and misguided assumptions about the potential impact of this ruling, and sustain your longstanding programs on diversity, equity and inclusion at work.

Together we have worked for decades to help workers facing racial barriers, pay inequity, unfair hiring practices, and sexual harassment in the workplace, and to help big and small companies, nonprofits, and government agencies seeking to expand equal opportunity.  We have been there for workers when employers flout the law, and we have partnered with business leaders and executives who are creating innovative ways to level the playing field. This experience shows what we believe every employer should do this week and going forward – lead with your values, invest in your workforce, and carry forward your commitments.

You can best meet this moment by reaffirming the key values that ground your equity and inclusion work. Values like respect, opportunity and connectedness are not tied to legal rules, and they can and should continue to guide your actions to promote opportunity and foster inclusion and belonging. You can and should commit to practice respect and learn from each other, through sharing our many identities, experiences and histories. You can and should pledge to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to compete and to participate in our nation’s economic life. You can and should pledge to foster culture that connects rather than divides and creates real experiences of belonging. Diversity, equity, belonging and inclusion are more than just buzzwords or checklists. In the best programs they establish sound processes that benefit entire organizations, deeply anchored in your values and transcending matters of compliance.

Keeping your promises to provide a respectful, fair and inclusive workplace is bedrock law, good for all workers and good for your business.  We know from research and experience that when employers promote equal opportunity along with inclusion, and foster respect, openness, trust, learning and engagement, and connection and belonging, we all benefit from workplaces that are stronger, more innovative, and more productive.

The best DEI initiatives are never about asking for specific outcomes, but about ensuring a fair process and a respectful and inclusive workplace for all. Flawed practices can hurt everyone regardless of their identity, job or level. Letting in-group favoritism drive hiring or promotion decisions, or being inconsistent about how you pay people, or letting toxic individuals disrupt the workplace, often falls hardest on those who have historically faced discrimination and systemic hardship. But failing to address these problems can make it hard for anyone to do their job, and it can cost you the opportunity to hire and advance the best talent, or drive costly attrition. If you can change your process to get new people in the door and show you what they can offer, you can overcome biases and increase your chance of picking the true right person for the job.  Institutions that practice greater inclusion are the ones that thrive over the long term.

We know that our clients may be feeling as though this work and their DEI plans are now at increasing risk. We also believe that true risk management includes accounting for the risk of withdrawing from critical commitments and the harm that comes from failing to act. Over the past few years, many employers have made important promises to their workers, shareholders and communities to strengthen racial equity, forcefully address sexual harassment, provide equal pay and share their DEI goals and progress more transparently. Nothing has changed about the need for these promises. Indeed, keeping them is more important than ever.

Seize this chance to practice the courageous leadership that can overcome division and repair our democracy.  You have a critical opportunity to bolster our “small d” democratic and “small r” republican principles. Recent efforts to stoke identity conflict over race, gender, and LGBTQ status go hand in hand with efforts to roll back democracy and limit freedom. We must resist any effort to limit our freedom to learn or engage with each other, from bans on what children can read to restrictions on what anyone can wear, say or teach. Voting restrictions, and lawsuits and legislation trying to upend longstanding civil rights, undermine our ability to be one democratic nation. We have seen a rise in hate crimes, violence, and even insurrectionist behavior, alongside a growing understanding that continuing segregation and inequality is incompatible with true democracy. We cannot give in to the climate of fear and hate.

Over and over in the past few years we have seen the power of Americans from all walks of life making their voices heard in response to exclusion and threats to fundamental democratic values – an example we urge you to follow. Overcoming these divisions creates the opportunity to repair our democracy and build a truly inclusive economy both at home and abroad.

Courageous and thoughtful leaders will recognize there is no need to respond in fear or to make snap judgments to withdraw prematurely from the DEI work that is so essential to this moment. Instead, we encourage you to recommit to freedom and democracy, respect, connection, fairness and opportunity, and to embrace the future.


Working IDEAL provides trusted and innovative advice on inclusive workplaces, diverse talent, and fair pay. Our audits and assessments apply the best thinking on how to promote gender, race and other forms of equity in your pay practices. Our robust quantitative and qualitative reviews go beyond basic compliance to align effective compensation strategy. Let’s connect.