Florida Republicans want to limit diversity training at work. That movement just hit a legal roadblock.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando, Fla.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed the states Stop WOKE bill into law in April, and it took effect in July.AP Photo/John Raoux, File
  • A Florida judge ruled the GOP-supported Stop WOKE law unconstitutional.

  • The law clamped down on diversity training in the workplace.

  • If the judge's ruling is appealed, CEOs could scale back diversity training.

Last month, GOP lawmakers put employers in the Sunshine State on notice regarding talk around diversity with the passage of the state's Stop WOKE law. But the law — and by extension the fight against diversity in the workplace — just hit a roadblock.

A Florida judge on Thursday said the law that restricts race-based conversation and analysis in business is unconstitutional. The judge said the law violated the First Amendment and was too vague. It's uncertain whether Republicans will appeal the decision. The Florida governor's office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

If the judge's decision is appealed and reversed, Stop WOKE could undermine employers' efforts to advance equity in the workplace, business experts told Insider. Yet for businesses committed to diversity, there are steps they can take beyond training to ensure they are responding to demands to create more inclusive workplaces.

"By using contradictory, confusing, and ambiguous language, the regulation invites employees to bring lawsuits against any company mandating any kind of diversity training," Zoe Chance, a professor at the Yale School of Management, said. "The question is, what range of discussions will be avoided for fear of lawsuits?"

America's culture wars enter the office 

As the country heads into what's likely to be a contentious midterm-election season and then what could be another bruising presidential race, culture wars in America around diversity will likely take center stage. That's perhaps by design.

The move by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and conservative lawmakers comes as many on the right criticize the efficacy of diversity training. While there's mixed research on how effective such training is, the measure also appears geared toward ginning up voters animated by what they see as corporate overreach around diversity efforts.

The Stop WOKE law follows a coordinated effort by Florida Republicans to punish Disney after the company complained about the state's law limiting classroom discussion of sexual identity. It's part of a larger battle in America against what critics deride as "woke" capitalism.

Though the new law faces the unconstitutional verdict handed down on Thursday, as well as pushback from some conservative groups who say it hampers free speech, more red states could propose bills designed after Florida's Stop WOKE law. If enacted, such provisions would likely scare corporations and other employers like universities, with the threat of legal action hanging over their heads, corporate observers said.

The result is that leaders could be swayed to not make their DEI trainings mandatory when they otherwise would have. In other cases, leaders might water down the content of those trainings.

"The actual impact of this law will be the chilling of much-needed, tough conversations about systems of privilege and oppression, as well as on progress in our understanding of how these issues manifest in people's lives," Joshua Perry, a professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, said.

The influence could be significant 

Stop WOKE includes a list of concepts that businesses are not allowed to espouse in their DEI training.

It reads: "An individual's moral character or status as privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin."

It adds: "Virtues such as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist or were created to oppress members of another race, color, sex, or national origin."

The vast majority of diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings do not teach such things, according to Ella F. Washington, a professor at Georgetown University and the author of the forthcoming book "The Necessary Journey." Despite this, many CEOs will likely be scared, Washington and other sources said.

"Even meritless lawsuits triggered by this new law can be extremely costly and disruptive," Perry said.

DEI trainings will be "highly scrutinized" to avoid legal action, Washington said, and other companies might even abandon their diversity trainings altogether.

"For organizations and leaders who really didn't want to do diversity and inclusion training in the first place," Washington said, "this is their way out."

Chance, the Yale professor, said more states would likely follow Florida's lead and seek to influence workplace diversity trainings. At least 35 states have enacted or proposed laws or regulations clamping down on critical race theory, which says that race is a social construct used to oppress certain people.

"Stop WOKE is an insidious, Orwellian set of rules claiming to outlaw what it protects: discrimination," Chance said.

It's still possible to advance diversity

While the law erects barriers to diversity conversations and could scare some leaders from hosting difficult conversations, corporate diversity leaders still have ways to build inclusive cultures.

"Leaders should remember that mandatory diversity training is no panacea," Chance said. "The real benefits come from evolving workplace culture and making policy decisions that address biased outcomes."

For example, employers can create inclusive organizations by doing pay-equity reports or racial-equity audits, inviting speakers for optional events, and supporting employee-resource groups, such as those for LGBTQ workers or Black workers.

In the corporate world, diversity goes beyond the wellbeing of workers; it can add show up in financial results. A report from S&P Global found that companies with newly named female CEOs performed better than companies with newly named male CEOs. Companies with more diverse management teams, including those with more racially diverse leaders, show higher revenue, both McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group research found.

"I want to give encouragement to leaders who still want to do the work of DEI. I hope they don't take these potential roadblocks as stop gaps," Washington said. "Progress is still possible."

This article was originally published in July 2022. 

Read the original article on Business Insider