The Meaning of ‘Woke’

In the three years since George Floyd’s death, systemic oppression, police brutality, racism, and workplace discrimination have come to the forefront of our collective consciousness. This era of heightened awareness has given rise to social movements, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) programs in the workplace, and the concept of “wokeness” – or awareness of systemic issues related to race, gender, and sexuality.

Several major events, such as racially charged police killings, the perceived weakening of LGBTQ+ rights, and the reversal of Roe v. Wade, led employers to start taking steps to address some of these societal problems. Large corporations were covering out-of-state abortion expenses for their employees, and businesses increasingly were turning to DE&I initiatives to create more diverse and inclusive work environments through recruiting and hiring. Companies were investing in employee mental wellness programs and mandating unconscious bias training for managers and supervisors. Businesses were filling more chief diversity officer and DE&I-specific positions than ever before.

However, three years later, companies are rethinking their commitment to DE&I programs. Some cite budget constraints, but others fear public backlash for appearing too “woke.” The U.S. Supreme Court decision rolling back affirmative action in college admissions has caused companies to question whether they should continue their DE&I programs.

Some conservatives now use “woke” as a derogatory term, equating it with political correctness, liberal-leaning social activism, and cancel culture. Some large companies, including Anheuser-Busch and the Walt Disney Company, have fallen out of favor with certain consumers for their involvement in so-called “woke” advertising campaigns and DE&I programs.

Some politicians also have vowed to keep “woke” movements out of the classroom. Florida Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis signed the Stop WOKE Act in April 2022, which regulates how schools, colleges, and employers can discuss race and similar topics, especially critical race theory (CRT). Some states have banned certain books addressing sensitive racial or LGBTQ+ issues. Due to the potential backlash, these trends are causing some teachers and college instructors to shy away from teaching about social injustice or history.

As DE&I programs continue to decline in popularity, employers should continue to consider what value those programs bring to their company’s image. One study found that 95% of 1,000 employees surveyed consider an employer’s DE&I efforts when choosing between similar job offers with similar salaries and benefits. Consumers, particularly those in Generation Z, may also pay more attention when companies invest time and money in DE&I efforts.

Therefore, companies that wish to engage in DE&I programs but avoid any potential backlash should be direct and transparent about their programs’ goals. They should offer education and training to build a more diverse workplace and encourage employees to participate in those activities. Companies also should remain authentic to their values and culture and refrain from activism that does not align with their objectives. Finally, companies should take a long-term approach to DE&I, recognizing that systemic change takes time. Seeking feedback from employees and customers about DE&I programs along the way can help improve these programs, making them more effective and successful.

HBL has experience in all areas of benefits and employment law, offering a comprehensive solution to all your business benefits and HR/employment needs. We help ensure you are in compliance with the complex requirements of ERISA and the IRS code, as well as those laws that impact you and your employees. Together, we reduce your exposure to potential legal or financial penalties. Learn more by calling 470-571-1007.

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