The Supreme Court closed out its summer term with several decisions that will have significant repercussions on the workplace, both immediately and in the years to come. On June 29, the court effectively ended affirmative action in college admissions, striking down affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Harvard.
The same day, the court delivered a win for workers seeking religious accommodations at work. In a unanimous decision, the court decided that workers who ask for these accommodations, such as taking Sundays off, should have their requests honored unless employers show that doing so would result in “substantial increased costs” to the business.
The next day, the court delivered two more rulings that will have far-reaching implications on the world of work. First, the court invalidated President Biden’s student loan debt relief program, which would have permitted eligible borrowers to cancel up to $20,000 in debt and would have cost more than $400 billion.
Finally, the court ruled that businesses can refuse to provide what the court called “expressive services” services to LGBTQ+ customers, if doing so would violate the owners' religious beliefs. Service providers such as artists, photographers, videographers, and writers would be covered by this decision, but not business like restaurants or hotels.
All four of these rulings have left employers with more questions than answers — and for good reason. In some cases, the court may not have provided enough guidance around how to apply its verdicts. That means groups or individuals may interpret the rulings in different ways, and some might exploit these decisions to support their own agenda.
In today’s article I’ll describe how the recent Supreme Court decisions will affect the workplace, and how employers can react in order to prepare for what lies ahead. Let’s take a look.
How the end of affirmative action will affect the workplace
Although the Supreme Court’s ruling will not directly affect employers, organizations will still feel its effects in the form of a less diverse talent pipeline. That’s because there will be fewer graduates from underrepresented backgrounds entering the workforce in the years to come.
In addition, the end of affirmative action in higher education will likely embolden groups or individuals who are opposed to company-led DE&I efforts. Leaders may face a great deal of scrutiny — and potentially even lawsuits — especially around diverse hiring practices or achieving specific diversity targets.
How companies can prepare: DE&I initiatives encompass much more than just diversity targets — these programs are key for making the workplace a welcoming place for both employees and customers. Leaders should continue with their DE&I efforts while ensuring that employment decisions (e.g., hiring, firing, promotions) are based on identity-neutral merit considerations.
That being said, Catalyst notes that employers who are particularly anxious could review their existing DE&I initiatives to determine if any might create unnecessary legal exposure. You may want to de-emphasize strict metrics or targets, and instead focus on broader goals, for example leveling the playing field by addressing unfair biases and barriers.
How allowing for religious accommodations will affect the workplace
An article from Fisher Phillips notes that employers should expect to see increased requests for scheduling changes, time off, prayer breaks, job reassignments, modifications to dress codes and grooming policies, and designations of private locations in the workplace for religious observances.
Another side effect may be an increase in resentment toward employees who receive religious accommodations. Unless the company can show “substantial increased costs” to their business, managers may need to ask other workers to help out, for example by swapping shifts. This could create some feelings of hostility among non-religious employees.
How companies can prepare: Fisher Phillips suggests that you train your managers and your HR staff on how to handle the increase in religious accommodation requests, and update your policies as needed. You should also improve your documentation for any decisions that are made around these requests.
Most importantly, you’ll need to determine what qualifies as “substantial increased costs” to your business and ensure you have the evidence to support this whenever you refuse an employee’s accommodation requests. Lastly, consider proactively putting a DE&I plan in place to address any resentment directed toward employees who receive religious accommodations.
How the invalidation of the student loan debt relief program will affect the workplace
Biden’s program would have relieved approximately 43 million Americans of at least part of their student loan debt, and around 20 million would have had their debt completely erased. Unless Congress acts, borrowers will be responsible for resuming their student loan payments in October, when a three-year freeze instituted at the beginning of the pandemic is lifted.
This could be immensely overwhelming for workers, especially those with large payment amounts. Research from my company and BrightPlan found that 92% of employees are already at least a little stressed about their finances, and workers are losing over a day of productive work per week as a result of this stress.
How companies can prepare: Fortunately, other government-run loan forgiveness programs are still in effect, and the Biden administration has already announced a new student loan debt relief plan. However, now might be a good time for your organization to revisit your financial education resources or student loan debt assistance programs.
Nearly 3 out of 4 organizations offer or plan to offer student loan debt assistance or tuition reimbursement. Other companies are taking this a step further with student loan contribution plans, which are similar to retirement contributions and allow workers to dedicate a portion of their paycheck toward student loan repayment with a match from their employer.
How the rejection of anti-discrimination laws will affect the workplace
Those in favor of the decision that companies can refuse service to LGBTQ+ customers have argued that it will only apply to a small subset of businesses — those that provide “expressive” services. However, activists have voiced concerns that other businesses will try to claim free speech exemptions in order to deny service to LGBTQ+ customers and other groups.
A recent article emphasizes that the court regards many things as freedom of speech, and it gives the concept wide latitude. Consider a chef, a dancer or performer, a hairstylist or nail technician, or even a landscaper — people in all of these professions (and many others) could argue that the services they provide are “expressive.”
How companies can prepare: In the wake of this decision, the most important thing your organization can do is stay the course with your DE&I programs. It’s especially critical that you bolster your communication efforts — with both your workforce and your customers — sharing where you stand on this issue.
Some organizations, particularly larger ones, may need to determine whether any of the services they offer are considered “expressive.” If so, these companies would be wise to engage with their legal teams and determine whether employees who provide these services are legally allowed to turn away customers.
A turning point
No matter your industry, it’s likely your company will be affected by the recent Supreme Court decisions — and your employees and your customers are depending on you to rise to the occasion. I hope you’re prepared to meet the moment, whether that means ramping up your DE&I efforts, providing student loan assistance for your team members, or adjusting your policies for workers who require religious accommodations.
Thanks for reading — be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on this topic!