It pains me to concede the march of time, but here’s the reality: I first started writing about—and advocating for—corporate diversity initiatives three decade sago. Yes, decades. At the time, I was publishing and editing a magazine for HR professionals. Organizations were just beginning to talk about diversity, and believe it or not, more than one reader angrily told me that the topic was not appropriate.
A lot has happened since then. A new generation of leaders has filled old shoes, focus has broadened from diversity to diversity and inclusion (D&I), and the ideas and goals are now so mainstream that many leading companies have chief diversity officers. So, what do we have to show for all the time, money, effort and talent invested in this effort? Unfortunately, things are … worse.
If you find that hard to believe, there’s plenty of research to prove it:
· Sociologists at Harvard and Stanford studied 40 years of data on the work forces of every private employer in the United States, and in 2018 reported that individual employers are still largely homogenous—and even more divided—than they were in the 1970s.
· In 2017, the Economic Policy Institute reported that black college graduates earned an average of 21% less per hour than white graduates; that gap was 13% in 1979.
· The EEOC reports that 76,418 charges of workplace discrimination were filed in 2018; that averages to a new charge every 11 minutes.
I could go on, but you get the idea. We can argue about whether failure is too strong a word to use, but I think we can all agree that everyone who cares about diversity and inclusion expected (and wanted) better results. What went wrong? Here are six thoughts as to why diversity and inclusion initiatives fail:
1. D&I has been a priority, but never the priority. If companies didn’t see value in D&I, they wouldn’t invest attention and money in D&I initiatives. But there always seems to be other concerns that corporate leaders believe warrant greater attention and resources. Earlier this year, the executive search firm Russell Reynolds surveyed 97 chief diversity officers employed in the S&P 500. All (yes all) of the respondents rated D&I last on a list of eight potential business priorities in their companies. It’s no wonder more than half say they lack the resources needed to execute new strategies and programs, and only 35% have the information they need about their own employee demographics.
When that’s the reality, D&I gets enough resources to highlight concerns or put Band-Aids® on problems but not enough to drive deep, sustained change. Worse, when D&I is last on a leader’s priority list, the rest of the organization might not see any real consequences if D&I goals aren’t met. And so they’re not.
2. D&I is often reactive.When any facet of a D&I effort is rolled out after a blunder or faux pas—as when Starbucks offered 180,000 employees bias training after African-American customers were asked to leave a Philadelphia location—there are risks. Employees may see the effort as being more about cleaning up a mess or getting some good PR than about real change. And, the approach frames diversity as a problem to be solved instead of as an opportunity for innovation.
3. Mandatory D&I training breeds resentment. Forcing people to do anything immediately makes it feel punitive. When people show up to training feeling aggrieved, they are naturally ready to air grievances. Too easily, the session devolves into villains and victims or shame and blame, neither of which is helpful. Researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough found that when people were required to attend diversity training, hostility toward the targets of prejudice actually increased. In contrast, employees who chose to attend diversity training showed less prejudice afterward.
This shift in attitudes can translate to real consequences for organizations. Another study discovered that five years after managers from 830 US companies took mandatory diversity training, there were fewer Asian and fewer female African-American employees, and no improvement among other minorities or white women.
4. One size doesn’t fit all. I understand why large organizations standardize their diversity and inclusion initiatives; it improves efficiency and cuts costs. But I’m not convinced it always pays off. Broadly speaking, the goal of D&I efforts is to help employees understand that there are different ways of seeing things. But does it really make sense to present training on differences in a way that ignores national and regional cultural differences and generational perspectives, just for starters?
In my experience, the most effective training is the training that’s most tailored to the audience. What’s more, people’s perspectives on inclusion are shaped, in large part, by their experiences. In other words, they change over time. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to keep offering the same program for 10 years just because it’s already paid for. D&I training should be revised and updated often to keep current.
5. Corporate culture is important, but…One of the biggest enemies of successful D&I efforts is hiring for “fit.” You know how it goes: A job opens, and those hiring look for someone who will “fit in around here.” Ostensibly, the goal is to preserve the corporate culture. And, to be fair, many organizations have worked hard to build very specific cultures. But hiring for fit is another way of saying, “We’re looking for someone who thinks like the people who are already here.”
There are two unspoken assumptions underlying this thinking: 1) People who are different can’t possibly learn the culture, and 2) The culture should not evolve. We can argue about whether these assumptions are good for business (I’d say they are not), but they are most certainly antithetical to D&I initiatives.
6. We all have implicit bias. We’ve talked about implicit bias before , so I won’t get too detailed here. But I will reiterate that the human brain is hard wired in such a way that bias is inevitable. It’s neither good nor bad (unless we allow it to be), it just is. But pretending that we don’t have bias, or ignoring it, or using it as an excuse to justify our behavior, all work against successful D&I efforts.
There are other facets of D&I initiatives that have proven challenging, such as developing and using good performance indicators, but I believe the above six examples are the leading contributors to why the movement has fallen short. That doesn’t mean we should be discouraged, but considering my three decades in the field, it’s clearly going to take time. Still, if we are going to keep pursuing D&I (and I believe we should), it only makes sense to recognize what does—and doesn’t—work.