Getting Diversity Wrong

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Good intentions can go south fast in a whole host of ways. A field guide to perils and pitfalls—and how to overcome them.

Seeing companies striving to rise to the challenge of addressing racial biases and inequities in the wake of the George Floyd travesty reminded me of a study on diversity programs that I co-authored with Columbia anthropologist Catherine Ellis more than 25 years ago. The lessons we gleaned—on what works and what does not—are just as applicable today.

Then, as now, political discord prompted well-intentioned efforts to fortify diversity and address racial biases and inequities. But despite passionate effort, the attempts were often flawed, stopping short of firm-wide integration and failing to effect real change. Companies and their boards needed to probe more deeply to get these types of initiatives right—and they still do.

Here are some pitfalls to be aware of when designing and adopting a diversity and inclusion program:

Poor Facilitator: Often, disaster strikes when the person leading discussions and diversity initiatives lacks the necessary training and skill set. Are they trained in ethnic and racial conflict solving? Do they know how to transcend racial clichés? Well-intentioned but underequipped efforts can easily backfire. Witness Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who encouraged baristas to write “Race Together” on coffee cups to spur conversation on race in 2015. Unprepared for the discussions that followed, the program collapsed in ridicule after two weeks. Three years later, after a highly publicized racial profiling incident when two black customers in Philadelphia were arrested by police at request of Starbucks manager as they awaited a friend, the company took a more systematic approach. The entire company shut down for a deep dive into racial bias education, to be followed by ongoing training.

Pressured People: Underrepresentation on a workforce often results in minority employees feeling pressured to serve as representatives of a broad demographic category rather than as individuals during diversity sessions. More intentional grouping can help ensure that no individual feels isolated and pitted against his or her colleagues.

Reinforcement of Stereotypes: Exercises meant to address implicit racial biases by unveiling commonly held generalizations or assumptions about cultural values and traits often backfire. Instructions can trap people into appearing to be latent bigots or come across as trivializing or even underscoring stereotypes, with the paradoxical impact of the program actually impeding understanding.

Blame Game: Initiatives that point fingers at one group, such as White males, for the suffering of others can lead to defensiveness and discord rather than learning. Facilitators should focus on catalyzing listening and fostering productive discussion.

Highlighting Hypocrisy: A lack of visible commitment from the board and CEO can sink any initative—or worse, it can create a sense of hypocrisy in the organization. Diversity, or lack of diversity, in the C-Suite and boardroom have a trickle-down effect. To make change, you’ll need to make actual changes. For example, at HP, where the board is 58 percent minorities and 42 percent women, CEO Enrique Lores recently pledged to double the number of Black executives on his team by 2025.

Inauthentic Efforts: One-size-fits-all modular packages can feel irrelevant or gimmicky if they don’t suit a firm’s culture. Equally problematic are one-shot information blizzards that attempt to cover too much ground and are unlikely to have a lasting impact. Recruiting, promotion and career development initiatives across functions and business units must be in alignment with such diversity programs.

No Assessment: Measuring the progress of these programs is difficult, but doable—and critical. Employee surveys are a useful measure of qualitative elements like morale, engagement and trust, while monitoring the number of lawsuits and complaints filed, workforce composition data and retention rate trends are effective quantitative metrics. Cultural diversity does not mean eroding enterprise values. As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. advised, “The question America confronts as a pluralistic society is how to vindicate cherished cultures and traditions without breaking the bonds of… common ideals, common culture—that hold the republic together.”

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