Despite many companies having implemented diversity programs, women and minorities have not gained much ground in management over the past 20 years. If your diversity program is failing, too, you might like these insights to turn your program around.
These numbers show that companies with diverse staff are not just “better at HR” but measured by business, financial, and talent outcomes, are in fact higher performing companies.
How Diversity Programs First Started
Diversity and inclusion programs seem to be a new thing, but they’re not. In fact, they go back to the mid-1960s when equal employment laws and affirmative action were originally introduced. Training programs were created to help employees adjust to working in more integrated offices.
With movements like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #BreakTheBias, Pride, and others, the awareness, that diversity includes more than racial matters increased and these other facets started to gain traction in diversity programs.
Common Diversity Programs
Outlining a list of do’s and don’ts was – and still is – a very popular approach as it’s easy to compile. The reason for lists is clearly a legal one: they help create accountability and avoid lawsuits as rules can easily be explained and understood. Diversity programs also commonly include personality and bias testing by filling out questionnaires and updating the value proposition or making a diversity video.
So, you googled other diversity and inclusion programs, put a lot of thought into what to cover in company trainings, set up the training program, and now it’s been running for a while. You even have a CEO statement and your diversity video live on the website. You have great expectations.
But now, you’re realizing that true change still isn’t happening. Cultural change isn’t taking place, there still aren’t more female leaders and minorities are marginalized employees are voicing their concerns. In short: workplace diversity and culture in general have not improved. The training failed. How can that be? Your training is well-thought out and easy to understand – or is it?
Unfortunately, these kinds of trainings are most often ineffective at improving workplace diversity and culture in general. While employees can digest the information and rules presented to them, the positive effects rarely last longer than a couple days.
Don’t think that increasing trainings or repeating them will do you any good. Instead, you might just add another problem to the existing one: “diversity fatigue”. By now, a lot has been said about diversity, but not much has happened and you’re running the risk of people seeing your cultural and diversity goals as pure lip-service, also known as diversity fatigue.
Why Diversity Programs Fail
If you are simply trying to check a box, chances are that your program will lack serious effort and thus effectiveness. Does your program pointing fingers and don’ts instead of assisting one can change their behavior? It can be tough to admit this, but if you don’t, you’re doomed.
Lack of Consistency
If your program is a reaction to an incident and designed as a one-off for new employees, you’ll most likely fail. If your program doesn’t come over as an authentic effort, something that is consistently lived and integrated in every level of your organization, you also risk diversity fatigue. Still have a gender pay gap in your company? Your efforts will not be taken seriously.
Lack of Leadership Buy-In
If the leaders don’t believe it can be done, don’t want the change, or think it doesn’t concern them, you’ll fail as any measure will be seen as lip-service.
Think about dropping the diversity label and just talk about culture. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, white men exhibited more stress and anticipated more anti-white discrimination from companies that are pro-diversity versus companies that were pro-diversity but didn’t specifically mention it . Consider a creative label for your program to increase acceptance.
Companies sued for discrimination often claim that their performance rating systems prevent biased treatment (HBR). But raters tend to give lower points to women and minorities, as another study shows. And some managers give everyone the same high marks just to avoid discussions with their more outspoken employees. These examples show that while performance ratings can be good for certain things, they aren’t an effective way to boost diversity.
A common issue with diversity programs is resistance from employees. If employees have lost faith that anything will ever change, feel victimized, singled out or even patronized, they are likely to show resistance. In some cases, it may even lead to more animosity towards other groups.
As time passes, your company, your employees and their needs change. If your diversity and inclusion program doesn’t evolve with the rest of the company, the effectiveness of it will go as extinct as the Dodo bird.
Lack of Accountability
Many companies have systems that allow employees to challenge pay, promotion, and termination decisions. But employees who report often fear backlash from their manager, leading many employees to refrain from reporting discrimination. In these cases, the company often believes that discrimination isn’t happening and fail to realize that measures need to be taken. So if a manager behaves unacceptably, accountability simply isn’t guaranteed. This will seriously hinder diversity efforts.
Among the nearly 90,000 discrimination complaints made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the US in 2015, 45% included a charge of retaliation. Source: HBR
How Diversity Programs Can Succeed
Conduct a needs assessment prior to designing your diversity program. These programs are not one-size-fits-all. As companies and their cultures are all unique, a needs assessment will help you find the right fit for your company and its specific areas of improvement.
Instead of a Do’s-and-Don’ts-list, try implementing mentor- and sponsorships. Sponsorships are crucial for a woman progressing her career while a mentorship helps an individual to better navigate any challenges and to have a sparring partner for their specific case.
The difference between a mentor and a sponsor lies mainly in the mentor consulting the mentee and the sponsor being a person in a position of authority giving their support to either ideas or career advances of the sponsored person.
Be consistent. Integrate your program into different components of the organization. You can even link it to pay, which has been effective for Intel.
To drive accountability, Intel links a portion of their executive and employee compensation to diversity and inclusion metrics.
And while we’re talking about pay: close that gender pay gap!
Get leadership buy-in. Leaders like numbers. It’s a good idea to demonstrate the projected ROI of the program and spell out how the program helps the company to be more profitable and competitive (e.g., by attracting talent). Also, make it clear that leadership needs to live by the same cultural rules as employees or the program is doomed from the start. The best way to have leadership on board is to engage them, help them see themselves as diversity champions (e.g., task them to find diverse talent at a university fair) and to offer them mentorships. It will trigger the thinking “if I sponsor them, they must be good and succeed”.
Split your program into specific trainings. One thing that can help avoid resistance is to split your program into specific trainings to focus topics. This way, an employee has to participate only in for them relevant topics, either by allocation through the manager or by choice.
Plenty of empathy. The classic command-and-control approach goes against everything we know about how to motivate people. To support people through real change, help them understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. You can’t expect to eliminate bias by ordering people to not be biased. But you can give them food for thought by explaining where bias comes from, helping people to recognize it, and giving them resources to navigate the workplace (and private life) in a more inclusive way.
Ensure accountability. Instead of going with classical grievance systems, think about implementing a flexible complaint system that offers informal mediation. If reporting doesn’t involve hauling the manager before a disciplinary body, it may reduce retaliation. Making managers feel accountable without subjecting them to public rebuke tends to help.
Ensure social accountability, by increasing transparency. Social accountability refers to our need to look good in the eyes of those around us. A field study conducted by Emilio Castilla of MIT’s Sloan School of Management of a company with pay gap issues has shown that increased transparency is indeed a very effective tool to trigger social accountability. If managers/employees realize that other are watching (in the study’s case who favored whites), the behavior immediately changes.
Diversity task forces can also help enable social accountability, as they are usually put together by the CEO and include managers as well as minorities and female representatives. Once it’s clear that top managers are watching, behavior changes.
Enable contact between groups. Contact has been shown to strongly increase acceptance of other groups or minorities, especially when people work together towards a common goal. Allowing projects to be done by self-managed teams is one way to enable contact. Cross-training employees between different departments is another easy way to increase contact with different groups of people.
Re-think the completeness of your D&I data. Don’t blindly rely on the data represented in your HR management systems (e.g., from whistleblower or discrimination reporting tools). Many companies boast about great numbers on diversity and inclusion efforts but this data is often incomplete. Employees may simply not take the time to fill out the surveys or fear their reports will lead to retaliation whether direct or passive. Instead, use ambassadors to keep a pulse on how things really are in the company and act accordingly.