Why diversity initiatives fail

A lot of places haven’t made much progress.
A lot of places haven’t made much progress.
Image: AP Photo/Laurent Rebours
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The birth of diversity and inclusion efforts in the US workplace can be traced back to the 1960s, when Title VII of the Civil Rights Act made race-based employment discrimination illegal. In the ensuing years, compliance and legal threats spurred further change in the American workplace—but so, too, did the efforts of activists, educators, and researchers to convince companies that they had both a moral and business imperative to invest in diversity.

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1964: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law. It includes Title VII, which bans employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, or religion.

1965: Johnson orders that federal contractors and subcontractors use affirmative action to ensure that minorities receive equal employment opportunities.

1970: The Labor Department issues a directive requiring federal contractors to present “specific goals and timetables” to correct “underutilization” of minorities.

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Today, almost two-thirds of US companies have an official diversity and inclusion policy—that’s according to a June 2020 survey conducted by the American Management Association—and nearly half of companies on the S&P 500 index have a chief diversity officer. So why are so many companies still lagging so far behind their stated goals of achieving racial equity?

There are a few obvious answers: So long as the US persists in being a racist society, systemic racism will necessarily continue to impact the experiences of Black people and other people of color in the workforce. Then there is the bad habit companies have of paying lip service to diversity and inclusion while taking little action to change the status quo.

But this is only part of the explanation. According to consultants and researchers, there are a number of other common missteps that even well-intentioned companies make when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

Performance reviews prevent people from rising

Performance reviews are one common practice that diversity experts say should be overhauled. The first problem, according to Evelyn Carter, a social psychologist and a director at diversity consultancy Paradigm, is that managers’ biases often lead them to include what she calls “stereotypical dog whistles” in Black employees’ reviews. A comment that a Black woman is too aggressive, for example, means that the reviewer is likely “thinking about a stereotype and mapping it onto that person, whether intentionally or not.”

Another common issue, Carter says, is that “the same things that white employees get praised for don’t earn the same boost for Black employees.” This is what some researchers call the “prove-it-again” trap: Time and time again, Black workers are asked to “demonstrate that we have skills and capabilities,” whereas white people are deemed competent after proving themselves once, Carter says.

Any company that’s serious about reviewing its practices for bias should take a close look at its performance-review process and set clear perimeters for the conversation, says Vanessa Tanicien, a facilitator at leadership training firm LifeLabs Learning. “What is the point of performance feedback? What does a good review look like? How many examples do you need to cite?” Creating concrete criteria and an answer key will help mitigate bias.

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1971: The US military creates a training program on race relations, conducted primarily through small-group discussions.

1972: Congress passes the the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, expanding the reach of anti-discrimination law.

1978: Judith Katz publishes White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, the first-ever group training program aimed at helping white people change ingrained biases.

1979: The US Supreme Court rules against a white worker claiming “reverse discrimination” in United Steelworkers of America v. Weber, affirming that employers have the right to use affirmative action plans.

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The D&I silo effect

Another way in which diversity and inclusion is often siloed is that it’s treated as the responsibility of current employees who come from underrepresented backgrounds. Chief diversity officers, who are often women and/or people of color, are tasked with turning an entire organization around while receiving little in the way of power, support, or resources, as Nadia Owusu, associate director of the economic racial justice Living Cities, writes in an article for Catapult. At many universities, Black professors who make up a tiny fraction of faculty frequently find themselves overwhelmed by committee and mentoring responsibilities that their white counterparts don’t have.

In order for diversity and inclusion efforts to be successful, they have to be supported and modeled first and foremost by the people at the top, according to Tanicien. “As a leader, you have a multiplier effect,” she explains. “What you do, other people do.”

Taylor adds that executives should be evaluated upon their ability to meet recruitment and retention goals. “Organizations should be focused on developing inclusive leaders,” he says.

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1982: Ronald Reagan appoints Clarence Thomas as the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas later claims that affirmative action policies “create a narcotic of dependency.”

1987: Lewis Griggs releases the first diversity training videos in his influential Valuing Diversity series. Meanwhile, increasing globalization leads to a surge of interest among many companies in how to navigate cross-cultural differences.

1987: The conservative think tank Hudson Institute releases its “Workforce 2000” report, predicting that changing demographics would lead white men to make up an increasingly small percentage of the workforce. The prediction spurs many employers to start investing in diversity programs.

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An overemphasis on unconscious, or implicit, bias 

There’s little doubt that many people hold biases they’re unaware of. But as Olivia Goldhill reported for Quartz in 2017, there’s scant science backing up the best way to measure and reduce those biases.

And yet many workplaces have eagerly arranged unconscious-bias training sessions, perhaps because the premise that we are not conscious of our behavior seems to go down easier with employees than suggesting that they may harbor explicitly racist beliefs.

The risk, Carter says, is that unconscious bias gets discussed at the exclusion of other forms of prejudice, which can result in letting people off the hook for discriminatory behavior. “Research shows that when people think implicit or unconscious bias is the culprit for a person’s behavior, they’re less likely to see it as a problem and less likely to be motivated to change it or take retributive action,” she says. Sure enough, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that perpetrators were less likely to be held accountable for their actions if their discrimination was attributed to implicit bias.

Instead, Carter says that companies should recognize that implicit bias is hardly the only kind of bias that people may hold—and yet still treat it with the seriousness and weight it deserves. “It’s a weird analogy, but I think about all of us walking around with a bat that’s on fire and invisible,” she says. We may not know we have a flaming invisible bat, but that hardly makes it any less dangerous. “We all have it and it’s not a big deal? That’s the wrong message,” she says.

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1990s: Experimental diversity trainings like Jane Elliot’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise and theater-based learning come into vogue.

1991: The Department of Labor issues its first “Glass Ceiling” report, finding that Fortune 500 companies are creating systemic barriers to the career advancement of women and minorities. The first annual National Diversity Conference, created by consultant Lewis Griggs, is held in San Francisco.

1993: Newsweek devotes a cover story to “White Male Paranoia” with regards to affirmative action and the growing diversity of the US population.

1996: A landmark discrimination lawsuit against Texaco results in a $176 million settlement and a commitment to improving employment and promotion opportunities for minority employees.

2000: In another landmark case, Coca-Cola agrees to pay $193 million to settle claims of racial bias and to overhaul its employment practices and policies.

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Force-feeding diversity efforts

In a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” authors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev analyzed three decades of data from more than 800 firms to understand why so many companies had failed to make significant progress.

Their diagnosis? Diversity training, grievance systems, and performance-review systems are often ineffective in part because they seem to lecture or take away agency from participants, who then feel alienated from efforts to create a more inclusive space. This may only exacerbate some white people’s hostility and/or apathy toward diversity efforts. (About 15% of white men say that they worry about their own career prospects when companies emphasize diversity, according to a recent McKinsey survey.)

Instead, Dobbin and Kalev suggest, “it’s more effective to engage managers in solving the problem, increase their on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promote social accountability—the desire to look fair-minded. That’s why interventions such as targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces have boosted diversity in businesses.”

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2001: Three-quarters of Fortune 500 companies have diversity initiatives in place.

2009: Ursula Burns becomes the first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company as CEO (and later, chairman) of Xerox.

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A misunderstanding of the pipeline problem 

In 1990, R. Roosevelt Thomas argued in the Harvard Business Review article “From Affirmative Action to Affirming Diversity” that many firms are trapped in a cycle of failure when it comes to diversity and inclusion. The cycle still holds true at many workplaces today.

Essentially, Thomas says, companies falsely believe that all they need to do to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace is hire more people of color, who will then naturally advance through the company’s ranks and eventually wind up in senior leadership positions.

It’s a cool plan that rarely works, precisely because leaders haven’t changed their workplace culture, which remains primarily designed to promote the comfort and success of white people. People from marginalized backgrounds either plateau or get so frustrated they leave the company, further diminishing the number of minority groups at the company. Eventually, the company gets called out for its overwhelming whiteness, and management embarks on a new hiring initiative—starting the cycle anew.

Companies can break this cycle, Thomas says, by redesigning their workplaces to be spaces where differences are respected and accommodated. A company that manages diversity well, he says, is one that is “enabling every member of your workforce to perform to his or her potential.”

Companies have to give up on the idea that cream naturally rises to the top. “In most companies, what passes for cream rising to the top is actually cream being pulled or pushed to the top by an informal system of mentoring and sponsorship,” he writes.

This informal system of mentoring is often a problem for Black people and others from marginalized backgrounds, since research shows that the people in senior-level positions—who, because of existing power structures, are often white, male, and privileged—tend to choose protégés who remind them of themselves.

That’s why formal mentoring programs that intentionally match people of color with leaders in their organization can make a big difference, according to Carter. “A large part of what helps people be successful is just having access,” she says.

Executive search firm and consultancy Heidrick & Struggles is currently exploring another way to help populate the leadership pipeline. It’s working with Stanford Law School on a leadership development program that aims to give diverse executives at various companies exposure to boardrooms. An executive at an airline, for example, might be sent to be a board observer at a consumer products company.

It’s meant to be a solution to the chicken-and-egg problem that often keeps boards overwhelmingly white: “You have boards saying, We want to improve diversity, but we also want someone who has experience,” says Lyndon Taylor, partner-in-charge at Heidrick’s Chicago office and head of the firm’s global diversity and inclusion practice.

The program, which launched last year, is currently working with a small cohort of companies. Taylor says there’s a takeaway for smaller companies as well: “Think early on about your leadership development.” He recommends that all companies ask the following questions: “What are the key critical experiences we want our leaders to have? And if they can’t get it at our organization, how do we partner with other organizations?”

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2016: The Economic Policy Institute predicts that people of color will make up a majority of America’s working class by 2032

2019: A Gallup poll shows that 61% of Americans support affirmative action for minorities, compared to 47% in 2001.

2020: Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company nominates its first Black board director, former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault

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