Before I begin, let me assure you, I am in favor of workforce diversity, moreso now since I retired three months ago and don’t have to deal with it. I think it is wrong to exclude people based on any criteria other than intelligence or appropriate skills from contributing to a project or a team. I am against bias in the workplace as well. My following criticisms are aimed at organizations who are doing D&I and want to do it right.
Imagine you work in a company and have successfully led many teams over the years. Suddenly, thanks to a new initiative the company sponsors, you find out that you have not been staffing your teams correctly. In fact, you’ve been doing it all wrong. “How can that be, my projects have all been successful? Sure, most of the work we had to do sucked, but we met and exceeded our goals?” The response you receive is you have not been factoring in Diversity and Inclusiveness in your staffing. “But I have always put the best people on a project.” “That’s wrong. You need to put the most diverse and inclusive team together.”
Thus the head-scratching begins…
Believe it or not this is happening everywhere. It is a convulsive fit of political correctness infiltrating the workplace. Like the road to hell, it is built on entirely good intentions. Diversity and Inclusiveness (D&I) is all the buzz in the realms of the corporate overlords. If you are not aware of D&I yet, your time is coming. In its most basic form, D&I philosophy says that if you have a diverse working team (race, sexual preference, etc.) you will produce better products. It claims that people should be paid equitably – i.e. men and women should make the same pay for doing the same job. On the surface, this seems innocent enough.
Let’s tackle this from a perspective of asking, “Why wouldn’t you have a diverse team? Why wouldn’t you pay people fairly?” First, you may be biased, consciously or unconsciously, to exclude people who are not like you. That’s bad. No sane person can argue in favor of bias. Things start to fall apart after that though. What if your approach is simply to have the best people talent-wise on your team? What if that team is not diverse? Is that bad? D&I die-hards will say “yes.” Why, because you may get better results with a diverse team. In other words, you should sacrifice having the best team to the concept of having a highly balanced, well-rounded team. Thus begins the D&I conundrum.
The Claims That D&I Makes Money or Increases Quality
While many advocates proclaim they support D&I because it is the right thing to do, what really is fueling the surge of these programs is an increase in potential profits. Stress “potential.” Consulting companies that sell D&I services (and there are a lot of them now) claim that companies that have such programs in place and have diverse leadership teams generate anywhere from 10-19% more revenue.
Of course, most of that “research” is designed to sell their services. Some of it is outright faulty,. It also does not take into account other factors that might be driving revenue increases. I’ve looked at few of the studies and some are not balanced or even “scientific” at all. There are often no control groups and how they measure the alleged boosts in profitability is questionable. Quality improvements that are claimed are judgmental rather than measured against another team producing the same product the old-fashioned way. Most of these studies concentrate on leadership teams that are diverse, which really doesn’t address the expense, time, and effort to put full-blown D&I programs in place.
In many respects, D&I programs can be viewed as a solution in search of a problem. They are unguided missiles fired into the organization, looking for places to impact. Today the topic may be sexual diversity. Tomorrow they may target a team because it doesn’t have a strong LGBT representation. Next week it might be the lack of Lithuanians on your global teams. Next month you may find yourself questioned as to why you didn’t put the Romanian transgender on your team, despite the fact that didn’t speak the same language as the rest of the team. There is no end in sight because the people running these teams are always looking for the next hit.
Anyone speaking out against these programs is immediately labeled as biased, or far worse. While so far, few have advocated having quotas for hiring and promotion; D&I gets dangerously close to the Q-word – quotas. In some instances it is social justice reformation infiltrating the workplace under the guise of better productivity. I won’t argue the merits of whether such programs are needed…because I think they are useful if properly aligned to the organization and administered as change efforts. The challenge is that many are not well run. They do not have success and actually waste time rather than increase quality or profits.
Roots of Resistance and the True Motivation for Having a D&I Program
So where do these programs falter or fail? Let’s take a look.
An organization implementing a D&I program is essentially admitting they do not adhere to the ideals of diversity and inclusiveness. Otherwise, why have a program in the first place? So collective guilt is the messy foundation of the launch of many of these programs. Guilt, which generates instant resistance.
But is a formal program like this actually needed? Let’s assume you run a company or firm and are not paying people fairly/equitably; one of the many targets of D&I programs. That can be proved fairly easily by running some reports from payroll and HR. If you are not paying people equitably by sex or race; you can change it! Start paying people fairly in the next pay cycle. Problem solved. Likewise, if you have managers that are not adhering to the hiring and teaming guidelines and discriminating, why not fire them? If they are discriminatory, terminate them. Again, problem solved.
This begs the question: Why do you need a program in the first place? Just make the changes, no one will complain. If you fired a few senior VP’s for not staffing teams with good unbiased mixes of people – you might be surprised at how quickly the rest of the organization falls in line. Like Stewie Griffin said, “Nothing says ‘obey me’ like a bloody head on a post.” You don’t need a program in place to do the right thing. You need leaders who instinctively know how to do the right thing and hold themselves accountable. And if the leaders do it, it will get enforced further down the organization.
I know, you’re already chuckling. I mean seriously, leaders holding themselves accountable? It is funny. However if you are delusional enough to think that forming a team of lower ranked staff can make the senior leaders, who are their bosses, do to the right thing, then grab a cup of the D&I Koolaide and chug it down. That is what happens when you designate a D&I team and kick off a program.
The argument often countered to this is, “It’s more complicated than that.” But is it really? In reality, having a D&I program is, by design, only to propagate itself with no end in sight. In fact, other than withering on the vine and dying of natural causes, most D&I programs don’t have an end-state that is defined. When do they run the flag up and declare victory? Never. Because they will always be looking for another injustice or inequality in the organization. If they can’t find them, the people allocated to work on these programs have nothing to do and are redundant – so they are on a constant search for the next social injustice in the company.
So let’s cut to the chase as to why these programs are in place. The REAL reason is that these programs exist is so that the organizations that have them can tell the world they have them. “Look at us, we believe in Diversity and Inclusiveness! We are doing the right thing…because we have a program and people dedicated to it to prove it.” This is all about public image rather than actually driving change. It helps with recruiting of the millennial workforce as well. “You should work here, we have programs that target the injustices of the world.”
You may say that’s not the case, but I have hands-on experience with this. I went to D&I leadership at my last company, which I will not name and said we should have a professional network of older employees, those near retirement who are not in the top levels of rank in the organization. “We have special needs and interests and are in a different place in our careers than other groups. We also have a lot to contribute given our experience. Rather than marginalize these employees, why not invigorate them?” I even labeled it, “Chronodiversity ©. I went so far as to suggest that if we had such a program, we could sell it as a service to our clients. In other words, not only would it help our people but we could cash in on it.
You would think they would have been all over it. Wrong.
What I was told, and I quote here, “We can’t support an age diversity group because millennials won’t want to take part in it. The reason we have these networks and programs is to appeal to the younger employees.” In other words, age diversity wasn’t allowed to exist or even acknowledged. The message to me was crystal clear, D&I, in this instance, was a marketing tool for recruitment and retention. If it could not involve millennials, the firm wanted no part of it. That framed this for me perfectly. It wasn’t about diversity – it was about the illusion of diversity and inclusiveness.
The Pitfalls of D&I
Since then I’ve talked to people in several companies and have my own experience with these programs. Many stagnate and flounder, trying to take root. What are the issues with D&I initiatives? Here are a few problems they introduce or struggle with as well as some counters to these issues:
- As stated earlier, there is a collective presumption of guilt associated with D&I. “Clearly you all have bias and are all offenders, holding down minorities, women, and other negatively impacted groups. All of you are the problem.” For advocates of D&I, this predetermined guilt, along with organizations that allow this to happen, are what is holding diversity groups back in their careers. Essentially it lays blame on a portion of the organization that may or may not have ever taken part in an act of non-inclusiveness rather than targeting those individuals that are, indeed, violators.
- The heart and core of most D&I programs is training, a lot of training. Ironically, training is also one of the least effective ways to drive cultural change, yet most programs start and end there. D&I tends to be like the person with a hammer in their hand…the whole world looks like a nail.
To expect people to attend a few hours of learning and that will somehow drive them to behave differently is arrogant and flawed thinking. Some of these biases come from a lifetime of experience and upbringing. To expect they can be solved with a course on unconscious biases in an hour or two is laughable. If you want to drive real change you need positive and negative reinforcement, consequences for bad behavior, rewards for good behavior, and leaders who put action over words. You need supportive networks where issues can be surfaced and addressed without fear of repercussion. Training has a role to play, but it is a secondary one if you want to alter workplace culture. For D&I to work, it has to have teeth. It must have the ability to impact senior leaders, up to termination, or it is just a bunch of unsupported training.
- There is an assumption that white males have advantages in the workplace. I, for one, never felt like I had any advantage being a white male. I had to work hard for every promotion I ever earned. I also have had female managers for a good portion of my career. They too worked hard for their promotions. Where is all of this “advantage” I keep hearing about? The argument that because I haven’t seen it, that it doesn’t exist is akin to saying, “Just because you haven’t seen Bigfoot, it doesn’t mean that he’s not out there.” Please don’t tell me that I experienced a benefit as a white male when you don’t know me, know my career, or know what I have had to sacrifice over the years. While it may not be stated out loud, it most certainly is implied.
This thinking actually erodes D&I efforts because it forces white males to oppose the efforts of D&I because it is based on a fallacy in their eyes. You need everyone, including white males, to be on-board with a cultural change. Ironically, to implement a real change, you need this group to be aligned to D&I ideals – but instead the D&I program makes them the target and adversaries by default. Like one person I spoke to put it, “Why am I being told that I’m the problem?”
- There’s some confusion as to what problem D&I is actually fixing. What is the actual goal of D&I? Is it quotas or predefined team compositions? If you cannot define the endgame, you cannot hope to win.
Over the years I had gay people working for me, but I often didn’t know if for a long time. I just hired the best people. I didn’t care if they were female, male, or what their country of origin was. If they happened to be gay or transgender, well, I always figured that was their business. I just staffed great people. To me, this seems to be what should be the goal of D&I…that managers just put fantastic people on their teams without any bias. Instead, what I have seen, is there are mythical numbers – quotas – that people seem to believe constitute what makes a great team. To me, and to many people, that is wrong.
- Many D&I programs target “barriers” in the workplace. There is a presumption barriers for women (and other groups) to undertake some careers and those barriers are seen a problem. Example: “We need to encourage more women to enter the STEM fields.” I challenge that. Why must me we (at the corporate level) attempt to sway their career choices? Personally, I always assumed women were smarter than those of us men that pursued such careers. Perhaps many of them don’t want to enter a field that is filled with idiotic managers, constant (often frustrating) change, the persistent threat of outsourcing and layoffs, and long unforgiving hours. If I had my career to do over, I probably wouldn’t have pursued this career path myself. There is a supposition that there is some sort of barrier erected by men to keep women from certain career paths. In reality, they are probably just smarter than those of us that went into STEM as a career.
It is also safe to assume that the choice of a STEM career begins much earlier in life, before college. This is not something for corporate America to wrestle with, but society, families, and early education institutions. If you were raised in a family that discouraged you from going to college, one that insisted that you get married and have children – why is it the corporate world’s responsibility to encourage you with a STEM career? Hell, it has been ingrained in you for decades to not go down this path. Putting this burden on the corporate overlords is folly, by this time in life, many people have already chosen their career paths.
Bottom line – may people think it is wrong to try and force people down career paths…even if your intention is good.
- Many D&I programs start with a presumption that the problem exists at every level of the organization. Everyone is the problem equally. In reality, any issues are almost always at the top and trickle down. I saw one message on the subject that said, “You have to challenge the thinking that women and minorities don’t have a lot to offer.” The word, “challenge” is interesting because in reality, it is challenging those in authority. As one colleague put it, “Why are they putting me through all of this training? I don’t hire anyone nor am I likely to. The problem is with all of the people at the top not hiring diverse talent.” Organizations that claim to get a lift from D&I programs, almost always have a leadership level that has adopted the principles of inclusiveness.
- Diversity is a slippery slope. What constitutes diversity? Is it categorizing people or is it diversity of thinking? Defining this is critical yet most D&I programs try and dodge hard and fast definitions. Diversity of thought is probably more important than any other aspect of D&I, but it is often glossed over.
- There is a political undercurrent in some D&I efforts. The Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer person at Kellogg Community College in my hometown of Battle Creek recently attended a protest over the visit of Donald Trump to the city. He carried a sign that boldly said, well you can see for yourself:
Now while you can go out in your private life and do what you want to do, it seems pretty clear that in this case the person they have leading their D&I efforts is not open to other ways of thinking – a diversity of thought. It is a case of someone not living the ideals they are responsible for leading. While you may claim this is an isolated case, I have several folks I know who have photos I have seen circulated in knitted vagina hats screaming at protest marches on the weekends, while at work they are “leading” diversity efforts. While I don’t want to dive too deep into political debate, there seems to be an underlying agenda at play here that cannot be ignored. Bottom line: If you are going to tell people to act a certain way, you need to demonstrate those behaviors both at work and in your personal life and be open to frank and candid conversations that challenge your beliefs.
- I touched on this earlier, but it deserves its own bullet. Much of our belief and values comes from our upbringing, our families, our parents, what we are exposed to as children, etc. To expect the workplace to solve a potential problem that may have its roots in family expectations and morals is crazy. Some families might only encourage certain career paths, or lifestyle choices. Religion plays a part in people’s lives too and may be deeply instilled. If you want to get to the source of potential D&I issues, you have to look outside of the workplace.
In some cases D&I programs can conflict with regional and country values. I watched one leader in my former organization do a D&I talk in India, telling the employees they needed to act differently towards women at work. It was awkward and weird and actually put the females in an uncomfortable position – having to choose a corporate program over their culture. It is cute to think that your organization has the clout to change a national or religious culture, but that’s all it is – cute.
- Just having a D&I program can actually diminish the achievements of individual that the programs claim to be supporting. When someone is promoted, it begs the question, “Was this person promoted because of their being in a diverse group? They just promoted her because she was female and they wanted to improve their numbers.” Perhaps that person DID deserve the promotion, but thanks to the D&I program being in place, few may believe that. Organizations should promote people based on their performance, with no bias. But having a program in place makes people wonder, was the D&I program a factor in this person getting their new position?
I would counter that the measurements are all wrong. Instead of looking at the number of women and minorities that are rising through the ranks of the company, why not measure the impact of those teams that use more diverse teams? The argument/myth is that having a diverse team leads to better quality solutions…so measure that. Prove that D&I produces the results the experts and studies claim.
- Often times the money spent on D&I is misused. There are dozens of conferences around the planet for D&I. D&I teams LOVE to attend conferences and meetings. Rather than send a different diverse group every time, some of the same people go over and over. Why? Well, your company wants to make sure it is known to the public and potential employees that they have a D&I program – so attending is seen as vital. Not because it advanced D&I at all, but because it was a public relations move. Sidebar: Nothing cracked me up more than my last organization sending a male, balding, 60 year old, heterosexual, to a Lesbians Do IT meeting…and I wasn’t alone. This guy was not the problem in the organization, trust me. And while good PR for the organization was important, it seems like this networking opportunity was squandered on a handful of people out to latch onto D&I to advance their own careers.
Ultimately, many D&I programs are telling people how to think and act based on what the program thinks they are thinking. No one ever asked me where I thought the problems lay in our organization, they just assumed I, like so many others, were part of the problem. It is a recipe for failure.
From people I talked to in preparation of this article, I got the sense that their organizations are struggling with D&I. It is almost as if it is a home for folks who pursued social justice degrees. One person summed it up this way, “I wish they would just tell me what they want me to do differently and then leave me alone.” Hardly the embracing that most organizations seek, but it is often the attitude of those that have these programs inflicted upon them.
By now I am sure there are some folks, the budding social justice warriors out there, whose blood is up, ready to slap some sort of derogatory label to me. Might I suggest, “Quasi-retired, white, male, overweight, arrogant, prick (or asshat – your call).” I encourage some creativity here on your parts. Those who are most offended by this article are likely the people that are involved (or leading) dysfunctional D&I programs and this hit too close to home.
It wasn’t my intention to make you angry (okay, it was, just a little though.) My intention was to point out the flaws with some of these initiatives so that you can recraft your D&I program so that it is effective and impactful.
It is actually quite simple. Treat your D&I program as a change program not an extensive training program. Target your initiatives to the groups or individuals where there are known issues rather than the masses. Figure out a goal and articulate it clearly. Take meaningful, visible actions like firing those that blatantly are biased. Don’t exclude diverse groups (like older employees) because it doesn’t warm the cockles of your millennial workforce. Don’t try and fix perceived social injustices that you cannot because they exist outside of the workplace. Define how you will measure success and completion.
Best of luck.