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Two Recommendations That Will Improve Diversity and Inclusions Programs

November 10, 2016

In my previous post, I predicted that the best of America is yet to come and that America will achieve greater prosperity because of its diverse citizenry and their capacity for inclusiveness. However, I also claimed that our current diversity and inclusion efforts have failed to produce needed results.

My assessment that current diversity and inclusion initiatives are failing to yield tangible results is not unique. The cover story of the July-August 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review bluntly declares, “Most [diversity] programs just don’t work.”

The authors of the lead article, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, showed that despite headline-grabbing initiatives by large corporations, “most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity.” In fact, they contend that diversity programs are “making things worse, not better.”

Part of the problem is that the conceptual framework behind most diversity programs is primarily designed to minimize litigation, rather than to promote diversity as such. Accordingly, the framework targets managers (who are mostly white males) for intervention. Most programs require managers to undergo diversity training, but that training ends up activating bias rather than reducing it. According to Dobbin and Kalev, “Trainers [report] that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance—and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.”

Moreover, managers often perceive hiring tests, performance ratings systems, and grievance procedures – measures usually instituted by top leaders in part to leave less room for bias – as threats to their authority and autonomy. Many managers take covert countermeasures against these procedures to regain their autonomy, and it is minority and female employees who often wind up paying the price in the ensuing power struggle. For example, Dobbin and Kalev report that when organizations are required to use hiring tests, “white managers were making only strangers—most of them minorities—take supervisor tests and hiring white friends without testing them.”

Dobbin and Kalev argue that we need a new conceptual framework that allows managers to become agents of social and organizational change, rather than passive targets of intervention. The new framework is based on three principles: “Engage managers in solving the problem, expose them to people from different groups, and encourage social accountability for change”.

My personal observations and professional assessments support Dobbin’s and Kalev’s analysis. Their list of proposals is a good start, and it provides two concrete recommendations.

First, leaders need to stop requiring diversity (or sensitivity) training. Diversity training does not and cannot bring about lasting behavioral change, especially when the training is made mandatory for managers.

There is a good analogy that can be drawn between reducing psychological bias and losing weight: we wouldn’t expect someone to lose weight just by attending a “training” that does little more than provide him with information about the undesirable effects of being overweight and then ask him to eat less and exercise. So too with diversity: why would we believe that simply attending diversity (or sensitivity) training will eliminate biases and/or stop someone from unconsciously acting on those biases?

Second, leaders must recommit to the principle of equal opportunity and equal justice as the sole foundation of their diversity and inclusion initiatives. Accordingly, diversity and inclusion initiatives must benefit everyone, regardless of their background.

Many leaders claim that their diversity programs are already based on this principle, but few leaders examine the criteria that their organizations use to select people for career development opportunities and managerial positions. Instead, they assign career-enhancing projects and critical responsibilities based on ‘gut’ feelings – intuitions that are, by definition, collections of implicit and explicit biases accumulated over a lifetime.

Implementing these two recommendations will create necessary – though not sufficient – conditions to improve the effectiveness of diversity inclusion programs. Many more changes are needed, but these recommendations represent a good start.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu