Diversity programs often don’t increase workplace diversity. In fact, research suggests many of the most popular programs employed by companies to increase diversity and reduce bias actually make things worse.
Much of what we know about how and why Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) programs fail comes from the research of two sociology professors, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev. They’ve analyzed three decades worth of data from over 800 medium to large U.S. companies to see how the most popular programs influenced diversity representation among company managers five years after the programs were implemented.
The following are excerpts from their research, much of which they’ve laid out in an article titled “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” in the July-August 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review.
The results are staggering.
The most widely used programs made companies less diverse, not more. How can this be?
Part of it has to do with the employer’s motivation for installing a diversity program in the first place, as well as whether it’s mandatory for employees.
According to Deloitte’s Diversity and Inclusion Maturity Model, companies that institute diversity programs for the sake of mere “compliance” or to preempt lawsuits and mitigate negative PR have the least success. Such programs are generally put in place after discrimination lawsuits and harassment claims and are viewed as “punishment” by employees.
As Dobbin and Kalev write:
“Laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out. As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.” (‘Why Diversity Programs Fail,’ 2016)
It’s also no surprise that companies that took an active approach to recruit more women and people of color into various roles saw a dramatic increase in diverse employees who made up their management teams five years later.
So what do these diversity programs actually entail? Here is a brief overview of the programs analyzed in the Dobbin & Kalev study and how each influenced diversity.
First, let’s look at the worst programs:
1) Job tests refer to any form of aptitude or personality test that candidates are required to take as part of their job application. A recent survey by the American Management Association (AMA) found that 70% of employers mandate some form of job skills testing, and 46% of employers use personality or psychological tests on application procedures. The issue Dobbin and Kalev found is that employers opted to test some applicants (minorities, for instance) while choosing not to test others (such as white men who were friends with current employees). They also reported that test results were often ignored in cases where an applicant was already favored.
2) Grievance systems, intended to stamp out inequality, allow employees to challenge pay, promotion, and termination decisions by managers if they think such choices are rooted in discrimination. While well-intentioned, such programs create a toxic work environment where managers have been known to retaliate against employees they suspect to have filed the complaint.
“Among the nearly 90,000 discrimination complaints made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2015, 45% included a charge of retaliation—which suggests that the original report was met with ridicule, demotion, or worse.” (‘Why Diversity Programs Fail,’ 2016)
When employees see that grievance systems fail to stop discrimination, they stop reporting it altogether, which only allows it to fester. The result is a highly toxic work environment — and that is not good for any employer trying to retain diverse talent.
3) Mandatory diversity training is the most popular program, with nearly half of midsize companies and almost all the Fortune 500 using it. It’s a combination of these programs being mandatory and legalistic that make them so detrimental. Such programs are framed with threatening messages, negative incentives, and a format that highlights legal motivations for diversity.
Dobbin and Kalev sum it up:
“Five years after instituting required training for managers, companies saw no improvement in the proportion of white women, black men, and Hispanics in management, and the share of black women actually decreased by 9%, on average, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women shrank by 4% to 5%. Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance—and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.” (‘Why Diversity Programs Fail,’ 2016)
So what does work? Here are the five best-performing programs for diversity, according to the study:
1) Diversity task forces are teams assembled to promote social accountability within the workforce by focusing on diversity numbers for different departments, business units, and levels of management. They are comprised of volunteers from various departments and include employees from underrepresented groups. The mission of diversity task forces is to analyze areas like recruitment practices and paths to promotion to uncover problem areas and formulate solutions to then take back to their departments.
“On average, companies that put in diversity task forces see 9% to 30% increases in the representation of white women and of each minority group in management over the next five years.” (‘Why Diversity Programs Fail,’ 2016)
2) Mentoring programs were one of the least commonly used methods to promote diversity, with only about 10% of firms having formal programs. However, they’ve been proven to be highly effective for diversity if appropriately managed. Social science tells us that when people get to choose their own mentees, they are prone to pick people who are most like themselves. And we already know women and minorities are painfully underrepresented in management roles at America’s top companies, which means these underrepresented candidates wouldn’t often be voluntarily hand-selected for mentorship programs.
The strength of formal mentoring programs then, is that managers are assigned proteges, who they then deem to be worthy of their time and experience. And women and minorities were often first to sign up for mentorship programs. When barriers of race and gender were removed, formal mentoring programs on averaged boosted representation of black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women, and Hispanic and Asian-American men, by 9% to 24%.
3) Diversity managers are being appointed by many organizations to guide employee recruitment, retention, and engagement. According to the study, companies who appointed diversity managers saw a 7-18% increase in all underrepresented groups (men and women) in management roles five years later. The only exception in the study was Hispanic men, who saw no statistical change in prevalence among management.
It turns out transparency in hiring and promotion decisions is critical for diversity to thrive.
4) College recruitment programs, which focused on hiring women and minorities, increased the representation among virtually all underrepresented groups in management. Since college recruits aren’t usually hired for management roles right away, this means that such active diversity recruitment programs found and retained top talent long enough for them to be promoted into managerial positions.
When companies adopt diversity as a priority, talent acquisition teams become diversity champions. And the active recruitment programs they create make a lasting impact on the representation of women and minorities in critical management roles.
5) Voluntary diversity training proved to be vastly more productive than its mandatory counterpart. The difference was in the power of allowing people to choose to attend workshops and training on diversity. It was also beneficial for employers who hosted voluntary training to focus on the benefits of diversity, as opposed to punishments for harassment claims. Employers that held optional training saw moderate increases of most minorities in management five years out.
The data paints a clear picture: Employers are successful at creating a diverse workforce when they take a positive and proactive approach to diversity recruitment, empower employees to create solutions, encourage on-the-job contact among people from different diversity groups, prioritize transparency in hiring and promotion decisions, and promote social accountability in decision-making.
Those who create corporate programs with a legalistic framework and focus on preventing damage control and lawsuits become less diverse, not more.
Visit our workplace diversity hub for further reading relating to current challenges faced by women and people of color, wage gaps, successful inclusion strategies, diversity in corporate and government leadership, effective talent acquisition and diversity programs, and how artificial intelligence affects diversity outcomes.