Diversity and Inclusion: What Really Works?

Claudio Garcia & Tammy Heermann Article

Diversity - everyone wants more of it.

Many business organizations believe a more diverse workforce is key to long-term success. In fact, millions and millions of dollars are spent on programs that promise to recruit, retain, and help develop the careers of underrepresented minorities in a bid to make workplaces more representative of society on the whole.

And yet, after decades of chasing the Holy Grail of workplace diversity, how successful have we been in achieving our goals? In fact, do we really know what it means to be diverse?

For many years now, diversity has meant creating programs to provide opportunities for disadvantaged groups within society, setting recruitment targets and quotas, and creating affinity groups, specialized mentors, and other ancillary development programs.

The intentions may have been noble, but current research shows that many workplaces engaged in these programs and practices are not becoming more diverse.

Where did we go wrong?

Out of the ashes of the early iterations of diversity initiatives has come a broader understanding of the nature of true diversity and the hurdles that we have inadvertently created along the way. In other words, diversity programming and other competing trends in the talent development space may be moving us further away from the goal of a truly diverse workplace.

There are many subtle hurdles that fall into this category. However, there are two major issues that seem to be the root cause of many diversity initiative failures.

Affinity and minority-only programs may do more harm than good
In the late 1990s, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published a study that looked at the impact of “stereotype threat” on math performance of men and women. The study theorized that the traditional negative stereotype that presumes women are worse than men at math actually caused them to perform worse.

The researchers created two control groups that included both men and women. The first group was given a math test and told that women typically score worse than men. The second group was told that men and women scored the same. The results were fascinating: in the first group, the women who were reminded of the stereotype underperformed; in the second group, the men and women produced very similar test scores.

This research suggests that remedial efforts fail because they inherently suggest that individual employees that fall into underrepresented groups cannot compete on an equal footing with others. This conclusion has been reinforced by subsequent research.

Stanford University Professor Gregory Walton found that minorities performed substantially better when they were educated alongside non-minorities to understand and share common adversities, such as the transition from high school to college. Walton’s study showed that all students, regardless of background, experienced the same difficulties transitioning from high school to college.

However, minorities, without intervention to see that these difficulties impacted all students, would see the “adversity … as an indictment of their belonging.” The minorities that shared their experiences with non-minorities performed markedly better over a three-year study period than minorities that didn’t share their experiences with non-minorities.

In organizations, this dynamic plays out in the affinity groups that have become commonplace today. These social groups bring support, community, and belonging to individuals that often feel alone. 

Given the failure of diversity initiatives in general, however, we might have to ask ourselves if minority-focused development and mentoring programs serve only to reinforce stereotypes about who succeeds and who fails. Based on the research above, it appears that someone who is often reminded that they are different, despite starting on an equal footing, can fail to perform.

“Cultural fit” is often at odds with diversity
Diversity has not been the only goal of the talent management world. As the importance of diversity has risen, we have also seen increasing attention and resources paid to the concept of “cultural fit.”

In the workplace context, cultural fit is defined as the ability of a person to conform and adapt to the pre-existing values and collective behaviors that make up an organization. Fit is considered a desirable quality because it is often linked to seamless onboarding, where a new hire can literally hit the ground running. Long-term, cultural fit is believed to speak to an ability to collaborate and support coworkers because – or so the theory goes – an employee that fits well with a pre-existing culture is a good team player.

It has become increasingly apparent, however, that the emphasis on cultural fit is at odds with the principles of diversity.

Cultural fit can, and has, inadvertently eclipsed diversity goals. This is quite evident in places like the tech sector, where the whole concept of “fit” has been applied by hiring managers to find people that “think like me” or even “look like me.” If the hiring managers are not from a minority group, and a good many are not, then the cultural fit default often prompts the hiring of people that look, sound, and think like the people already populating an organization’s workforce.

As is the case with programs that reinforce minority stereotypes, many organizations are just now becoming more aware of the error of their ways. 

Increasingly, organizations have changed their definition of what constitutes a good “fit” and are more carefully considering how it is applied during the hiring process. Facebook, a leader on this issue, concluded the term “cultural fit” was fraught with bias. The company has instructed their interviewers to stop using the term because it can easily sway the outcomes of the recruitment process and produce less diverse results.

How can we achieve true diversity?
Clearly, there is a need to reevaluate years, even decades, of planning and thinking around the issue of diversity. Both Gregory Walton’s research and the change in thinking of organizations like Facebook has shown us that there is a way forward to a more inclusive, truly diverse workplace. But it’s going to take some hard work to get there.

At the front end of the problem, we need to see a concerted effort to redesign recruiting and hiring practices to avoid bias and attract more diverse talent. But more needs to be done to avoid imposing concepts like “cultural fit” on recruitment to the detriment of diversity.

  • Question sacred cow criteria. It’s rare that we question long-standing hiring criteria, especially when it’s defended by the concept of “cultural fit,” or when it is a key element of an organization’s mission statement. But it’s important to challenge these criteria to see if inadvertent filters are present. For example, executives of a golf association decided they wanted to hire more women. However, a long held hiring criterion was that employees needed to be low-handicap golfers. That automatically weeded out a lot of promising female candidates, who may have been very good at their jobs but bad golfers. It was an unnecessary filter that worked against the organization’s stated diversity goals.
  • Put a different face forward. The perceptions of candidates will be largely determined by the person they meet on the other side of the table in a job interview. If you want to boost diversity, you have to show people you have some diversity. A major financial institution recently decided to ban male leaders from conducting interviews at their alma maters, out of a concern that these interviews did nothing but produce a cadre of “mini mes,”  candidates who were spitting images of the interviewers. Instead they expanded the recruiting team to include a more diverse group of interviewers.
  • Dispel myths to educate. A railway decided it wanted to hire more women in certain key areas of the company. This included train conductors — one of the most male-dominated roles of all time. The railway’s HR leader decided to expose candidates to webinars hosted by female recruiters, hiring managers, and women that formerly or currently worked as conductors. This clearly and powerfully dispelled the myth that women could not be train conductors. The strategy not only increased female applicants, it increased the hire rate of females in multiple jobs across the company.
  • Use leadership development programs to build a diverse pipeline of leaders. While Affinity programs are great for networking and support, history has shown they don’t significantly improve the leadership diversity within an organization. You need to embed diversity objectives into all your talent development processes, particularly leadership development. Leadership and talent development initiatives need to be more inclusive at the outset, but should also integrate opportunities for employees from different ethnicities and backgrounds understand their common challenges so that they see they are more similar than different. Carefully track the results of these programs. Are they building a more diverse pipeline of talent and leaders? If the outcome is not as diverse as planned, then you need to go and make sure you respected the diversity imperative at the front end of these programs.

The goal of workplace diversity has never been as important as it is today. And yet, far too many organizations are unconsciously moving further away from their stated goal because of inadvertent or even unconscious mistakes in recruiting, hiring, and talent management.

The good news is that finally achieving true diversity is not out of reach for most organizations. It only requires a reconfiguring, not a reinvention, of current programs and practices.

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