Diversity programming isn’t what it used to be.
What began as compulsory training to avoid lawsuits or negative press following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has evolved into what one diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultant calls a “constellation” of DEI initiatives.
While your organization’s diversity training is likely much more sophisticated than the programming of the 1980s or The Office’s “Diversity Day” fiasco, there are approaches you can take to move your diversity programs from informative to effective.
Before we explore why diversity programs fail and how we can boost their success, let’s dive into what exactly diversity programming is.
What is a diversity program?
Diversity programs come in different shapes and sizes, from hour-long lunch sessions to even days-long retreats. That’s because there’s a lot to unpack within diversity itself, from what diversity is and its importance to unconscious or implicit bias programming or training on hiring and recruiting diverse candidates.
At their best, diversity programs increase or cultivate a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture within workplaces.
Such programs or initiatives may be mandated or offered through a human resources department, an organization's board, executive leadership, or an employee specifically dedicated to diversity efforts like a Chief Diversity Officer.
Why do diversity programs fail?
Reason No. 1 why diversity programs fail: They’re mandatory.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are buzzwords in today’s workplace culture conversations, and rightfully so. Leadership at today’s top organizations understand that diversity is necessary not only to create a more inclusive work environment, but also to satisfy consumers, clients, stakeholders, and often the general public.
But despite this understanding, segments of the population remain underrepresented in companies across America. Is all this emphasis on diversity training amounting to anything at all? Why do diversity programs fail?
In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, Harvard University professor of sociology Frank Dobbin and Tel Aviv University associate professor of sociology Alexandra Kalev reveal that “people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance—and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.”
Simply put, mandates are seldom effective. Sure, they might guarantee that an individual completes a certain diversity program, but they’re shown to create more division rather than actually advance diversity, according to Dobbin and Kalev’s findings.
Alternatively, voluntary training leads to better outcomes. Providing people an opportunity to show up rather than mandating attendance can often give them feelings of agency and responsibility on the path toward diversity.
Reason No. 2 why diversity programs fail: They’re performative.
If you’re wondering why diversity initiatives fail, look no further than the performative diversity program. Mandatory programs can easily cross into performative territory, especially when either leaders or participants are simply going through the motions to cross diversity off their list of priorities for that season or quarter. So, how do you take diversity programs beyond this?
Two strategies that Dobbin and Kalev suggest include mentoring and college recruitment targeting women and minorities. With either of these approaches to diversity, the end goal is focused on the future rather than a quick-fix in the present.
Mentoring is rewarding in multiple respects; it provides growth and connection for both the mentor and the mentee, and it can foster mutual respect and cooperation among individuals who may not otherwise work together.
“Mentoring programs make companies’ managerial echelons significantly more diverse,” according to the Harvard Business Review. “On average they boost the representation of black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women, and Hispanic and Asian-American men, by 9% to 25%.”
If your workplace does not have a mentoring program that fosters diversity, consider advocating for one today. It’s been shown that white male executives are eager to mentor others, they do not always feel comfortable reaching out to potential mentees, particularly young women and minority men. And on the other side of the coin, women and minorities are often the first to sign up for mentoring opportunities, per the HBR article. There’s a gap here, and mentoring programs can help close it.
Lastly, intentionally recruiting diverse college candidates for internships and full-time roles is an excellent way to diversify your organization and sector’s pipeline. With this strategy, you’re focused on what your organization could look like five or 10 years from now while also lifting up qualified candidates who may have access to fewer opportunities.
Reason No. 3 why diversity programs fail: There’s no follow-up.
A major reason why diversity programs fail or are ineffective is due to a lack of follow-up “or a linking of what you’re learning in those modules to your day-to-day experience in the workplace,” says Dr. Sonia Kang, Canada Research Chair in Identity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the University of Toronto. Speaking in an episode of The Argument podcast, Kang goes on to say that lack of follow-up is where diversity programs “get lost.”
One way to put into practice the lessons or mindsets employees learn from diversity education is through increased collaboration in the workplace, particularly across roles and spheres of expertise. Dobbin and Kalev recommend what they call self-managed teams, groups that “allow people in different roles and functions to work together on projects as equals.”
Self-managed teams are effective in advancing diversity because they increase contact among diverse individuals. Think about it: in most cases, the people in your workplace are folks you likely would not ever meet or know if not for your occupation. Kang calls this exposure “so important,” adding that “intergroup contact is one of the prime ways that people break down these kinds of boundaries and build that motivation to be better.”
Plus, teams of professionals of different backgrounds and experiences coming together can lead to increased innovation and new solutions to old problems. It’s practical from a business and a diversity standpoint.
Why do diversity initiatives fail?
Diversity initiatives often fail when they’re not inclusive.
The language used when talking about diversity can sometimes play a role in why diversity initiatives fail. For example, negative language is not necessarily constructive when it comes to diversity education or training. Instead, negative messaging can lead to feelings of blame or shame, both of which are not effective means of real change on an individual level.
Rather than telling managers or employees that they are the problem, it’s important to clearly communicate that all employees are invited to be part of the solution.
Diversity initiatives often fail when there’s not a growth mindset.
Remember, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is not a checklist. Since diversity initiatives center primarily on creating healthy workplace cultures, it follows that the conversation about diversity should be a continual one. We should always be striving to be a part of and cultivate a healthier workplace.
To do so, it’s key to embrace a growth mindset. Do not assume you’ve arrived once you've completed "X" program or earned "Y" certificate. Continue learning, understand that setbacks are part of the process, keep going, and encourage others to do the same.
Why diversity programs fail and what works better
Overall, diversity programs fail or are least effective when they’re mandatory, performative, and do not involve any follow-up. Organizations can combat these common failures or mistakes by:
- providing voluntary opportunities to learn about and cultivate diversity.
- instituting practices such as mentoring or diversity-minded recruitment programs.
- establishing self-managed teams.
As the Harvard Business Review found, “the most effective programs engage people in working for diversity, increase their contact with women and minorities, and tap into their desire to look good to others.”
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