What does a successful diversity program look like? Apparently that’s a question most companies don’t seem to be able to answer, according to the authors of the following two articles published last year in the Harvard Business Review:
- Diversity policies rarely make companies fairer, and they feel threatening to white men.
- Why diversity programs fail: And what works better.
No one should be surprised that most diversity programs don’t work. Diversity programs are essentially change initiatives, and their failure mirrors the dismal track record of change initiatives generally.
The poor success rate of change initiatives has been the subject of extensive research and commentary since the 1990s. Management gurus like Harry Mintzberg and Jim Clemmer were beginning to question the very notion of managing change.
In the 2000s management scholars began criticising the idea that top managers drive organisational change by first formulating and then implementing strategy. Steven Floyd and Bill Wooldridge suggested shifting focus from top to middle managers. They hypothesized that a more efficient implementation of the strategy requires organisational members at at lower levels to understand the strategy and commit to it.
The research presented by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in their HBR article “Why Diversity Programs Fail: And what works better” indicates that Floyd and Woodridge are right. They found that diversity programs work when companies engage people from multiple levels in strategising about how to increase diversity.
Not surprisingly, Dobbin and Kalev found that most diversity programs haven’t been working because most companies have been following the same change strategy since the 1960s: diversity training, hiring tests and performance ratings to limit bias in recruitment and promotions, and establishing grievance systems. These are compliance-oriented strategies that primarily serve to protect companies from discrimination lawsuits. They do nothing to increase diversity. In fact, they can make things worse.The foregoing combined with my own research and experience lead me to conclude that a successful diversity strategy includes the following seven steps:
- Collect the right data
This may seem obvious. Nevertheless, a lot of companies assume they know where the problems are without ever collecting data to test those assumptions. Suppose a company has far fewer women than men in senior leadership positions. It has no idea why or how this happens without data. It needs data on things like the gender composition of applicants, the rates of promotion for men and women, take-up of maternity or paternity leave and length of employment after return. With this data in hand, the company can focus its resources on real rather than imagined problems.
- Get top management buy-in.
Some companies skip this part. The CEO or HR manager may simply asks a person of color who is active in diversity issues to organise a network without ever discussing it with the rest of the leadership team or board of directors. Such a request usually comes without the assignment of any kind of formal authority or resources. There could be a number of reasons why a CEO or HR manager might do that. None of them are good enough to skip this step. We know from change management research and experience that it is impossible to get anyone to do anything different without the explicit support and commitment from the top management team.
- Allocate responsibility and resources: Appoint a diversity manager .
Dobbin and Kalev found that companies that appoint full-time diversity managers see 7% to 18% increases in all underrepresented groups over the next five years. This is because the position helps create social accountability. Knowing that a diversity manager could ask them questions prompts managers to think twice about their hiring and promoting decisions.
- Engage people at multiple levels: Appoint a diversity task force
A corporate diversity taskforce has the job of monitoring diversity numbers for business units in order to decide what needs attention and to devise solutions. They can engage people who might otherwise have resisted diversity projects. They can also increase contact among the women, minorities, and white men who participate – one of the proven ways to reduce bias and promote inclusive workplace cultures.
According to Dobbin and Kalev, task forces “are the trifecta of diversity programs”. Their data show that on average, companies that appoint diversity task forces see 9% to 30% increases in the representation of white women and of each minority group over a period of five years.
- Get expert help
Designing the best process for developing effective initiatives poses complex organisational challenges. It calls for several different kinds of expertise. Gender by itself is the subject of multi-disciplinary research. The same goes for other diversity markers. Identify a recognised expert with good academic credentials in the relevant area of diversity, and hire them to advise the diversity manager and/or diversity task force.
- Evaluate impact
Many corporations implement all kinds of diversity initiatives without every measuring whether any of them work. In an interview published in the Harvard Business Review last year, Harvard professor Iris Bohnet says she’s “on a mission to convince corporations…to bring the same rigorous they apply to their financial decision making and marketing strategies to their people management”. She explains that they need to do the same kind of A/B tests that marketers run. This means, for example, that if companies want to offer some kind of training, they should first define what they want the training to achieve and how they will evaluate it. Then they should offer training to a randomly selected group of employees and compare the behaviours afterward with a control group.
- Hold the course
Getting a more equal distribution of men and women or increasing other kinds of diversity is a long-term project. It should arguably remain among the top 10 priorities of top management for the foreseeable future to ensure continuity. Ships that get sent out to sea must continue to sail when CEOs, HR-managers, and Diversity Managers come and go. This kind of long-term view and responsibility falls naturally within the remit of the company’s board of directors.