Current Diversity Dialogue Won’t Solve the Problem

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Allow me to first stipulate that any reasonable person would not argue that diversity has material benefits for business.  Numerous studies over prolonged periods of time have confirmed that decision-making, innovation and customer responsiveness are enhanced by a diverse workforce and leadership group.

Allow me to also stipulate that it is unquestionably morally and ethically wrong to deny any person equal opportunity to pursue their dreams and ambitions through a system based on anything other than their abilities and willingness to work hard.

Allow me to finally stipulate that hiring, promotion and compensation decisions should be merit-based, not crony-based.  And that it is plain wrong and offensive to exclude any group on the basis of any form of bias.

In discussing diversity, it is important to include not only gender, race, religion and sexual orientation, but also diversity of economic circumstances and political views.  (Does anyone really think that having a company comprised almost exclusively of staunch liberal or staunch conservative employees makes for a diverse, inclusive environment and is able to fully serve its US clients’ consumers that are largely split politically?)

This article is focused on finding the “True North” for a company of achieving a fully diverse employee base, while nurturing a great culture and strong performance.  The debate is how best to achieve this- not whether the goal is the right one.

The Current Problem

I like the Cindy Gallop quote from Advertising Age’s recent cover story.  “I’m not selling gender and diversity.  I’m making people want to buy it.” As a business executive, whose career history includes a partnership in one of the largest global management consulting firms and CEO of three separate companies – all of whom are/were fully dependent on quality people for success – I can tell you that is exactly the right way to frame the discussion.  As highlighted by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in a recent Harvard Business Review article, studies have shown time and again that people – especially successful people – rebel against rules and being forced to do something.  By taking away an executive’s autonomy, you will likely face a quiet rebellion and an increase in bias.  And not a rebellion out in the open where it can be addressed.  No, a rebellion of subtle resentment and hardening of positions that yields exactly the opposite of what the intended behavioral change is.  And when it is couched in legal terms, preached by outside “experts” and driven by mandatory diversity and harassment training, hearts and minds often don’t change.  (Mitigating legal risks through mandatory training is, unfortunately, a smart strategy for companies, given our legal system.  This is highly problematic, as it lets companies off the hook by checking a box and having a legal defense playbook.  Alarmingly, it also signals to people that the problem is a nuisance legal one, not one of business performance and social equity; thus few take these training sessions seriously.)

A Way Forward

Former Saatchi Chairman and CEO Kevin Robert’s asinine comments to Business Insider regarding gender diversity: “the fucking debate is all over” was a real setback to this critically important topic.  It portrayed a powerful white male ignorant of realities and nuances and was red meat for anyone looking to add fire to the debate.  It was also a terrible disservice to many executives who are thoughtful, caring and action-oriented in their strategies to have the best and most inclusive work force possible.  And most harmfully, I suspect it further inhibited many executives from voicing their honest points of view, for fear of being tarred by the stigma personified by Roberts.  You see many executives, especially white males, have a real fear of saying what they actually think when it comes to diversity.  We fear being labeled racists or misogynists.  So we confide in friends or each other or our loved ones, who tend to reinforce and harden our suppressed viewpoints.  This leads to frustration, and a “checking the box” mentality and saying whatever is needed to keep our positions and the “respect” of the industry.  This is the antithesis of what is needed to truly achieve our “True North.”  Society can and should outlaw bias and discrimination, but we won’t live in our desired world, with all its inherent economic and social benefits, without changing hearts and minds.  And this fundamental change happens through open debate and inclusion, with all its messiness and risk.

So how can we productively move forward and build on the progress of the past half century?  Some thoughts:

Closely scrutinize mandatory diversity training programs and where possible replace them with some combination of voluntary programs and open forums where ideas, fears, aspirations and all else can be shared.  White males in these forums, like everyone else, must feel free to say what is on their mind without fear of repercussion or labeling.  It is critical to use a skilled moderator to run these meetings.  Conclude each session with specific follow up activities with specific goals.  Monitor follow up and hold people accountable.

Fully assess the risk/reward equation of hard quotas in hiring or promotion.  Managers resent being told who to hire, while then being held accountable for results.  Perhaps 75% of managers or employees should be women or people of color, rather than a lower percentage that a quota might imply. Quotas can also have the unintended consequences of stigmatizing those who supposedly benefit, implying they are in a position because of a quota and not based on merit.  Institute mentoring programs and diversity task forces that seek to improve the pathway to gender and racial diversity.  Again, these task forces should have specific goals and members should be accountable for achieving them.

When recruiting for open positions at all levels (particularly senior management roles), insist on seeing a diverse pool of candidates in the mix.  Don’t settle for any excuses as to why this can’t be done.

Invest time and resources into figuring out a workable family leave policy for both women and men to care for new born children and address other critical family issues such as caring for aging parents.  This is a threshold challenge that must be solved.  Solutions must include paid leave and other accommodations, in the context of resource management and benefits for staff who have no children or other family challenges.  Smaller companies, with limited resources, have a particular hurdle here, but must find a way to address.  Putting my libertarian leanings aside, government action to support this area is appropriate and necessary.

Find organic ways to maximize contact between diverse groups.  Let people benefit from the richness of the experience, which will ultimately drive a change in views and action.

Reinforce that this process is a shared one, with all the business and societal benefits that come with it.  The vast majority of us want to do the right thing, and will embrace this cause wholeheartedly in the proper environment. Give everyone a sense of control and not coercion.

Review compensation to ensure that pay rates are devoid of any bias and that there is parity based on levels, roles and responsibilities. Make any and all adjustments immediately as the data dictates.

Make it abundantly clear that the CEO and leadership team are unequivocally committed to a fully diverse and merit-based operating environment and will have zero tolerance for anything impeding this.  Replace any executives who aren’t fully aligned.

Ensure that employees have a clear, safe and confidential channel to communicate their concerns regarding treatment by management and actions inconsistent with fostering an open and inclusive work environment.

Lasting Change is Hard but Achievable

Societal change for the better does happen.  Never as complete or quickly as we want, but it does happen.  It requires boldness and patience, empathy and decisiveness, statutory adjustments and cultural norm shifting.  Lasting progress is never a straight line, and will always experience setbacks, but given the undeniable benefits to all we must, together, not rest until we succeed.

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