For companies embarking on diversity initiatives, a best practices search is now an accepted starting point. But is this enough? Relying on cookie-cutter replications of others’ actions in diversity practice is risky business. Current diversity best practices research fails to establish clear standards for success; correlate results with bottom-line outcomes; collect data from all levels of organizations; and measure the impact of different corporate cultures on success.
Rather than depend on the questionable success of others, those charged with the challenging task of developing a corporate diversity program should consider and learn from the painful failures of others. Reviewing worst practices builds on the concept of learning organizations to consider what has not worked and why. Armed with this insight, new approaches will emerge.
As a beginning list, I offer these worst practices for diversity change efforts:
1. Broadening the focus to include all individual differences when the real issues are based on innate group identities such as race, gender, sexual orientation, national identity, age and/or ability. This general language only serves to insult employees and customers and dissipates the focus of energy on measurable outcomes. If a product were being targeted to a particular market segment, would we call that segment all interested individuals? And could we then measure our success in the marketplace?
2. Using euphemisms such as ethnic or culture when we mean race…or lifestyles when we mean sexual orientations. An organization’s lack of courage to name an issue with direct language signals to employees and customers a lack of comfort in addressing the real issues. This euphemistic language also signals lack of clarity or lack of commitment to the work of diversity. We must first clearly articulate the issues before we can change them.
3. Believing that continued research on and restating of the business case for diversity will convince the dominant group of white men that diversity is the right thing to do. When dominant group members resist the diversity effort this is a resistance based on emotions-not based on lack of knowledge about the business case. Resistance to diversity efforts by white men is an important dynamic that is necessary for true change. This resistance must be engaged with energy, caring, and thoughtfulness-not deflected by intellectual arguments.
4. Senior leadership delegating the formation of a diversity philosophy and approach to those in staff positions. True change in the culture of an organization in the area of diversity requires full leadership involvement. Top leaders must both experience and model the personal and business changes necessary for a diversity process to succeed.
5. Focusing the change strategies and actions on the subordinate or excluded groups. Diversity efforts fall short when they target people of color, women, gays and lesbians, the disabled and other excluded groups as the primary focus of change. While designing strategies to include a previously excluded group is important, the primary change strategies for diversity must engage the dominant organizational culture-and those who benefit from the existing practices and policies.
6. Creating a series of activities that have no strategic link to business success will only give the appearance of true commitment. Over time, managers and employees will become discouraged that significant time and energy is not resulting in changes in their day-to-day experience. Diversity strategies must become part of the business purpose and vision.
7. A desire to only see the positive and/or moving to action before the current negative state has been fully understood will generally result in time, money, and energy invested in solving the wrong problem. Many corporate cultures place such a heavy emphasis upon framing all work in the positive tone that the work needed in diversity efforts to fully describe and understand the current state-which may be blocking the inclusion of employees because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation-is often kept to a surface skim. Leadership fears that the work of the enterprise will get stuck in the negative; when in reality, change theory teaches us that bringing the blocking forces fully to light will ignite the energy needed to address the real problems.
8. Failing to see a diversity effort as an understanding that requires knowledge and experience in the content of diversity and systems change theory can lead an organization into frustration and negative backlash. All organizational change requires extensive knowledge and experience with planned change strategies-adding the issues of diversity to the work calls for additional depth of experience.
9. Seeing resistance and push back on the diversity issues as failure has stalled many diversity efforts that were on the right track. Unfortunately, no real change takes place in organizations without significant resistance. Resistance is the source of energy for systems change. If there is no resistance, then nothing significant is changing. Diversity strategies must include major attention to engaging and transforming-not reducing-resistance.
10. Believing that a diversity effort can be implemented without making some employees unhappy-and, worse yet, developing a process and a plan aimed at keeping everyone happy-will surely result in failure. When did the new accounting system meet with cheers and applause? Did all employees welcome your last change in benefits with enthusiasm? Do companies stop mergers and downsizing because employees are unhappy? Leadership must be committed to diversity strategies because they are necessary for business prosperity; and must then work with employees to change-not work to keep them satisfied with an inequitable system.
11. Assuming that training changes behavior is a common worst practice in diversity. Awareness training to shift perceptions and unarticulated assumptions is critical to change-and must be a part of an overall strategy that includes specific goals, measurement, behavior skills training and accountability. Awareness training alone will not change behavior.
12. Leadership being influenced by individual women or people of color who personally fear change and advise the dominant leadership to avoid any controversial issues or approaches is a common worst practice. Open dialogue and debate on issues of race, gender, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other topics on which employees have strong opinions must be a part of any successful diversity effort.
13. Leadership making decisions for others in the organization who will be expected to implement diversity plans is a grave error. Management and employees at all levels must be involved in diversity planning. Those who are being asked to change know the most about what will help them change.
14. Beginning a corporate diversity effort focused on customers and external public relations will lead to false expectations. Priorities should be initially focused on internal culture and commitment-and once employees trust in the leadership of the corporation, they will lead the work to both customers and the public. Presenting an organization to its public as a leader of diversity before key components of the organization are committed to the change will foster the belief by employees that leadership doesn’t walk the talk.
If your company has launched or is considering launching a diversity initiative, you know that the course ahead is into uncharted waters. A successful program compels management to question old assumptions, requires individuals to take a hard look at very personal issues, and demands profound change throughout the organization. Creating a workplace that is more humane, more inclusive, and more productive won’t happen overnight. Along the way, expect to meet resistance. Listen for impassioned complaints and feel the emotional turmoil of employees locked in old prejudices and misunderstandings.
The challenge of creating diversity in the workplace requires much more than consideration of what may have worked for others. It also demands careful thought about what hasn’t worked. Only after analyzing the worst practices will you have a strategy that responds to and reflects the specific requirements of your organization.
About the Author: Delyte D. Frost, Ph. D., is an applied behavioral scientist, who specializes in large systems change initiatives.