I recently came across an article in Diversity Inc that described racial uproar at UCLA’s School of Medicine. A Black medical professor, Dr. Christian Head, was depicted as a gorilla as part of an annual “roast” by medical students. The racist prank ignited national attention as a petition on change.org, had collected nearly 85,000 signatures.
Being outraged by this stupid behavior is understandable, but not particularly helpful. Nor will some of the recommendations in the article—having CEOs hold people accountable with zero tolerance policies, requiring mandatory diversity training, and promoting resource groups—really change the root causes of this behavior over the long run.
I agree that accountability from leadership is absolutely crucial to fighting this kind of bias, but zero tolerance is not the way exercise accountability. Leaders have to take responsibility for being discerning about what behaviors merit the severest reprimands (censure or termination) and what behaviors can better be served by engaging the perpetrators and other stakeholders in learning opportunities. Zero tolerance can be a cop-out: it allows leaders to abdicate the responsibility for being thoughtful about how they deal with diversity in their organizations.
In addition, “mandatory training” recommendations should always be accompanied by the qualifier “good.” Mediocre diversity training can be more damaging than no training at all. It can heighten resistance to diversity and can stoke resentment toward the people who are different it was supposed to support.
Resource groups are clearly helpful, but only if they are supported unequivocally by leadership and strategically aligned. They must wholly be a part of the organization and must be both a resource for its members and a resource for the organization.
Outrage gets old. Informed, deliberate, and sustained leadership action is what eliminates ridiculous incidents like the one at UCLA.