Diversity Doesn’t Work: Part I

October 7th, 2010

Let’s face up to it.  Traditional diversity initiatives in companies aren’t very effective anymore.  Contrary to the intentions of many leaders and diversity advocates, this kind of diversity activity rarely helps marginalized people in the long run.  And it doesn’t always help businesses that really want to do well (in bottom line performance) and do good (in corporate social responsibility).  Traditional diversity—what I call “Managing Diversity”— doesn’t work.  Here’s why:

  • Managing Diversity was built for short term change. Managing Diversity activity was always built for the short run.  It is triage work.  You see a demographic crisis in workforce makeup (a crisis that was and continues to be legitimately heightened by rapid demographic shifts in the new entrants into the labor market) and you identity steps that will head off the crisis.  Period.  That is what targeted recruiting and hiring and quotas are all about.  But now, we find ourselves living in a complex global economy in which coming up with sustainable solutions, not just temporary fixes, is what is needed.  You can’t follow the Managing Diversity tactic of ratcheting up recruiting of “diverse” people, without solving the problem of why those same people continue to turnover at higher rates than their majority counterparts.  “Let’s get people in the door and see what happens” is just not good enough anymore.
  • Managing Diversity has never provided the answer to legitimate pushback. The biggest challenge for diversity professionals I talk to is how to deal with the pushback on diversity activity from majority folks—straight white males, or variations thereon.  In a Managing Diversity world, diversity professionals and advocates take comfort in the fact that this pushback is a manifestation of resistance to change.  And it sure is.  But as the saying goes, “just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”  Just because resistors are making points just to oppose diversity doesn’t mean those points aren’t legitimate.   When a resistor asks why the female employee with lower qualification was hired instead of the male employee, Managing Diversity doesn’t equip us very well to say “because we want more women.  Period.”  It doesn’t teach us to respond to the observation that matching company demographics to society demographics is arbitrary with “you’re right it is.”  We should not be pursuing that aggressive a demographic shift (OR, we should be pursuing a much more aggressive demographics shift).  Traditional diversity is full of inequities and contradictions; imperfections that are constantly being surfaced by people resistant to diversity.  Managing Diversity does a mediocre job of addressing those imperfections.
  • Managing Diversity has lost the attention of people. People have become fatigued and desensitized to the powerful messages about difference that Managing Diversity approaches have tried to convey.  The “been there, done that,” attitude that people in organizations have towards diversity today is an indicator of this desensitization.  Managing Diversity has become more habit-like in its old age.  People either love it or they hate it, but they do so mindlessly, almost by script.  The messages, though valid, are worn and people are bored with them, even if they agree with them.

The “Diversity is the right thing to do” mantra has become a trap that leaders and stakeholders who want to seem virtuous fall into every day.  Because these folks genuinely want to do the right thing both by their companies and by society, they adopt Managing Diversity tactics without seeing how those tactics are doing just the opposite of what is desired.

You have to acknowledge that “diversity is the wrong thing to do,” in order to open up a set of possibilities about how to really incorporate people and ideas that buck the norms in a company.  More on that in the next post…

4 Responses to “Diversity Doesn’t Work: Part I”

  1. Martin, you’ve eloquently and succinctly put into words precisely what I’ve been feeling for a long time. I really love your conclusion: “You have to acknowledge that ‘diversity is the wrong thing to do.'” I think upending the paradigm is precisely what’s needed to move the conversation past the barrier created by the short term, triage solution. The challenge is getting people to take the long view (as Peter Senge highlighted in *The Fifth Discipline*). I’m really looking forward to the next post!

  2. Laura SF says:

    My workplace is currently about half Indian (actually born in India, I mean). Then there’s a sprinkling of Chinese people, a couple of African-Americans, a couple of Spanish-speakers, several folks from the Philippines… The whites are maybe 1/3 foreign-born – a lot of Russians, an Italian, an Estonian, a Turk, a couple of Canadians… I also interact frequently with people who current live in India and some who live in the UK. Oh, and though it’s a high-tech company, we have plenty of women, too.

    So when I think about diversity, that’s the kind of thing I think about. Cultural diversity. It happens a lot in the Bay Area, and “managing” it simply means making sure people are sensitive to others’ needs – both in terms of diet and religious restrictions, holidays, etc…. but also in terms of social mores and cultural styles. Part of learning to work with anyone is figuring out how they think, how they react to situations… and there will be some cultural differences, at least in terms of central tendencies.

    With all that going on, the idea that we should “try to be more diverse” or “teach tolerance” seems incredibly old-fashioned and not very useful. …Is that what you’re getting at?


    P.S. I do have to object a bit to your characterization of people who raise valid objections to the “diversity” stuff that goes on in academia and in corporate environments: if the objections are valid, then how can you be so sure those who raise them are “making points just to oppose diversity”? That’s really quite an assumption! And it’s insulting to folks who might legitimately ask why “diversity” is being imposed on them as a higher value than “meritocracy”? A person can disagree with the relative ranking of those two values without being OPPOSED to diversity.

  3. Aaron Estis says:

    The managing diversity movement must respond to a changing environment like everything else. Personal experiences change people’s perspectives sometimes in ways they don’t even recognize. Regional accents are the result of communities where people speaking different languages and dialects come together and adapt their speech patterns over time to be better understood by their neighbors. Soon everyon is adopting the speaking patterns that work. From their point of view, they don’t speak with an accent. They don’t realize how they have adjusted.

    We live and work in a different world from a generation ago and we are changing our accents in response. To be understood in this new environment manageing diversity must change its accent as well. I am curious to hear what you contemplate as the next phase in the effort to ensure that talents and skills are not ignored for the wrong reasons.

  4. Kit Tennis says:

    I agree, Martin, that this kind of “managing diversity” is mostly defensive self-protection, accommodation, and satisficing. Few organizations are moving to proactively using diversity to generate novel solutions and innovative processes. That is where the added value in diversity lies, as more than 60 years of social science research has demonstrated: diverse teams, where the differences are actively mined for generating a broader set of ideas and more perspectives on problems and potential strategies. Of course, making this kind of use of diversity requires managers to be trained in consciously creating and working with differences for specific outcomes, something that is far beyond the skill-sets most organizations are developing in their leaders.

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