How Do Workplace Diversity Programs Need to Evolve in Order to Remain Relevant and Effective in an Ever-Changing World

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Diversity programs are not simple, nor are they easy to implement, but if done thoughtfully, they will prove to be a good fiscal decision for the corporation. The first place to start in a good diversity program is with the definition of “diversity” itself. James Damore’s recent memo criticizing Google’s diversity program and the tech giant’s subsequent response in firing him brings to light the less glamorous side of workplace diversity programs. The Internet has been ablaze with criticism or support of Mr. Damore’s words and opinions. At the heart of the conflict is the often overlooked contradiction in any program that defines diversity by objective immutable criteria such as race or gender. This type of objective group characterization perpetuates stereotypes and the type of discriminatory behavior that was once employed by the majority to exclude entire groups of people from the workforce. It’s time to define the unique and often mutable characteristics within those larger objective groups and to assign them values based upon a corporation’s specific needs. Yes, this is harder to do, but in the long run, it will withstand the inherent conflict between championing equality and celebrating of diversity.

Why Objectifying Diversity Criteria Based Upon Group Characteristics is a Problem

Diversity programs are the politically correct, modern day solution to systemic discrimination that has plagued the workplace for ages. They are a largely acceptable way of including women and minorities in management, executive level positions and seats on the board. One of the problems with using objective group criteria such as gender or race to help build a diverse workforce lies in the historical discriminatory practice of excluding based upon those same objective qualities. Many legal and political battles were fought to overcome these discriminatory practices in order to build a level playing field where all humans were viewed, valued and treated as equals.

The modern day diversity program is changing that narrative, rightly so, because we are not actually all the same. Today’s diversity programs have begun to embrace differences across the corporate workforce. McKinsey performed a study titled “Why Diversity Matters” back in January 2015. This study largely highlights correlations between companies that rank high in diversity across their workforce and their corporate and financial success. These differences across the workforce allow for different managerial styles, creative problem solving techniques, abilities to relate to diverse customer and client demographics, overcoming problems associated with group think, and to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment to retain talent from minority groups.

What we are saying with this justification for diversity programs is that on average we believe certain groups of people share groups characteristics and because we value that group characteristic, we are choosing to add more of that group to our workforce. James Damore was largely criticized for discussing what he cited as qualities that can be found across averages of populations but was thoughtful enough to point out that, “Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population-level distributions.” Following that very important distinction, best practices for a diversity program are to identify what that “group characteristic” is and to uncover that in individual candidates versus assuming the existence of that group characteristics based upon someone’s gender or race. Yes, this will require more effort to understand the qualities of a particular role as well as a potentially longer or more involved application and interview process, but as the HR software programs evolve to account for this information, the benefit should far outweigh the overall burden to an employer.

Revisiting What is Valued by the Corporation

Another important aspect to a thoughtfully crafted diversity program is defining the corporation values, and one place to look for that information is in the organization’s job descriptions. Many times, job descriptions have been handed down for generations and even shared across industries, but to have a fully effective diversity program and a culture of inclusion, corporations should be revisiting job descriptions and the personal characteristics they are looking for in potential candidates to ensure they are also accounting for changes in its corporate values, societal changes, and employee demographic changes.

Why is this so important? Because these descriptions may have been handed down for generations, they may not have evolved and could even have been shaped based upon the characteristics of those who traditionally held those roles, characteristics of the majority. It’s important to consider cultural biases of what a manager, executive and other high level positions should look and act like. Job descriptions should not be perpetuating these biases if the corporation is truly sincere in its efforts towards diversity and inclusion. We may have unjustified assumptions that someone who is firm and less emotional is going to make the best manager when an ability to listen and to problem solve may actually rank higher as qualities that make for a strong and effective managerial candidate.  

Job description bias will take time to uncover and may require the assistance of a third party to truly help a corporation see where its company biases reside, but by beginning with job descriptions for key roles, the human resources department will slowly be able to see patterns repeated across the company and roll out updated job descriptions as vacancies arise.  

Keeping an Open Corporate Dialogue About Diversity and Inclusion Programs

If we want to build more diverse workforces, then we should be open to diverse points of view as long as they are not inciting hatred or violence. Some of the response to Google CEO’s decision to fire James Damore has been quite harsh. Take David Brooks’ recent NY Times Op-Ed column calling for Sundar Pichai to resign as Google’s CEO. Whether or not you agree with Mr. Brooks, Sundar Pichai or even James Damore, it’s clear that across the Internet people are outraged on all sides and attacking one another for their words and their opinions. At the heart of every diversity program should lie the principle that everyone is treated with respect regardless of their differences in appearance, opinion, or ideology. Only when we stop “otherizing” and allow ourselves to truly see our colleagues’ racial experience, gender experience, political beliefs, religious beliefs, point of views and struggles will we be able to build a unified diverse workforce.

Setting an example from the top is always the most profound way of accomplishing that. Instead of firing Mr. Damore, would it have been possible for Google to use this as a teaching opportunity and a way to bridge the gap between employees who were supportive of their diversity plan and those who were not? Education, training, and implementation of diversity plans should be ongoing and nimble, and account for the unique needs of the corporation and its employees. Very little about diversity plans is simple, but if corporations take the time to do them well, they will pay out dividends and help to keep a unified and dedicated team of talent working together to support the overall success of the organization.

If your social enterprise, 3BL enterprise, or nonprofit want to explore diversity and inclusion, the Coherence Collaborative can support you.

By Theresa Lyn Widmann