Most leaders will gladly pay lip service in support of diversity programs. It’s like asking people if they are for the environment or animals rights on a phone survey. Of course they are…theoretically. I mean who would be against clean air and puppies?
However, transforming such niceties into productive action requires a business case that demonstrates, in practical terms, what’s in it for key stakeholders; the company, its customer, and all employees. Unfortunately, most diversity program advocates gloss over the benefits for the first two groups and unwittingly segment the third, creating an us against them dynamic that at best makes everyone feel uncomfortable and at worst, underscores and widens a divide that need not exist.
Diversity in the workplace
It starts with good intentions. HR leaders pose a simple working theory: increase the diversity of your talent mix and you’ll increase group performance. The logic seems sound. A wider talent pool will secure new skills, different perspectives, and a variety of working styles, which can be applied to everything from problem solving and product innovation to customer service and employee interactions. It looks like a win. And it is…for the most part.
The trouble, as I discuss in my recent TEDx talk, “I Am Diversity!”, is that the traditional definition of the term is fundamentally flawed, often applying credit based solely on external labels instead of internal characteristics. This interpretation fosters perspectives that do little more than perpetuate stereotypes, restrict candidate pools, and increase the divide between people. In turn, the programs generated become little more than a robotic box-step:
- Place the person.
- Fill the quota.
- Earn HR high-fives all around.
It’s a predictable dance that takes the human out of human resources.
When diversity is code for one sex or a handful of groups, everyone suffers. The people considered “non-diverse” for obvious reasons. They don’t get a second look. Despite individual traits and styles, family difficulties, financial woes, or personal hardship, their stereotypical character as a cookie-cutter person of “privilege” is well-established and widely accepted. Sure, they can get the job, promotion, or scholarship, but there’s no (fill-in-the-blank) community waiting in the wings to lend support. Still, those traditionally viewed as diverse candidates suffer as well because if we’re not careful our good intentions can be translated into a backhanded aspersion that paints people as “less than” or worse, as “commodities”.
People should never be judged or provided advantage based on stereotypical assumptions. After all, groups are impersonal and can be easily morphed into unflattering caricatures. But individuals are complex, beautiful, and powerful enough to rise above such lazy assessments. In truth, we are all more than our labels.
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, HR can do better.
How to increase diversity
If we truly want to increase the diversity of thought and experience in organizations, we need to let go of the labels that force us to contort ourselves into pre-defined boxes and begin to see the intricacies of the individual. That’s where needs are met and fairness is achieved.
For example, the corporate landscape is littered with women leadership programs, mentoring groups, and career coaching forums that encourage professional connections and offer introverted members tips on how to market themselves. This is fantastic…but participation is restricted in a way that would never be tolerated in the other direction. Can you imagine having a company sponsored Men in Leadership group? Cue the villagers with their sticks and torches.
Once we shift our lens away from group stereotypes we are free to notice the needs of the individual. Not all women require training in communication, interviewing or networking. Many men do. Actually research indicates that men have a harder time forming and maintaining connections later in life, but support in this area is often targeted away from those who need it because the facts don’t fit the preferred storyline.
When designing diversity programs, hiring or promoting candidates, or providing organizational support for a specific skill, HR professionals need to consider whether their programs are inclusive enough. Often it’s as easy as flipping the name to test whether it inadvertently excludes a subset of employees. If it does, adjust the moniker, broaden the topic, or at least ensure that similar resources are provided to the excluded parties.
Inclusion only works if everyone is included. Diversity programs only work if we consider the whole of a person. The thought that the content of one’s character should trump external labels is of course not a new idea, but it’s certainly one worth spreading.