Diversity Policies Are Failing, and Here’s Why

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

If you’ve held a corporate job, or any gig at a fairly large company, you’re probably familiar with diversity policies. These policies aim at increasing diversity in the workplace, while also leveling the proverbial playing field for minorities and women within a given organization. The idea is to promote equality, get different perspectives and backgrounds into boardrooms, and help promote sensitivity to social, racial, or cultural differences between employees.

Many companies and organizations impose their own diversity policies. Others take advantage of government incentives to diversify their employee ranks. Some do whatever they can to avoid a lawsuit – as seen in an early episode of The Office, called ‘Diversity Day’, guest starring Larry Wilmore.

These policies are controversial, in many instances, but what really matters is whether they actually achieve their goal. And unfortunately, according to researchers, it looks as if they do not.

In fact, they may be doing more harm than good.

Researchers from Harvard, the University of California, and the University of Minnesota recently published the results of a huge study, encompassing data from more than 700 American businesses between 1971 and 2002, which found that many of the more common policies and practices don’t do much to improve diversity at all. In some cases, the impact of these policies was detrimental to certain groups – black women, in particular.

“Some programs are designed to establish organizational responsibility for diversity, others to moderate managerial bias through training and feedback, and still others to reduce the social isolation of women and minority workers. These approaches find support in academic theories of how organizations achieve goals, how stereotyping shapes hiring and promotion, and how networks influence careers. This is the first systematic analysis of their efficacy,” the study said.

“Efforts to moderate managerial bias through diversity training and diversity evaluations are least effective at increasing the share of white women, black women, and black men in management. Efforts to attack social isolation through mentoring and networking show modest effects. Efforts to establish responsibility for diversity lead to the broadest increases in managerial diversity,” the study continued.

These policies aren’t a complete lost cause – there was some positive effect for certain groups in certain programs. But it’s hard to overlook the negatives here, especially considering how much time, money, and resources are put in to developing and implementing these programs.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t intangible benefits as well, such as employees growing personally and professionally as a result from diversity training. But the glaring problem is that the real goals many of these programs and policies lay out are not being met. And there’s another big issue as well: the people who do not benefit from these policies? They end up with feelings of resentment toward their companies, or even feeling threatened.

Harvard Business Review put together a great follow-up and expansion to the study, which delved into how and why these policies can backfire. For one, those who do not benefit – white males, typically – feel that they’re being discriminated against by certain policies, or even undervalued. This is similar to the criticisms of affirmative action, which effectively gives certain individuals an advantage in hiring or promotions based on things like race or sex. That’s not to say that affirmative action is or was a bad or good idea – just that it’s not without controversy.

Harvard also says that diversity policies fail to convince marginalized groups that a company or organization will actually feel more inclusive.

The study has some pretty big implications, and may end up leading to changes for many companies. Of course, there are a lot of other things to look into, and seeing as how the data the researchers used is a bit dated – 2002 was the most recent – it could be interesting to see if any new strategies developed over the past decade have improved outcomes.

But race and diversity are as hot of a topic as ever, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. The fact that many companies are willing to pour resources into becoming more diverse is a good sign, now it’s all a matter of putting the right pieces into place, and aiming for the most effective and efficient policies.

Unfortunately, the policies we’ve been using aren’t cutting it.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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