Corporate diversity: Scam or strategy?

Based on my recollection, diversity initiatives have been around in some form or fashion for over 50 years. While affirmative action was the precursor to diversity initiatives, neither achieved its stated goal of creating a diverse workplace. I have racked my mind to try to find another highly visible and publicized corporate initiative that could fail repeatedly — and yet keep getting rebooted. Sure, these diversity initiatives have provided jobs and impressive titles to several talented Black and white female employees. Yet, truth be told, the objective of significantly transforming the workforce profile of corporations has not materialized. These newly minted VPs and senior VPs of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are bright and hardworking individuals with a prior commitment to making the workplace more diverse and welcoming.

Too often, these individuals are taken off the traditional career path to become the face and the flack catcher for both supporters and detractors of the diversity initiative. The diversity office usually consists of the diversity leader, shared clerical support, and maybe some level of support from other parts of the organization. Ironically, often the reporting relationship of the diversity chief is not to the CEO but rather to a span breaker in the legal or HR function. Still, the reality is that diversity and inclusion are enterprise-wide cultural change initiatives. As with any change initiative, diversity and inclusion face resistance from within the organization. Organizational culture shift is more than a notion. This is especially true when it comes to changing both the complexion (no pun intended) and profile of the workforce.

Any culture shift will necessitate the reallocation of power, values, and resources within the organization. Typically, in the case of diversity and inclusion resources such as monies for travel, employee resource groups, and staffing are earmarked for the initiative. However, the existing power structure and values of the organization remain intact. Any DEI initiative still must rely on hiring managers to do the right thing when it comes to identifying, recruiting, and hiring underrepresented employees. Ironically, the very people who can prosecute the DEI initiative are most often the ones who balk, derail, and resist. They resent being told to even consider hiring people of color and women. Suddenly, the issue of being qualified becomes the central topic of discussion. The juxtaposition of minority and qualified takes on a different meaning. It is almost as though they are being asked to consider unqualified applicants of color. It feels like a white applicant is assumed to be qualified at first blush, while the applicant of color must be “certified” as qualified. The word “qualified” functions as a form of microaggression and a potential barrier to improving the workforce diversity profile.

Given the above, the underlying question that remains is how serious is the enterprise about making diversity and inclusion a reality and not just a public relations eye wash? Is DEI a serious strategy or simply a scam that organizations trot out when they are called to task. Where are the key performance indicators? Who individually and collectively will be held accountable? How are the so-called diverse hires treated after they start work? Is the position of chief diversity officer a career path dead end? What imperative drives your company’s DEI initiatives? Is the company driven by a moral, legal, or a business imperative? Or, perhaps, is your company driven by all three imperatives — moral, legal, and business? While each imperative is valid and important, it is the business imperative that is the most impactful.

People of color are very brand loyal and generate trillions of dollars in spendable income. Having people working at a company who look like them and have a shared experience is both an effective selling point as well as a powerful recruiting tool for the organization. If done right, a company’s DEI initiative can create a consumer franchise of minority customers who are loyal and dependable.

For DEI to become a strategic initiative, I would propose the following short list:

  1. Use the executive management group (direct reports to the CEO) as the DEI advisory committee;
  2. Reward results over effort by recognizing diversity champions like we do outstanding sales personnel;
  3. Identify the chief DEI position as a rotational assignment for the best and brightest — including white males who know where the pressure points are in the organization;
  4. Turn DEI into a center of excellence for ideas, support, and training on the power of differences;
  5. Use workforce data in a proactive way versus as a blunt instrument to embarrass line leaders;
  6. Accept the fact that minds and hearts may not change but behavior must comport with our public statements; and
  7. Remember the three Ds: diversity, development, and deployment. In other words, once you build a critical mass of protected class employees, make sure that development is intentional. Finally, placement or deployment is critical to an employee’s success. Where one is assigned can improve the probability of success or guarantee failure.

In closing, we know that corporations reflect the larger society. However, socially conscious companies are often the tail that can wag the dog (society).

Madison native Kwame S. Salter is president of The Salter Consulting Group LLC.

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