Madison doesn’t get it: Businesses need to rethink their approach to diversity

In the interests of full disclosure, let me state that I am an entrepreneur who values multiculturalism. Not simply as a marketing strategy but as a fundamental cultural value. So I take issue with the Greater Madison business community’s common use of the term “diversity and inclusion.”

Rest assured, I am a good old Madisonian; accordingly, my skepticism has nothing to do with the social justice theories underlying diversity and inclusion. It arises from local business’s tendency to implement diversity and inclusion as a strategy for grooming cross-cultural markets without actually changing any internal policies.

As a result, companies fail to disrupt written policies and unspoken codes of cultural assimilation that create glass ceilings for diversity candidates. To the diversity candidate, the cross-cultural message is that the company values the marketability of your culture more than it values your potential for expanding the business’s cultural breadth. It’s as if you are only there for show-and-tell and not to contribute to the development of the business culture.

The new face of an old problem

Part of our difficulty with creating diverse and inclusive workforces in Madison is a collective aversion to confronting our city’s cultural baggage. In Madison, we want to genuinely believe (or to affect a genuine belief) that workplace inclusion and excellence will organically flow, simply through the hiring of diversity candidates. Our city suffers from this Pollyannaish belief that a workplace — already dominated by a particular culture — will somehow choose to promote inclusive excellence without making any substantive cultural or policy changes.

Companies are merely importing minorities into (often hostile) work environments, while the dynamics of these work environments aggressively reward cultural assimilation by minorities. Hence, companies have succeeded in implementing cosmetic changes to their workplaces, which are more likely to produce tokenism and cultural appropriation instead of inclusive excellence and equal opportunities.

Investing in diversity versus spending on diversity

As a business owner, I know that any genuine stakeholder will engage in due diligence prior to making an investment. If a company wants to promote diversity and inclusion as cultural values, then it needs to understand how to meaningfully do so; it should avoid adopting pro forma policies that fail to get at the root cultural problem within the company. A one-size-fits-all approach fails to consider the particular cultural shifting necessary to create an internal business environment in which diversity can prosper.



Pro forma policies fail because companies neglect to clearly articulate how diversity policies will impact their business operations. If a firm fails to make a business case for diversity and inclusion, then it is difficult to imagine that the company possesses the institutional will or resources to make long-term investments in the sustainability and development of diversity candidates. To the diversity candidate, the cross-cultural message is that the company lacks the competence to place you in an environment in which you can succeed while remaining authentic.

The cultural lesson takeaway

The first step for Madison executives and HR managers in addressing this culture problem is to adopt a new paradigm of inclusive excellence. Businesses should strongly consider redirecting their targeted diversity outcomes toward the concepts of cultural competence and multiculturalism. Multicultural competence emphasizes fluency outcomes within multiple (or blended) cultures; it functions to challenge and disrupt the cultural status quo for the purpose of promoting a greater, shared culture. In contrast, the common diversity and inclusion practices in Madison present the façade of inclusive excellence, without facilitating genuine cross-cultural exchange.

A critical understanding of the nuances of diversity management can mean the difference between converting diversity into a business asset and exposing your company to the legal consequences of employment discrimination.

You really should take my word for it. After all, I am in the business of penalizing companies for failing to understand how cultural beliefs, attitudes, and practices affect fair employment and equal opportunities within their workplaces. I want to see our city do better. But for now, my business is booming in Madison.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.