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Are diversity policies useless?

Recently Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article titled, “Diversity Policies Don’t Help Women or Minorities, and They Make White Men Feel Threatened.” While the title and parts of the article suggest diversity policies might be useless at best, and often counterproductive, the authors in fact, conclude something different: “Diversity policies must be researched, assessed for effectiveness, and implemented with care so that everyone in the workplace can feel valued and supported.” This is a reasonable, important claim that is well-supported by the research. Unfortunately, many readers may miss this more nuanced takeaway.

So what does the research really say — are diversity policies useless?

No, bad diversity policies are useless. As the authors state, research does show that diversity initiatives can have positive effects. But the authors make two very important points about this body of research that are worth breaking down further: (1) “The most commonly used diversity programs do little to increase representation of minorities and women,” and (2) “Diversity policies must be researched, assessed for effectiveness, and implemented with care so that everyone in the workplace can feel valued and supported.”

(1) “The most commonly used diversity programs do little to increase representation of minorities and women.”

A more recent review by the same researchers cited in the HBR article examined the circumstances under which diversity policies work, and why they often don’t work or can even have unintended negative effects. These researchers specifically analyzed the impact of diversity policies on diversity in management. They found that while diversity policies that aim to control people (e.g., forcing people to conduct performance reviews when they don’t want to) can lead to backlash, diversity policies that involve employees in solving the problem (e.g., helping to source a diverse candidate pool) have positive effects. They also found that policies that increase transparency and accountability have positive effects. For example, they found that having a head of diversity increased the effectiveness of other policies (even ones that aimed to control people) by increasing accountability. Finally, they found that unfortunately many of the ineffective policies were the most frequently used policies.

Unfortunately many of the ineffective diversity policies are the most frequently used policies.

So the HBR article’s claim that the most commonly used diversity programs don’t work is supported by research. Given the lack of improvement in many companies, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Based on the research, to improve diversity policies, companies should:

  1. invite employees to be a part of the solution

  2. increase transparency, and

  3. increase accountability.

(2) “Diversity policies must be researched, assessed for effectiveness, and implemented with care so that everyone in the workplace can feel valued and supported.”

One problem with many current diversity initiatives is that people often rely on so-called “best practices.” Not only are these practices often based on what other companies are doing (often without demonstrable impact) instead of research, but their effectiveness is never measured to examine whether they really work. Instead, when implementing diversity policies, companies should rely on the wealth of social science research that shows what works, and then test interventions to see if their implementation is effective in their specific context.

Companies should rely on the wealth of social science research that shows what works, and then test interventions to see if their implementation is effective in their specific context.

Ultimately, the takeaway from the research isn’t “diversity policies are bad, so don’t have any.” Rather, it’s that policies should be designed thoughtfully and carefully to avoid these pitfalls. Policies shouldn’t be drafted with the aim of simply conveying that an organization is fair or inclusive. Instead, they should be designed to shape the processes, practices, As the authors conclude, diversity policies must be more than “colorful window dressing.” That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist at all.

Carissa Romero is a Partner at Paradigm, a firm designed to help other organizations build stronger, more inclusive companies. Carissa can be found on Twitter: @clrom.

This article was originally published on Medium and reprinted here with approval. Paradigm's founder and CEO, Joelle Emerson, will be joining other tech leaders at Relate Live's upcoming San Francisco event to talk about the challenges of diversity. Joelle can be found on Twitter: @joelle_emerson.

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