Do Diversity Programs Work? - American Society of Employers - Anthony Kaylin

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Do Diversity Programs Work?

Diversity and InclusionAlthough diversity and DEI programs have proliferated, many question the effectiveness of these various programs.  It’s a booming industry. There are more diversity professionals today than anytime in the past.  Are they making an impact?

Unfortunately, studies by academics have shown that not only are these programs not effective, more often than not, they backfire, creating more entrenched mindsets.  So why do these antidiscrimination and diversity programs survive given their apparent ineffectiveness?  It is reasoned that they are used not to reduce discrimination, but to shield against litigation.

An effective diversity program should make the senior management team more diverse.  Frank Dobbin (Harvard) and Alexandra Kalev (Tel Aviv University) in a forthcoming book entitled “Getting to Diversity What Works and What Doesn’t” collected data on anti-discrimination training programs and targeted grievance procedures at 829 American companies implemented from 1971 to 2002, and how they affected the representation of ethnic groups and genders in management up to 2015.  What they found is surprising: white males benefited the most from these programs.  There may have been some diversity, but white males still dominated. 

Programs even have limited short-term impact.  In 2016 a team led by C.K. Lai of the University of Virginia conducted an experiment using unconscious bias training.  The participants were described as Black heroes and White villains.  Among 6,321 non-black Americans, all reduced implicit bias favoring white over black people immediately after. But when retested one to five days later, the effects of all interventions had faded.

Programs that do work according to Dobbin and Kavel are targeted at recruitment, mentor programs, and cross-training between groups.  By focusing on actual results such as diverse recruitment, these programs had more long-lasting impact. 

Another study found that a company statement with a business case for diversity is not effective and candidates do not respond well as opposed to an acknowledgment of diversity’s importance.  The business case also backfires making candidates feel like they would be judged based on stereotypes—rather than how they do their jobs.

And there has been much backlash because of the perceived unequal impact of diversity training and programs.  Florida has the “Anti Woke Law” which bans any teachings in school or the workforce that promotes the belief that "members of one race, color, sex, or national origin are morally superior to members of another race, color, sex or national origin."  While the intent of the trainings is to put people on equal footings, there has been training that even moderates would consider extreme, for example, putting all white males in a room and telling them they are raciest.  As of this time, a federal court has enjoined enforcement of the law.

Even trying to do “affirmative action” type programs disguised as diversity has had major fall-out.  The Harvard University affirmative action admissions case is before the Supreme Court and is likely to fall.  The coalition against the Harvard admissions program includes Whites and Asians. 

In another case just recently filed on August 30th, the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), a shareholder filed a lawsuit, National Center for Public Policy Research v. Howard Schultz et. al, No. 22-2-02945-32 in the State of Washington Spokane County Superior Court.  The lawsuit claims that the diversity programs to increase minority population in the company discriminates against the most qualified applicants.  “Starbucks has set goals for the number of ‘diverse’ — meaning not-White — employees it hires, and those goals are tied to executive compensation. That is outright racial discrimination,” Scott Shepard, NCPPR’s Free Enterprise Project director, said in an Aug. 31 press statement.

Although diversity programs are not that effective according to some studies, diversity in the upper ranks and as a core value has been shown to lead to higher returns for many organizations.  Catalyst has conducted research in this area and found that a vast body of research documents the relationship between diversity and improved financial performance and that committed diversity leads to improved financial performance. 

Although compliance training such as anti-discrimination and harassment training has short-term impact, it needs to be done for managing legal risks.  However, HR needs to take a step higher to identify ways to embody diversity in the culture of the organization.  Not an easy job, especially in today’s business and political environment.


Source:  The Economist 8/25/22, HR Dive 9/6/22, Catalyst 6/24/22,  Reducing Implicit Racial Preferences: I. A Comparative Investigation of 17 Interventions American Psychological Association




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