Workforce.com

White Males See Diversity's Other Side

February 1, 1999
John Faure is a middle-aged white male, and he’s pretty sick of having to apologize about that. He’s tired of the put-downs, jokes and inequities. He’s also more than a little dismayed at where a lot of diversity programs have taken Corporate America. He left one job—at a national company celebrated for its HR—because of the company’s diversity initiative.

"Diversity programs perpetuate stereotypes. They’re bad for society and bad for business," he says. "Diversity is: ‘You need to treat women this way and blacks this way.’ That’s wrong; that’s the problem. There’s a school of thought that says diversity at least moves us in the right direction, but I’ve taken a look at that and I reject it. I think it makes [things] worse."

One more thing—Faure is an HR professional. If the very gatekeepers of workplace diversity feel under attack, how do other white males feel?

They’d tell you if you’d wipe that smirk off your face. They know what you’re thinking: "Oh poor baby. Poor little poster boy for elitism and easy living."

But these days, things aren’t so easy for white males. They’ve been under attack for a long time, en masse, for the problems of women and minorities. And some should be, certainly. But it’s ironic that a movement that demands equal treatment for individuals often lumps all men into one troublesome bundle.

A quick Internet search can give good indication:There are literally hundreds of male support groups, including the National Organization for Men, the National Coalition of Free Men and the National Organization for Men Against Sexism—all of which regard workplace negativism toward men as an issue.

Even more portentous is a visit to Prairielaw.com, an online legal community in which almost half the sex-discrimination postings are from men.

There are a few reasons for HR to care about all this. First, what has any person with even a pinky toe in the diversity issue heard a thousand times? That in the next century, it’s going to be whites who’ll be minorities. And with more women than men now earning degrees, it’s going to be white males who’ll be the minorities in pipeline positions. They can’t be ejected from the diversity equation.

Second, to really embrace diversity means to really embrace white males and what they bring to the table as individuals. It’s pretty basic.

Third, to make the workplace unpleasant for white males is to invite the same problem companies have when the workplace is unpleasant for women and minorities: a major talent drain. And, as always, there are lawsuits. Reverse discrimination is a real possibility, and there are growing numbers of suits to prove it.

As Janice Dreachslin, the co-author of Diversity Leadership (Health Administration Press, 1996), explains it, "If white males are made to feel that they’re not a part of the fabric of diversity, then we set ourselves up for a lot of backlash that’s counterproductive."

That’s putting it mildly.

How do diversity programs contribute to discrimination?
The first thing to acknowledge is that diversity initiatives, whether well done or not, are going to make white guys a little antsy, and with good reason. People don’t like to hear they got where they are not by merit alone, but by their skin color.

That, on some level, is what a diversity initiative implies. To admit that women and minorities have been disadvantaged is part and parcel with saying that white males have been advantaged. It makes them question why they are where they are, which is troubling. This holds even more true for those many white males who don’t feel advantaged, whose careers are stalled because they aren’t "knowledge workers," or who were downsized as middle managers.

But if the only disadvantage with diversity programs was a little white-male discomfort, that would be far from a problem. The real problem comes with how many programs approach diversity poorly.

In the worst-case scenario, there are diversity programs done for the wrong reason, or what Frederick R. Lynch, author of The Diversity Machine: The Drive to Change the ‘White Male Workplace,’ (The Free Press, 1997) calls "diversity penance."

Diversity initiatives are going to make white guys a little antsy. People don’t like hearing that they got where they are not by merit alone, but by skin color.

Basically, someone in the company—usually a white male—screwed up, so the whole workforce has to go through training, largely as a buffer to lawsuits. This circumstance, says Lynch, is the most likely scenario to create backlash from white males because it assumes that because one white male had a problem, all white males in the company have a problem. "The organization is presumed to be racist, sexist, with horrible problems and glass ceilings," says Lynch, who has also written Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action (Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., 1991).

Even if a company is approaching diversity from a healthy angle, training can be offensive to white males if it lumps them all together. When a diversity professional talks about having to change the "white-male culture" at an organization, he or she is doing just that—which should be an obvious diversity no-no. The 60-year-old CEO with an MBA is likely to come from a very different "white-male culture" than the 20-year-old plant worker with a high-school degree.

Diversity training shouldn’t be the source of more discrimination.
Other problems arise from training, and more particularly, the trainers themselves. Most diversity experts chuckle over stories of harried HR professionals calling them to request a black man or a Hispanic woman to give a diversity lecture. Richard Hadden, an employee-relations consultant in Jacksonville, Florida, says demanding that only women or minorities conduct diversity training is a bad idea. "Most of the time, diversity training is done by very articulate, competent professionals who happen to be minorities or females. When you do that, someone who’s initially resistant to begin with is going to [see that person] as someone with an ax to grind."

And some diversity trainers do act like they have an ax to grind. Dreachslin acknowledges that some consultants use inappropriate training activities that unjustly target white males. "I think some trainers carry things a little too far," she says. "You can’t target white males as perpetrators and only perpetrators."

Faure agrees. He cringes at the diversity training he attended at the company he left. Not only he and other white males were offended, he says, but so were many women and minorities. Faure felt the trainer came in with an agenda to send a message of zero tolerance to white males. "It was nonverbal cues, the tone of voice, the way the instructor looked at you and directed parts of the program to you," he says. "I’m a professional trainer, I know how that works."

And when white males feel targeted, unjustly or not, the problem is compounded because they rarely have safe havens in which to vent steam. Although women- and minority-based support groups thrive in Corporate America, few companies offer a forum for men. The assumption is it’s unnecessary because they have their own built-in networking systems. That’s not necessarily so. It’s crucial for a group undergoing so much social change to have a chance to talk about their issues.

It’s also crucial that those issues are taken seriously, Lynch says. He attended a seminar about "How to Deal with White Males" in which the speaker dismissed reverse discrimination with a flippant theory that it’s all in the heads of white males, and that it doesn’t really happen. Lynch says this attitude can be devastating to a company; it pushes men to keep quiet—worried they’ll be called whiners or racists—while the problem grows and the anger builds. That anger can explode into a lawsuit for reverse discrimination, sometimes with good reason.

Is reverse discrimination fact or fiction?
Ah, yes, reverse discrimination. More businesses are guilty than you’d think. In the rush to equality, a lot of companies have closed men out.

In fact, Lynch believes the problem is rampant. "One of the things that came up when I was interviewing hundreds of people was, ‘What about the law?’ The law says you’ve got to treat people equally [including white males]. The response [tended to be] ‘What law?’ and to some extent, ‘We don’t think about no stinkin’ law.’ In other words, the diversity movement has been kind of ignorant or contemptuous of the law."

If your organization has special-interest programs targeted for Asian-Americans only or women only or blacks only, it could be skirting illegality. If you’ve set up mentoring systems to help women and minorities get a leg up, look over those systems.

Because such suits are filed under a variety of rubrics, no specific statistics are available. But legal experts say they’re on the rise. Jeff Tanenbaum, an employment law attorney with Littler Mendelson in San Francisco, believes that they’re a trend of the future. He says he’s seeing more suits filed by men for wrongful discharge and failure to promote, where before there were none.

Few people, not even angry white males, are asking companies to toss out diversity programs altogether. But a few basic considerations can avoid many problems.

"[Diversity] is a terrific thing, but it has to be handled in an appropriate manner," he says. "Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is a diversity policy becomes a discrimination policy [against] white males. There’s no doubt in my mind that misuse of diversity programs and policies is causing a significant problem."

Bob Nobile, an employment-law partner with Winston & Strawn in New York City, says that mentoring systems for women and minorities are good things, but "[companies] are excluding males and nonminorities from the process. So then someone turns around and says, ‘What about me? Am I chopped liver? Why can’t I get mentored?’ Men need to be mentored as well as women do."

Nobile says if you want to start a mentoring program, that program should be open to all employees. Doesn’t giving men formal mentoring just perpetuate the promotion of more white males? Nobile puts it this way: Yes, you may be enhancing the skills and contacts of white males. But you’re also enhancing the skills and contacts of women and minorities, so they can compete on an equal footing with males, which is the purpose of most diversity programs. Nobile’s final word? "You can’t have special-interest groups—no programs only for minorities or women or the disabled. In other words, it’s got to be across the board."

If you need affirmative action, back it up with numbers.
Another situation to handle carefully: recruiting by the numbers. If your company has decided to place a percentage number on the number of women and minority hires it’ll make, you’d better have a statistical analysis that shows underrepresentation. Even if you know anecdotally that there are too few women for such hiring to be legal, you must have the stats. The EEOC guidelines state that companies can’t establish an affirmative-action program to sanction the discriminatory treatment of any group of people, including white males.

If there’s a substantial imbalance in your workforce, you can make special efforts to correct it. Just do your homework first. Compare the number of women and minorities in your company with the available labor pool of women and minorities—nationally if you’re recruiting nationally, or locally if you’re recruiting around town. You’ve got a case if your company’s numbers are significantly lower than the available labor pool’s. If you’re going to do a statistical analysis, however, you may want to have legal representation. This offers what’s called "a self-critical analysis privilege" to help protect your statistics from later use against the company in a lawsuit.

Remember, says Nobile: "[Past problems] don’t mean we can now turn around and start discriminating against white males. Have mentoring programs and training programs, but don’t exclude any group from participation. Still, at the end of the day, you’re going to yield the same positive results."

Some simple steps can make a big difference.
Few people, not even angry white males, are asking companies to toss out diversity programs altogether. They’re a necessary burden in organizations still reaching for true equality. But a few basic considerations can avoid many problems.

To begin with, reevaluate your training. A team approach has fewer hurdles than an individual trainer approach does. If a white male gives the training alone, he’s easily dismissed as not understanding the problems of women and minorities. A woman or minority as sole trainer can be seen by white males as forwarding a personal agenda. When they’re put together, though, they make sense. "It’s wonderful to have white males on a training team," says Dreachslin. "They really model the change that the organization is asking the male employees to make."

Make sure the training involves white male employees, but doesn’t target them. If the group is doing an exercise on stereotypes about women and minorities, it should also do one on stereotypes about white males.

Focus on changing behavior rather than changing white males. Lynch says some of the better diversity sessions he attended while researching his book focused on respecting diversity in a customer-service sense.

Whether the customer is internal or external, respect is necessary to do a good job. The training focused on behavior, and spurred discussions on whether the behavior was appropriate or not. Such training warns those who are guilty of inappropriate behavior to cease and desist while providing clear examples of such behavior. It also allows white males who aren’t guilty to feel less harassed.

Also be sure to treat white males as fairly as you would treat any other group. If you want mentoring programs to give women and minorities a better chance of joining the executive ranks, remember that not all white males have those same opportunities, either. They may lack the same educational levels or connections as other white males making it to the top.

And even if you think "not at my company," make sure there’s no reverse discrimination. Conduct a careful statistical analysis, and if it proves there isn’t reverse discrimination, share those numbers to dispel any misconceptions.

White males need a place to voice their concerns, too.
Another crucial element is communication. Let white males talk about what’s going on, even if it sounds like complaining to some. E.I. DuPont de Nemours based in Wilmington, Delaware, a leader in diversity, has gone so far as to introduce a Men’s Forum to complement its massive diversity efforts of the mid-’90s.

"Because white men were the dominant group at DuPont, as with many organizations, they became the forgotten entity," says Bob Hamilton, diversity consultant. "When people talked about diversity, they talked about women and people of color. We started to realize there are issues for men, too."

The Men’s Forum, a three-day meeting of males, gets at some of those issues. Gathering in groups, men talk about their interactions with their fathers and other men, cross-racial relations between men, intergender relations and how the workplace is changing for men.

Just as the company taps homogenous groups of black women, white women, black males and so on for feedback on their experiences at the company, so does it chat up white males.

Hamilton sees many benefits to keeping the lines of communication open. The approach helps disseminate anger, fix inequities and defuse issues. As Hamilton says, there’s less of a "woe-is-me" attitude.

It’s also, as they so often say about diversity, the smart business thing to do. "For multicultural work to be successful, you have to involve men," says Hamilton. "Women aren’t going to be able to do it by themselves, and people of color aren’t going to be able to do it by themselves. Until businesses realize that fact, they’re never going to really make that transition to a fully inclusive work environment."

Or as Faure, the disaffected HR professional, says, "If you tell me that diversity is treating everyone as an individual with individual strengths and weaknesses, I say I’m with it. I’ll preach it from the rooftops."

A good start would be to just begin preaching it at work.

Workforce, February 1999, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 52-55.