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The Harsh Reality of Diversity Programs

December 1, 1998
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They keep coming.

They pop up in neatly packaged numbers, in pebbles of tidy facts: That black unemployment is more than double white unemployment. That just 10 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers are women. That women still make only 76 cents for every dollar men earn. That of the 2.9 million women who hold managerial or administrative jobs in the private sector, 86 percent are white.

They surface in shrill anecdotes, glaring blossoms of misunderstanding, derision and hate: The African-American employees who were called apes, the women who were told to go home and make babies, the racial epithets, the unwanted groping.

They’re the shortcomings and disappointments of Corporate America’s diversity movement that was so aggressively hopeful just a decade ago.

It’s counterintuitive: U.S. companies spend an estimated $200 million to $300 million a year on diversity training, yet lawsuits filed by women and minorities rise annually. The EEOC had 32,836 resolutions of sex-based discrimination charges in 1997 (resolutions meaning outcomes favorable to the charging parties or charges with meritorious allegations, a better judge than filings), up from 18,817 in 1991.

Similarly, there were 36,419 resolutions in race-discrimination suits in 1997, up from 28,914 in 1991. And progress -- whether it’s measured by numbers and rankings or by the general sentiment among many women and minority employees -- is too slow.

The status quo is not acceptable.
“I think women have gotten nowhere in business,” says Harriet Rubin, a former executive who dropped out of the corporate world. “If women made the same rate of progress in the future that we made in the last 10 years, it would take another 300 years to achieve equality with men. I don’t think women understand how serious this is and how far behind we are. By any realistic measures, we are colossal failures.”

In response, Rubin wrote The Princessa (Dell Publishing Co., 1997), a get-ahead book for women that’s based on Machiavelli’s The Prince. Its message: “The qualities, traits and accoutrements that women traditionally relegate to the art of seduction can be used to turn the war in the princessa’s favor. On the physical side these include clothes, voice, hair, posture, makeup and tears.”

Rubin is straightforward about her strategies. “It may involve crying to get what you want,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that it’s manipulative. I’d say it’s the same thing men do when they resort to cutting humor or pounding fists on the table or despotic demanding ... We’ve given companies a chance, and it’s clear they’re not going to do anything for us. We’ve got to do it for ourselves.” And she’s not alone in her thinking; the book hit both BusinessWeek’s and USA Today’s best-seller lists earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Ollie Stevenson, an African-American business consultant, is making waves with her approach to diversity: Downplay your differences. She also got fed up waiting for corporate programs to kick in. She now advises people of color to tone down any ethnocentric clothing (even tone down bright colors, she says -- go for the infamous dark pinstripe), censor any speech that identifies them ethnically, and do what they need to do to ingratiate themselves with the white-guy executive team.

Whether these approaches are the best for women and minorities isn’t the question here. The very fact that they exist and have strong followings is another sign of the gaping hole in workplace diversity programs.

Most diversity specialists will tell you they hear the same thing, in company after company. Women and minorities are sick of the status quo, and they’re cynical about a lot of the programs out there.

“I don’t know of anybody who’s satisfied,” says Harris Sussman, director of the human-relations firm Workways Consulting in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Almost everybody’s angry. To me, that indicates that the diversity initiatives of most companies have been badly mishandled. It’s no wonder it’s hard to find any fans of employer-sponsored diversity programs. People of color and women feel kind of misled about what changes were going to occur, when in fact almost no changes have occurred in all these years.”

Well, at least some progress has been made. Today, a handful of women and minorities are in the highest ranks of Corporate America, where before only the white-men-in-gray-suits sat. But still, there are stomach-churning cases of high-level discrimination and abuse that erupt almost weekly, and the insistent rumblings of women and minorities demanding change only grow.

Another sign of impatience: In 1996, the National Organization for Women (NOW) reassigned its considerable grass-roots clout to business, with its Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign. “People needed to get a wake up call, to have somebody say ‘Look, there’s still a very serious situation in our workplaces,’” says Elizabeth Toledo, vice president for action at NOW, in Washington, D.C. Since then, NOW has named two “Merchants of Shame” -- Smith Barney and Mitsubishi -- with attendant boycotts and media pressure.

When asked to name a few companies that model diversity, Toledo hesitates. “Well, I think there are pieces of companies. We’re still waiting. We haven’t yet named a merchant that we celebrate.”

It gives pause that one of the most powerful groups promoting equality for women and minorities can’t come up with one company to laud for diversity. What’s gone wrong?

Diversity programs can be hurtful, not helpful, to employees.
You’re not going to like this, but you may be approaching the diversity issue all wrong. As we move into what the field’s experts call “the next phase,” many programs in retrospect are being labeled passe -- or worse, counterproductive.

See if any of these scenarios rings a bell:

  1. You gather your employees for training. You break up into groups of all women and all men for a problem-solving exercise. The goal is generally something completely unimportant -- say, marketing a fictional product. After the groups present their plans, the diversity trainer notes how differently the two teams worked. The women’s team is invariably “collaborative,” “intuitive” and “creative.” The men’s team, conversely, is “competitive,” “logical” and “linear.” See how differently men and women work? Respect that.

  2. All the employees play a game. Through the course of the game, they learn that Latin Americans have a more laid-back management style, that African Americans prefer lots of interaction, that women presented with a problem are more likely to offer sympathy than solutions. See how these different perspectives will help the company? Value them.

It’s this type of approach that many women and minorities find insulting. No, there’s nothing wrong with raising employees’ awareness. Many women will tell you they do prefer teaming with people to leading people. Of course, many women will tell you just the opposite. Starting a conversation is one thing, but perpetuating a stereotype is another.

For every dollar white male managers in the private sector earn, white women managers earn 59 cents, men of color managers earn 75 cents and women of color earn 57 cents.
-- Catalyst, New York City

And this, say diversity experts, is happening often. All it does is translate any negative stereotypes about a group (women are too emotional) into positive ones (women are intuitive). These procedures do little to foster individual respect. The goal is to allow each individual footing in the company, not to give all employees checklists so they can say, “Hello, you’re Hispanic, I am aware you may not start meetings on time. I value that approach.”

Richard Hadden, co-author of the employee-relations book Contented Cows Give Better Milk (Willford Communications, 1998), calls the checklist approach “a bit patronizing. I think we’re far too much focused on our differences and not enough on our similarities,” he says. “I think it’s important to understand [our differences]. But do we need to dwell on them? Do we need to obsess over them? Probably not.”

Focusing on a specific group doesn’t necessarily integrate it.
Some women and minorities say they dislike being dealt with as a homogenous group, and don’t even like mentoring or networking programs that target them. They feel this approach is condescending. They want companies to tell them what to do, not who to be, to get ahead.

So how did we get here? Certainly, diversity misfires aren’t solely, or even primarily, human resources’ fault. Companies didn’t deliberately set out to handle diversity poorly. The problem has come in part because the field is just so new. There’s been little benchmarking to be done, especially back in the 1980s, when the industry really took off.

It was at this point that diversity programs were in large part just feel-good projects -- a new, inspiring idea that few people knew how to effectively implement. There just weren’t any track records to look at or studies to help guide the way. So it was indeed easy to take a simplistic approach to diversity: HR gets a nice credit, employees feel their issues are addressed and the company reaps some good PR.

Add to that the unregulated field of diversity consultants. As one consultant said, anybody can slap a title on a business card and set up shop. Many (usually well-intentioned) professionals who have no diversity background hopped on the bandwagon. They started out as good speakers, former salespeople or trainers, and figured that was enough.

In addition, many consultants hailed from the affirmative-action realm, which, although not in itself a poor foundation, it shouldn’t be mistaken with diversity, say experts. Installing an affirmative-action plan, they say, is completely different from creating an environment in which all different types of people have an equal opportunity to get ahead. Many experts say that an affirmative-action approach contributed to some of the guilt-trip programs they’re trying to distance themselves.

Instead, the focus of diversity efforts, they say, should be on how to make a company work well for all kinds of people. The object isn’t necessarily to help women and minorities, but to help employees better work together.

It’s a much more pragmatic approach, say the experts, than a quickie three-hour seminar of fun and games -- the approach diversity experts say they see all too often. “HR has been saying for years it wants to be taken seriously as a business partner, but the way [HR] has been conducting diversity does not reflect that,” says Sussman.

Companies need to consider stepping up to the “next level.”
So how should HR conduct diversity?
First and foremost, take a good look at whomever you have handling your company’s diversity. It’s easy to get blindsided by the gentle messages and soothing tones offered by many consultants, but that doesn’t make what they’re saying right.

Sit in on some meetings. Make sure they’re doing more than a men-vs.-women talk or an “introduction-to-ethnic-people” lecture. The most important thing for the trainer to do is to start a dialogue about the issues. If you hear them trying to quash dissent or oversell their agenda, they may be doing more harm than good.

The best idea is to get a conversation going, and then facilitate it in a healthy way. In fact, says Ellen Bravo, president of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, in Milwaukee, if you have people who are willing to vent their dissatisfaction, you may be at an advantage. “Involve [those people] in the examination of those fundamental questions,” she says. “Because it’s generally true that if you ask the angry people, ‘What are your ideas for how to do it differently,’ they often will have some good ideas.”

Black unemployment is more than double white unemployment
-- NAACP, Baltimore

Much preferable to a checklist of gender and ethnic “identities” is simply allowing women and people of color to speak about their issues. They know far better what the situation for them is like at your company than any outside consultant, no matter how good.

On the bright side, finding that good consultant may be getting easier. The National Multicultural Institute in Washington, D.C., is planning a membership group for diversity consultants. This will allow for more quality control. The Institute plans to have members work under a code of ethics, and will also conduct continuing education, and perhaps at some point, member reviews, says President Liz Salett.

Another point: We dare you to find a respected diversity specialist who will endorse training alone -- no matter how good, how often and how well-received -- as your key to the multicultural kingdom.

“You cannot do just training in isolation,” emphasizes Janice Dreachslin, Pennsylvania State University MBA professor and author of Diversity Leadership (Health Administration Press, 1996). “It will make women and minorities raise their expectations, and then the bottom will fall out when they see it’s nothing but window dressing.”

Take a closer look at the situation.
Training must be accompanied by an examination of how the company does business. And it must be a thorough examination; an organization can’t just install a networking group and be done.

Bravo advises a sort of reverse engineering of the workforce. Look at the people who are in the organization’s top spots, and then trace how those people rose through the company. Approach the matter as if it were an investigation. Are the white males telling stories about sealing deals on the golf course? Heck, are the women telling stories about sealing deals on the golf course? You need to know how and where these types of connections are being made.

White non-Hispanics will comprise 49% of the net new entrants into the workforce between 1994-2005, minorities 51%, and women from all ethnic groups 62%
-- 9to5, Milwaukee

If the connections are being made in ways that are exclusionary to other employees, that’s something you can address. (You’ll be surprised at the unseen barriers that many employees face. One woman at a San Francisco company said members of a certain demographic group were racing past her in promotions. Why was this happening? Unlike the Southerner, these fast-trackers had all attended Stanford University, just like the top executives.)

A successful program is one that keeps an open line of discussion, makes the criteria of success clear to all employees and addresses barriers to progress. It goes far beyond valuing diversity -- it’s about valuing individuals.

Says Hadden: “The organizations that are moving ahead with this are the ones smart enough to say, ‘This has got to be a place where a minority, or a woman, or a homosexual, or an older or younger person, or someone from the North in a company in the South, or someone from the South in a company in the North -- where all these people can perform to the full extent of their potential.’”

Move toward the “next level” -- whatever that may be for your company.
For an organization that has the necessary recruiting and development mechanisms in place -- those basic diversity tools of trade -- the next level really means moving to a place where diversity doesn’t have a capital D, where it isn’t so obtrusive.

For instance, picture this: It’s a sunny day in Oakland, California, and a group of employees -- men, women, African-Americans, Latinos and Asians -- have gathered. An African-American man is talking about a disturbing experience the night before, when he’d been snubbed at a recital by a wealthy African-American man.

He was stunned. The experience made him question how much discrimination was along race lines, and how much was actually class. The group launches into a bare-knuckled -- but respectful -- debate about this, then gradually heads to myriad other diversity topics. In fact, it’s a two-hour feast of shared views, information and ideas.

It’s called “dialoguing,” says Ralph Dechabert, director of diversity and employee development for American President Lines Limited. Dialoguing is a frank, thoughtful, facilitated discussion of race, gender and personality issues that groups of employees commit to have once a month, on company time, for a year.

It was instituted because Dechabert felt that the company’s former diversity program ran on fumes -- employees had covered race and gender awareness, but there was nowhere to go with it afterward. “We’d have our diversity training and then what happens is folks go away and don’t have prolonged contact, so you have no reason to talk to Joe Doe.”

More than half of Fortune 500 company boards lack even one female member
-- Glass Ceiling Report, Department of Labor

Dialoguing changed that. Several employees went through training as facilitators, and then began recruiting other employees to commit to their year-long conversation. The groups that are at their best, says Dechabert, not only have a cross-sampling of gender and race, but also have various geographical, educational, sexual orientation, age and personality differences. And the length of time commitment from them is essential: Issues don’t break down until defenses break down, and that can take time.

The consistent conversation has forged bonds that would never have been made otherwise. Indeed, Dechabert says he sees less emphasis on who people are as a result of their skin color or gender, and more on who people are -- period. To dialogue is to learn about what individuals bring to the table as a result of their sheer individuality, and it’s had remarkable results.

“It’s amazing how when the session is over, we find ways to access each other and we see each other differently,” says Dechabert. That access means more people of all colors knowing each other, and consequentially, thinking of each other for problem-solving, thinking of each other for teams, and thinking of each other for promotions.

Too simple? Dechabert thinks that’s part of its success.

Consider the company’s Memphis office, a two-year dialoguing old-timer. A black woman now heads the operations. “She wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity a few years ago,” Dechabert says without hesitation. Not only that, but absences, tardiness and EEOC complaints have all dropped at that office. This, during a period in which the unit was actually downsizing, normally high season for problems. Dechabert credits dialoguing in large part.

Dialoguing’s ultimate achievements? Better communication, acknowledgment of anger and shortcomings, and, says Dechabert, “The hope is it will help people manage diversity more naturally.”

To reach diversity management, try a step-ladder approach.
However, what if naturally managing diversity simply isn’t possible at your company? Perhaps senior management isn’t behind it enough. Or senior management is behind it, but you just haven’t made the progress you need. Or a lawsuit has made everyone too edgy about diversity issues.

Such is the case of Chicago-based R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., which was hit with a multimillion dollar race-discrimination lawsuit in 1996 that started with one plant and has snowballed nationwide, preventing a trial from starting because the number of plaintiffs has yet to even be decided. How does a company in this situation -- or any company in an “early stage” -- approach diversity effectively?

Several diversity specialists offer R.R. Donnelley & Sons as a good example. Pre-lawsuit, the company had done one-shot diversity-awareness training to focus on stereotypes and prejudices. It was moving to a broader approach when the suit hit, says Kevin Bradley, diversity manager.

Of the 57.8 million women in the U.S. workforce in 1995, 77.4% were white; 12.1% African American, 7% Hispanic; 3.6% Asian or other.
-- Catalyst, New York

One of the company’s first moves was to switch its quickie training to ongoing, curriculum-based training. “Freshman year” now sees managers learning the basics of compliance. They take courses on Equal Employment Opportunity, affirmative action (because the company is a federal contractor), the Americans with Disabilities Act and harassment. The following year, they’ll delve deeper into “diversity as a business issue.” Other years’ curriculums are still in development, but the idea is a step-ladder approach, beginning with the very lowest denominator of diversity and working up.

To keep the lower-level employees involved, each of the 40 plants will have a diversity council to focus on issues at the local level and address any problems.

Then there’s the matter of sheer numbers -- namely to increase the amount of women and minorities working at R.R. Donnelley. To do so, senior managers look at their job openings for the upcoming year, then reserve a certain amount of those openings for women and minorities. Part of managers’ bonuses is then tied to their meeting this goal.

The approach is a contentious one: Some companies swear by it as a means of putting their money where their mouth is, and have been quite successful as a result. For others, it has more than a whiff of quota-setting. “Is it a bounty?” says Bradley. “We’re looking at it as performance. We’re not saying ‘Hire a minority, get a buck,’ we’re saying ‘Do your job, and if you achieve all your goals -- and employment is one of them -- you’ll get 100 percent of your bonus.’ It is an emotional issue. You’ll have some backlash, some people thinking it’s a bounty or a quota.”

Companies considering a similar plan should stay flexible. At R.R. Donnelley & Sons, if a manager can present a business case for not meeting the goal, he or she is excused -- a little. For instance, if a manager just can’t find any qualified women or minorities for a position, the company doesn’t demand a hire. What it does demand, however, is that managers examine why there aren’t any qualified women or minorities for that position, and make sure there are some in the pipeline for the future.

“These are goals, means to improve in the area in which we need to improve,” says Bradley. “Now is everyone going to buy that argument? Probably not.”

What they might buy, however, are the solid return numbers: As of the last report, 14.6 percent of the total workforce were minorities and 31.7 percent were women.

Does a rise in numbers necessarily mean a great place for diverse people to work? No. But is it a good start? Yes. NOW’s Toledo cites recent California studies in the public sector that show better-integrated workplaces receive fewer complaints from women and minorities.

There are no easy answers to the diversity issue.
Bradley’s summation of R.R. Donnelley’s current status can apply to all companies struggling with making diversity work -- no matter at what degree. “We’re making progress. It’s a path, it’s a journey and we’re making some good first steps.”

Not good enough, a lot of women and minorities may think. There’s no easy way to figure out the diversity issue -- just like there’s no easy way to figure out people. We need to realize that, and to stop looking for slick packages and easy answers. We need to accept, and learn from, the criticism that women and minorities often have a right to give. We need to sit down and really talk to each other. Then maybe we can start making real progress.

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, pp. 26-35.

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