When diversity programs falter

There are three opposing sets of values competing to guide our initiatives
By David Creelman
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/06/2017

Has your diversity program failed? Rather than improving the quality of talent or increasing engagement, are there hints it’s doing the opposite?

The Harvard Business Review suggested as much in its July-August 2016 article “Why Diversity Programs Fail.”

In business, most programs that aren’t working are simply cancelled; however, this case is different. Diversity is pursued as a value, not as a business initiative. So how do we repair our programs?

Since diversity is about values, we need to confront the fact there are three opposing sets of values competing to guide our diversity programs.

The three stances

The three stances are Conservative, Progressive and Social Justice. It’s easiest to understand them by looking at how they manifest in some everyday affairs:

Dealing with a noisy, smelly engine:

Conservative: If it’s not broken don’t fix it. If you mess with it, you’ll probably make it worse.

Progressive: We can tweak it to make it better. Let’s do it.

Social Justice: As long as it’s an internal combustion engine, it’s going to be noisy and smelly. We need to break it up and use the parts to create something much better.

Dealing with a schoolyard fight:

Conservative: Let’em go at it; they’ve got to figure it out on their own.

Progressive: Break it up and we’ll get them to talk out their differences.

Social Justice: Seek justice by punishing the aggressor, and recognize that if the one who started the fight is from a marginalized group, it may be that she was goaded into it.

In a diversity program:

Conservative: The world’s often not fair, and attempts to change it usually backfire. We used to feel like a team of individuals. Now, after the diversity training, we are all walking on egg shells.

Progressive: There have been setbacks but also successes. We must continue to find ways to empower people, and educate everyone to embrace differences. Let’s try harder.

Social Justice: Society is so riven with bias and hidden privilege that the marginalized have no real chance. That’s why the programs the Progressives designed aren’t working. We don’t need tolerance training; we need to give marginalized groups the power to fight back against the system.

Hidden conflicts

The hidden conflict in diversity is between the Progressive and Social Justice stances. People who support social justice will feel betrayed by Progressives who stop short of the actions needed to level the hierarchy. Progressives will be dismayed by Social Justice advocates who focus on punishing offenders.

Progressives also misunderstand Social Justice attempts to improve the status of marginalized groups. Social Justice advocates are not so foolish as to believe employees in marginalized groups are hypersensitive. The point of “trigger warning,” “safe spaces” and “being offended” is to balance the power of managers. The goal is for managers to be as worried about the arbitrary power of employees since employees are of the arbitrary power of managers.

If Progressives try to draw clear, pragmatic lines around, for example, what is and is not considered offensive, then that undermines the effectiveness from a Social Justice viewpoint. If the lines are clear, then managers can easily handle them and need not fear that their employees will complain. To even the power balance, the rules must be vague enough so employees can arbitrarily bring charges if ever a manager, in their opinion, is out of line.

The Progressive and Social Justice stances start out looking the same relative to the Conservative stance, but soon devolve into serious conflict because the goals of equality of opportunity (Progressive) and equality of outcome (Social Justice) lead towards dramatically different policy initiatives.

The first step

The first step to getting your diversity program on track is to get the leadership team to confront these three stances and how they are at war within the program. Each stance has it merits. The Conservatives are right that the diversity program may make things worse for everyone. The Progressives are right that we need to reduce bias. The Social Justice advocates are right that society has deep structural unfairness.

HR should meet with stakeholders to review the diversity program in light of the insights delivered by each stance:

Conservative: Identify where the diversity programs are doing more harm than good. Stop doing those things.

Progressive: Identify where the programs are helping the disadvantaged, improving tolerance, or increasing productivity. Expand those programs.

Social Justice: Identify where systemic unfairness in our society is so great that we want to act even if there are downsides. Put in place measures to address that unfairness and absorb the costs.

This review won’t make everyone happy, but it will bring clarity to what the programs are for and why you are doing what you are doing. It doesn’t do any good to pretend that we can enforce quotas and still hire the best qualified candidates; if we want to take a Social Justice stance on hiring, then let’s say so and not beat up talent acquisition for not delivering on two incompatible objectives.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research in Toronto. He can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com or for more information, visit www.creelmanresearch.com. 

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