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Why Diversity Programs Backfire And How To Fix Them

Posting a policy and putting a company on autopilot not only doesn’t work, it can have serious backlash.

Why Diversity Programs Backfire And How To Fix Them
[Photo: Chris Ryan/Getty Images]

New evidence suggests that diversity programs aren’t quite doing as well as they could.

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Tessa Dover and Brenda Major of the University of California, Santa Barbara along with Cheryl Kaiser of the University of Washington conducted a series of experiments that revealed how some diversity efforts cause a backlash. The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that (perhaps not surprisingly) pro-diversity messages make members of high-status groups (i.e.: white men) feel threatened.

“Compared to white men interviewing at the company that did not mention diversity, white men interviewing for the pro-diversity company expected more unfair treatment and discrimination against whites. They also performed more poorly in the job interview, as judged by independent raters. And their cardiovascular responses during the interview revealed that they were more stressed.”

Additionally, the researchers found that some diversity initiatives weren’t really convincing underrepresented minorities that their employer will treat them more fairly.

The authors cite a longitudinal study that analyzed the affirmative action and diversity policies of more than 700 U.S. companies. The study found that diversity programs aimed at eliminating bias among managers were least effective at increasing the share of both white and black women, and black men in management.

The problem, they posit in a post for Harvard Business Review, is that most people assume that diversity policies make companies more fair places to work. But just posting a plan can backfire. They write:

“A 2011 Supreme Court class action case, Walmart successfully used the mere presence of its anti-discrimination policy to defend itself against allegations of gender discrimination. And Walmart isn’t alone: the “diversity defense” often succeeds, making organizations less accountable for discriminatory practices.”

Training That Actually Works

We’ve reported on how training can go wrong, partly because at some companies it’s mandatory and remedial, and partly because it can be cloaked in negative language. Frank Dobbin, sociology professor at Harvard, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, analyzed close to 1,000 studies that have been conducted to measure the effectiveness of training and found that it resulted in a decrease in the number of people of color across the companies studied. “The share of black women actually decreased by 9%, on average, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women shrank by 4% to 5%,” Dobbin and Kalev wrote.

That hasn’t stopped PwC’s chairman Tim Ryan from implementing a sweeping training plan for the company’s 49,000 employees. PwC just announced that in order to be promoted or to join the firm as a new hire, an individual must complete its 4REAL (Recognize/Explore/Act/Learn) training.

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According to the company, the four-episode video series focuses on one common blind spot as illustrated through fictitious characters and scenarios that tackle ethnic, sexual, or gender biases. The pace of the program is driven by the employee, and there is a way for individuals to track their progress, points which Dobbin and Kalev say are crucial if training programs are going to work to promote diversity. They wrote:

“Voluntary training evokes the opposite response (“I chose to show up, so I must be pro-diversity”), leading to better results: increases of 9% to 13% in black men, Hispanic men, and Asian-American men and women in management five years out (with no decline in white or black women). Research from the University of Toronto reinforces our findings: In one study white subjects read a brochure critiquing prejudice toward blacks. When people felt pressure to agree with it, the reading strengthened their bias against blacks. When they felt the choice was theirs, the reading reduced bias.”

Better Diversity Through Transparency

As U.S. companies such as Intuit, Intel, and others are spending millions on diversity initiatives and appointing dedicated executives to oversee them, it’s perhaps most important that they continue to be transparent about their progress. Especially if they aren’t making it as quickly as they’d hoped.

As Fast Company’s Rich Bellis noted on the news that tech companies such as Twitter and Salesforce (which released last week after pushing it back for three months), and others were delaying the reporting of their diversity stats: “Multiple studies have already shown that you can’t properly critique what you don’t know, and you can’t make it better, either.”

Related Video: One CEO Shares How He’s Creating Diversity In Silicon Valley

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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