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Diversity Experts’ Top 3 Mistakes That Are Slowing Down Progress

Until a fully inclusive, equitable company exists, proven “best practices” don’t exist either, one expert argues. Pretending otherwise is a strategic error.

Diversity Experts’ Top 3 Mistakes That Are Slowing Down Progress
[Source illustration: sirup/iStock]

This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.

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Companies have been working for years to become more diverse and inclusive, especially in the tech sector. And yet seemingly weekly, there’s a new breaking story about sexual harassment, unequal pay, and toxic work environments–or a company releasing diversity metrics that have barely budged. Despite the time, money, and resources dedicated to these efforts, progress has been slow across the board. If we want to accelerate change, those of us who work in the diversity and inclusion space are going to have to do a few things differently–starting with avoiding these mistakes.


Related: The One Thing That Will Force Businesses To Care About Diversity


Mistake No. 1: False Confidence In “Best Practices”

Let’s step back a second and recognize that fair distribution of power among genders and races is something that hasn’t been achieved in any company, ever. Even organizations like Slack, for instance, which has been particularly outspoken on issues of diversity and inclusion, seems to still be grappling with problematic racial and gender dynamics that aren’t easily defeated.

Until one fully inclusive and equitable company exists, even the most effective research-backed interventions are working theories at best. For example, there’s no shortage of data suggesting unconscious bias exists, but there’s little evidence that putting employees through unconscious bias trainings will significantly reduce the occurrence of biased thinking and behavior at a company. It might; it also might not. While we may have interventions that are based on research, we don’t have interventions that research has shown will actually solve these issues.

This brings us to the disturbing reality that no one who works in diversity and inclusion (myself included) truly knows what we’re doing. We cannot guarantee that we can fix the problem. And although it would be more comforting to claim we now have “best practices,” the reality is that we just have “better practices . . . we think.”

This is not just a matter of semantics. Experts in the field need to be clear–to ourselves and to anyone we work for–that there’s no single “right” course of action every company should follow (other than targeted practices that we already do know minimize oppression against distinct groups, like equitable parental leave, gender-neutral bathrooms, reassessing the idea of “culture fit,” and so forth). When we’re talking about sweeping diversity and inclusion practices, those must remain up for healthy, respectful debate.

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Related: These Entrepreneurs Are Done Waiting For Silicon Valley To Close The Racial Wealth Gap


Mistake No. 2: Rushing To Criticize Companies That Do Things Differently

The most efficient way to understand “what works” would be if every organization took a completely different approach to diversity and inclusion, somehow controlled for every imaginable variable, then came back together to compare notes.

That’s practically impossible, of course, but it’s led us to take the opposite approach: Many companies do more or less the exact same things–measuring and reporting diversity statistics; setting up employee resource groups (ERGs) based on gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, etc.; and running unconscious bias trainings. The problem isn’t just uniformity, it’s that if a company wants to experiment with a different method, they risk facing backlash and criticism.

When Deloitte announced this summer that it would be doing away with ERGs in favor of “inclusion councils” meant to bring white men into the conversation, it faced major blowback from the diversity and inclusion community. The effort was derided as an attempt to be “color-blind,” called “premature,” and branded by many as a giant mistake. And perhaps the move really is a horrible mistake. Perhaps, too, Deloitte is on the verge of unlocking the secret to building a fully inclusive organization. More likely than either, though, is that the result will be somewhere in between, and at the very least will offer some insights into the pros and cons of a different approach.

Deloitte is a company known to be dedicated to diversity and inclusion efforts, and even has a research arm that studies inclusion, so shouldn’t we give the company space to explore this approach? This change isn’t a sign that Deloitte has stopped caring about diversity and inclusion, and doesn’t want to dedicate resources there any longer; the company is making this change because it thinks it could be effective. When we’re so quick to judge a different approach, it discourages innovation by other organizations that may be considering trying new things.

There’s an element of hypocrisy here, too. Encouraging everyone to follow the leader isn’t exactly modeling inclusive thinking or a “growth mind-set.” Minimizing groupthink is one of the key objectives of diversifying in the first place. In order to innovate, we need to give companies a little more leeway to take their own approaches to solving these issues–including those that may seem to go against conventional thinking.

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Related: How Your Company Can Meaningfully Improve Diversity In 2017


Mistake No. 3: Dismissing The Unintended Downsides Of Interventions

Any intervention has side effects–consequences that are separate from the intended impact but count as outcomes nonetheless. I’ve spoken to many companies in recent months that care greatly about building more diverse and inclusive organizations, but are not convinced that publicly releasing their diversity statistics–and framing their diversity and inclusion efforts primarily around representation–is the best way for them to reach their goals.

Diversity is about representation, while inclusion is about the experiences of people working at a company: Does everyone feel that they can be themselves, that their contributions are valued, and see a path for upward mobility? The legitimate concern of many companies struggling with whether or not to release their diversity statistics is that doing so could actually undermine the inclusiveness they’re working hard to foster.

For example, leaders worry about creating a dynamic where newly hired women and people of color are stigmatized as “diversity hires” who were brought on simply to “make the numbers look better.” There are also worries about alienating white men–many of whom are in positions of power and need to be on board to create real change. It’s not that leaders who harbor these concerns want to abandon diversity and inclusion efforts or pander to white men. It’s that they want to frame their efforts in a way that’s going to garner the most support and ultimately be the most successful.

There are clear upsides to releasing diversity data; it’s a way to publicly plant a stake in the ground and be held accountable. There are also downsides that may hold back longer-term efforts to build more inclusive workplaces. In some cases, it can even lead companies to “cook the books” to make their numbers look better, despite making few substantive efforts to actually become more diverse and inclusive organizations. When pushing for one course of action over another, we need to weigh the costs alongside the benefits–and allow (well-meaning) companies to decide the route that’s best for them. We need to separate how good an intervention sounds theoretically from how well that intervention is working in practice, once real people and real companies are involved.

Building more diverse and inclusive companies is an infinitely complex task for which there’s no universal, proven strategy for success. The better we can hold onto that truth, while still making smart recommendations and critiques, the better positioned we’ll be to make real–and speedier–progress in the years ahead.

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Amber Madison is the founder of Peoplism, a comprehensive program to help people challenge and change their biases and create more inclusive companies. She is also a licensed therapist, and an over-analyzer who likes to think through actions 10 steps ahead.