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Diversity efforts have become formulaic over the years. Where is leadership missing the mark?

In the best cases, companies hire a diversity leader, afford the person no power or resources, and expect miracles. This knee-jerk reaction is both careless and, looking at the landscape today, makes little difference, says this D&I strategist.

Diversity efforts have become formulaic over the years. Where is leadership missing the mark?
[Source image: wacomka/iStock]

Over three weeks ago, when we watched George Floyd with a knee on his neck, the video should have been shocking, appalling, angering, and many other adjectives to everyone, myself included. But yet, when countless white friends reached out to me to ask how I was feeling, my answer was simply, “I’m fine.”

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Today is no different than any other day; I went to sleep Black, I woke up Black, and the day that George Floyd was killed was no different to me than last Tuesday or every other Friday. The difference is that my friends, and people around the world, finally noticed.

Nothing has changed—at least yet. And whether I put a period after “Nothing has changed” is up to us and the actions we take in the future.

Therefore, whether your company decides to do anything differently is up to you. And writing a statement that you stand with the Black community is not a concrete action—unless there is both commitment, strategy, and accountability.

Just yesterday, I was asked by a recruiter if I could provide her with referrals from my network because she is seeing that many of her clients are taking the action of hiring a chief diversity officer or some form of D&I leader. As I heard that, I felt a sense of dread.

I thought about the cycle of “check the box” activities that companies go through and I was frustrated by these careless decisions. In the best of circumstances, companies hire a diversity and inclusion leader, put them in charge of all diversity and inclusion, give them no power, no resources, but do present them with a boatload of expectations and expect miracles. And now is no different. Hiring is happening quickly with little planning. It’s a knee-jerk reaction because they feel the spotlight on them.

In the future (usually around the one-year mark), when the D&I leader quits because their head is bloody from hitting it against a brick wall or when they are asked to leave because they have “underperformed,” senior leaders will say they took an action and this result shows that diversity doesn’t work.

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In the alternative, they’ll conduct yet another survey. They’ll collect data they already have and come to conclusions they already know (but don’t want to confront), and the results of that survey will get buried at the bottom of an email or posted inconspicuously on a private, intracompany network.

Or worse they’ll ask their resource group of Black employees to conduct a training for the organization. Not that there is a good time, but now is certainly a bad time to ask your Black employees to bear the burden of educating your workforce without additional compensation, on a topic that should be placed into the hands of leadership and your learning and development partners.

In all three scenarios, when the outcome is not the success they expected, they’ll say, “See, we tried. The diversity initiatives failed.”

And to that, I retort that it’s the managers and leaders of businesses who have failed, not diversity as a concept.

Those results are likely attributable to failing to do one or more of the following:

  • Be clear in your motivation for embarking on this journey. Why now? What’s the purpose in taking action? Is it the result of an authentic desire to change or a last-ditch attempt to avoid lawsuits?
  • Define organization values and align diversity initiatives to them. What do you stand for as an organization and better yet, what behaviors won’t you tolerate?
  • Create accountability in your senior leadership team. How do you make it clear what the expectations are as they relate to creating an inclusive workplace? Who drives the initiative?
  • Allocate resources. Commitment goes beyond words. Allocate time, energy, dollars, and decision-making power.
  • Role-model inclusive behaviors. Do what you say you will do; people are watching you to see if your talk is followed by action.
  • Obtain data and create achievable metrics. Measure the success of the initiatives implemented and communicate those successes.

Sometimes the cynicism overtakes me, but while things can seem hopeless, I continue to do this work. One of my daughters asked me, “What’s the point? Why bother?”

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Some days, I struggle to answer this question myself. But then there are days when I can stand in a room of white men who begin a session with a passive attitude and then watch them slowly unfold their arms and lean in. Other times, I can easily answer a white woman’s question on how to communicate better with her Black coworker, then watch the tension leave her face. I can also help an entire department of recruiters partner with hiring managers to reduce bias and remove barriers when hiring. And on a frequent basis, I open messages from men who tell me they were told by their company to take my course and presumed it would be terrible, but ended up enjoying it and—importantly—learning something.

I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t see people transform. When I catch a change in demeanor, hear a change in language, and observe coworkers being more open to one another, it’s a sign diversity did not fail.


Stacey Gordon is the CEO and founder of Rework Work, a training and consulting organization centered around advancing women and professionals of color while creating unconscious inclusion in organizations.

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