It was a conversation like so many I’ve had with leaders over the years. The three executives on the line were seasoned, smart, curious, and good-hearted. They wanted to do the right thing for their employees and their customers, especially in the wake of this year’s civil unrest over racial injustice. They wanted to “do diversity” right.
And yet they were wrapped around the axle in despair. Why? Because they believed doing diversity right meant “diversifying” their workforce, and their industry doesn’t tend to attract “diverse” talent. They were in a panic over how to hire more Black and brown people. “We’re a highly specialized, technical field,” an HR leader said tensely. “How do we recruit more ‘diverse’ talent when there aren’t ‘diverse’ students in the university pipeline?” “Not only that,” chimed in a COO, “our general counsel is going to have a fit if we try to institute quotas for hiring. I mean, Is that even legal?”
Whew. Such uninformed anxiety is so common among leaders it makes my heart hurt. I took a deep breath and remembered: That’s why I’m there — to reduce anxiety and increase sanity with facts and reassurance.
First of all, I told them, it’s a common yet bad habit to call people of color “diverse.” I’ve explained many times that referring to POC — or women and POC — as “diverse” reinforces the non-inclusive notion that “diversity” is only about and for women and POC. This is inaccurate, narrow, divisive, and unproductive.
Second, racial quotas in hiring are, and have always been, illegal in the United States. Affirmative action, in both hiring and education, requires some entities to take “affirmative” (active) steps to recruit, fairly hire, and advance members of marginalized groups. This means including a person’s identity as a factor in decision-making. The purpose of these steps is to ensure fairness by combating systemic biases that produce inequitable results.
Third, the idea that “doing diversity right” means hiring more Black and brown bodies is old-school, 1980s-flavor Diversity 1.0. It sets organizations up for frustration and impossible expectations for three reasons:
- Organizations don’t have full control over the talent pipeline. Companies can, should, and do play a role in creating more equitable societies by providing employment access, career pathways, mentorship, and talent development. However, they can’t combat poverty, create better public policy, or improve educational access alone; collaboration with multiple partners is required to shift the pipeline. Also, community demographics affect an organization’s ability to attract talent from groups who don’t live within a commutable distance (if we ever go back to office working!).
- Talent pipeline problems require long-term generational solutions. They can’t be meaningfully solved in two to five years, and therefore don’t provide the short-term wins and ROI that fuel confidence and build momentum for diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) goals. A thin talent pipeline requires long-term investment and partnership among various entities.
- It’s neither possible, nor desirable, for all organizations to mirror all demographics. Such a goal actually reduces diversity! Now, organizations and leaders should avoid jumping quickly to the conclusion that “Well, ‘they’ just must not want to do this type of work/work here/be a leader!” Such thinking kept women out of high-paying industries and jobs for generations, and still does. We should explore the root causes of a thin pipeline — look at the data and listen to the stories — instead of assuming a lack of interest. And yet we should also allow for the possibility that some individuals and groups might not feel drawn to certain fields, jobs, roles and geographies, and maybe that’s OK.
Yes, equitable access and opportunities to advance are critical, and most organizations can make improvements in these areas. However, there are additional areas where leaders can focus to increase inclusion and equity while building a talent pipeline.
- Develop and promote internally. Diversity is about, and for, everyone — not just women, POC, and LGBTQI folks. Even if every single person in your organization is a white male, you have a diverse workforce. What are your current opportunities to develop and promote the people you already have? Many organizations wringing their hands over hiring more Black and brown bodies already have a dismal track record in talent processes and development. Many are already poor at assessing performance and culture, engaging employees, providing stretch assignments and mentorship, developing leaders, and holding them to high standards. Start equipping employees now to do a kickass job, and remove their obstacles to doing so.
- Identify the “strategic diversity” you need. I once received a call from a nonprofit that serves the Asian-American community in a large city, wanting help recruiting more African-Americans. My first question, in all sincerity, was, “Why?” The team was startled and didn’t have a clear answer. They just assumed that to be a good, inclusive organization, they needed more Black bodies. After some conversation, we identified that their main diversity gap seemed to be generational. They had several key programs serving seniors, but the entire staff was millennials. This cultural disconnect had led to some hiccups with both clients and donors. Hiring and promoting older employees ended up being the strategic diversity they needed to fulfill their mission and solve an existing problem (which is the real reason to “do diversity”).
- Increase your inclusiveness. The research is clear that increasing diversity in a workplace that isn’t inclusive turns diversity into a liability. Humans didn’t evolve to communicate and build rapport quickly and easily with strangers. Diversity without inclusion increases conflict and silos, and decreases morale and productivity. Diversity is only an excellence multiplier in an inclusive environment. That environment depends on effective leadership and communication, and equitable systems and processes. All organizations have work to do in this area regardless of the colors of their workforce.
- Heal your toxic, white supremacist culture. Here’s a mind blower — you can have an organization full of Black and brown people and still have a white supremacist, racist, non-inclusive workplace. POC are not coming to save you from your toxic, inhumane culture! You can do the work of dismantling white supremacy, inequity, and inhumanity now, regardless of what color bodies occupy your offices. Tema Okun wrote a fantastic article a few years ago that outlines 15 characteristics of white supremacy culture as it manifests in the workplace. While these characteristics aren’t necessarily exclusive to white supremacy, they are symptoms (and tools) of various forms of oppression. They include: perfectionism, sense of (chronic, reflexive) urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, either-or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, extreme individualism, a belief in “objectivity,” the belief that “progress” means bigger or more, paternalism, and the norm that those in power have a right to comfort. Sound familiar?
The work of recruiting, hiring, and promoting more Black and brown bodies is essential. However, it’s limited and incomplete, because it’s not the true goal of DEI. It’s just one tactic that points to what really matters — creating workplaces and communities that work better for more of us. Each of us has a role to play in this endeavor, and each of us can start immediately.
The executives I spoke with that day were relieved to learn they weren’t bad or stupid for not doing something that they have limited power to change. Yet they also gained an increased burden of responsibility. They realized they do have plenty of critical areas of opportunity within their control to improve. It’s not easy or quick work, but it’s what is required to make meaningful, sustainable change.
So how will you commit to create a more inclusive, equitable, sane workplace for yourself and those around you? How will you help create a world that works better for more of us starting right now?