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The premise of diversity in the workplace is that it improves performance, and people who apply themselves and do good work should be treated fairly. Yet, the evidence suggests we’re failing. As a contribution to the process of building diversity, this chapter looks at what we could be doing to get results.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to rewire the human brain, but we can alter the environment in which decisions are made.1
Behavioural economist, Iris Bohnet, advocates that giving people choice in an organisation is the most optimal way to enhance innovation and transformation.2 As she explains in her Harvard Business Review article, ‘Designing a bias-free organization’, the idea behind this ‘choice architecture’ is to deliberately structure how we present information and options. We don’t take away a person’s right to decide or tell them what they should do. We just make it easier for them to reach rational decisions.
There’s still an element of manipulation here: the organisation sets the stage for certain kinds of choices. But at least people have some sense that they ‘own’ their decision.
It was another article in that same issue of Harvard Business Review that got most of the attention, though. ‘Why diversity programmes fail’3 earned authors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev the 2017 McKinsey Harvard Business Review Award. Their approach – which involves mitigating biases in the workplace, not reversing them – would deliver a sharp one-two punch knockout to the whole diversity-and-inclusion-in-the-workplace effort.
The question they addressed was: Why are diversity programmes failing? And should diversity be mitigated, reversed or encouraged in the workplace?
The term ‘diversity’ can refer to people’s backgrounds, abilities, culture, age, citizenship, ethnicity, gender, migration status, language, race, religion, sexual identity, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Defining the value of diversity in an organisation is often a subjective process. Research on diversity programmes shows that the more knowledgeable a person is about sociocultural diversity issues, the more approachable that person is to their peers and in other areas of influence.4 These areas of influence are shown below in Figure 3.5.1. The strongest influence is within a close family and friends network and influence weakens as you move outward from this circle.
A rich mix of different identities, experiences, perspectives and responsiveness creates the most productive environment for engagement in the workplace.5
Power is relational and dynamic, and is sustained through groups, systems, behaviours, discourse and institutions.7 Studies on hegemony (the dominance of one group over others) and how power operates see social group hegemony as the natural and acceptable order.8 A combination of prejudice and institutional power defines oppression as a system that discriminates against some groups (often called ‘target groups’) and benefits other groups (often called ‘dominant groups’).9 Oppression is a form of injustice that occurs when one social group is subordinated while another is privileged; and this domination is maintained by a variety of different mechanisms, including social norms, stereotypes and institutional rules.10 It occurs in daily practices without question, whether through institutional or acceptable norms, and is thus perpetuated and reproduced almost invisibly11 as an act of one social group knowingly or unknowingly exploiting others for their benefit.12 Social oppression occurs when the following elements are in place:
The exclusionary practice of social oppression happens at individual, institutional and societal or cultural levels, and is reinforced through the psychosocial levels of consciousness, unconsciousness, behaviour and attitudes, as shown in Figure 18.104.22.168 Understanding what enables exclusion through the practice of oppression allows us to better understand its antithesis, inclusion, or the inclusive study of diverse groups in the workplace.
The composition of a workplace is diverse. Diversity programmes that are based on compliance with legislation such as the Employment Equity Act focus on workforce demographics, matters of discrimination, diversity and fairness in the organisation.15 Therefore, these diversity-promoting initiatives tend to centre on recruitment, education and training, and career development and mentoring programmes to increase and retain a diverse workforce.16
Hiring diverse groups is one thing; facilitating their engagement on the job is another. Inclusion can be described as:17
Studies have shown that people from diverse social and cultural groups are often excluded from dominant networks and information in the organisation, which can limit their career growth and consequently drive them out of the organisation.18
Diversity and inclusion are related but different. Where diversity focuses on the representation of various employee profiles in the organisation, inclusion focuses on removing barriers to full participation by all employees. It’s the difference between having a diverse workforce and being able to leverage that diversity.
Organisations that fail to leverage diversity may find certain groups of employees become frustrated. They may give up on wanting to grow in the organisation and instead perform at the bare minimum level to keep their jobs. To avoid the disappointment of not being appropriately recognised, they don’t stretch themselves. Or, they may leave the organisation in search of better opportunities elsewhere. This results in less diversity and perpetuates the cycle. Inclusion encourages these ‘targeted members’ to bring their full selves to work instead of having to assimilate into the dominant culture for acceptance.
Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev’s Harvard Business Review article noted the following trends in the United States:19
Table 3.5.1 shows the statistics of poor returns on diversity programmes. The three most popular interventions make firms less diverse, not more, because managers resist strong-arming. For instance, testing job applicants hurts women and minorities – but not because they perform poorly. Hiring managers don’t always test everyone (white men often get a pass) and don’t interpret results consistently.
In her study on racial transformation in the South African market research industry, Sibongile Vilakazi found that the industry was struggling to foster positive relationships that facilitated the inclusion of black researchers in organisations.20
She identified three types of black market researchers in the industry, each of which reacted to being excluded differently:
The self-reliant researchers tended to react to the frustration caused by being excluded in the organisation by leaving the organisation, while the uncommitted researchers stuck around even though they were disgruntled and gave the bare minimum to the job. The agreeable and conscientious researchers found ways to manage the situation and grew to senior positions, but within the confines of the organisation. They were often the only black employees in senior management but attained these positions without changing the organisational culture much.
Figure 3.5.3 shows the personality traits, feelings and responses of each group.
So, what’s going wrong? One reason relates to why companies adopt these programmes. Organisations have long relied on diversity training to pre-empt lawsuits by policing managers’ thoughts and actions. Many of these programmes are mandatory. But the research by Dobbin and Kaley suggests that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out. They found that people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. When people felt under pressure to agree with bias training, the training exercise strengthened their biases. When they felt the choice was theirs, the exercise reduced bias.22
Another reason is that three-quarters of the programmes appear to use negative messages in their training, which also ends up exacerbating existing biases.
Here are some other interesting insights that their study provided:
If human bias is a natural condition, perhaps this is an impossible war to win. In that same edition of the Harvard Business Review, Lisa Burrell weighed in on the argument with the view that perhaps diversity is something that we, as members of the human race, simply can’t manage. In ‘We just can’t handle diversity’,23 she argues that the trouble with merit is:
Why has it taken so long for people to see that these programmes weren’t effective? Dobbin and Kaley suggest that for a long time there was simply no research.24 Companies put programmes in place in the belief that this was the solution. Either they really believed in the programme or didn’t really care about the outcomes; they just wanted to show they had a programme in place. In the US in the 1970s and 1980s, just changing structures and putting new efforts in place was already a huge improvement on how things were in the period before the civil rights movement. People didn’t even think about whether the innovations actually worked.
There’s been more research in the last 20 years but it’s focused mainly on short-term effects. Much of that research is problematic because it’s not rigorous or long-term enough to actually pinpoint effective programmes. Bottom line: we jumped onto the bandwagon without giving much thought to determining whether the interventions were working.
When Dobbin and Kaley were interviewed about their article on the failure of diversity and inclusion programmes, they pointed to three factors that can contribute significantly to getting this right engagement, contact and accountability.25
Dobbin states that:
People’s stereotypes go away as they get to know people from other groups, especially if they work side by side with them. If you are white and have not been exposed to African-Americans very much, we know from our various studies that intense exposure through working side by side helps you to individualize people from a group that you are not familiar with and stop stereotyping them. So if you want to change stereotyping at work, the best way to do it is not to try to train it away, but to expose people to people from other groups in their work lives. In effect, you have to start by integrating the workplace. That’s what’s going to diminish stereotypes.26
Holding managers socially accountable for how they treat employees is another way to promote diversity. In one study, a company was shown to give smaller increases to black employees, even when they had identical positions and performance ratings to their white colleagues. Then the company started publicly posting employees’ performance ratings and pay increases. ‘Once managers realized that employees, peers and superiors would know which parts of the company favoured whites, the gap in raises all but disappeared,’ write Dobbin and Kalev.27
Companies do a better job of increasing diversity when they forgo the control tactics and frame their efforts more positively. The most effective programmes spark engagement, increase contact among different groups or draw on people’s strong desire to look good to others.
What, then, could be a viable course of action for South Africa? Here are a few recommendations:
If diversity programmes are failing because we don’t know how to assess and monitor their success, then surely this should be the starting point. Instead of simply assuming a problem exists and therefore such a programme should be undertaken, companies need to first assess the magnitude (and the specificity) of the problem.
Armed with the facts, now is the time to engage. The starting point is at the top. As Nene Molefi points out in her book on diversity and inclusion in South Africa, the first exercises to identify biases start right at the top. And top management needs to set an example at every stage in the process, by:28
Molefi is masterful at knowing exactly how to speak to corporate boards to first expose their own embedded biases, then guide them through a process that starts with selfexamination and leads to a repositioning of how the company will tackle the challenges full on. A process like this would be vital to not only get executive and board buy-in but also to get them comfortable with what the challenge will entail.
Molefi also brings to the table intimate knowledge of global diversity and inclusion benchmarks. In fact, she was part of the team that helped set these standards. Benchmarks allow top management to assess how they measure up against global best practice.
If diversity programmes are failing because we don’t know how to assess and monitor their success, then surely this should be the starting point.
Here again, Mercer can supplement the work with a toolkit that relates to how companies can take a hard look at their engagement and incentivisation models (see Figure 3.5.4):
The Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World (GDIB) were developed to support organisations globally in the development and implementation of diversity and inclusion (D&I) best practices.29 Each of the benchmarks has five levels, are defined as follows:30
For most effective D&I work, organisations will probably need to be at least a level 3 on most of the benchmarks.31
In Mercer’s world, the stepping stones to getting it right echo much of Molefi’s work. Additionally, they address both gender equality and diversity challenges. These steps to success are summarised in the list below, which reflects the best ideas set forth by the full array of people we have engaged with to date. No doubt, there are many more insights that we could add here – but let’s just get the debate started! The first list addresses issues of diversity more generally:
And here are some steps for promoting gender equality in particular:
1 Beshears, J & Gino, F, quoted in Burrell, L. 2016. We just can’t handle diversity, Harvard Business Review, July–August 2016 (online).
2 Morse, G. 2016. Designing a bias-free organization, Harvard Business Review, July–August 2016 (online).
3 Dobbin, F & Kalev, A. 2016. Why diversity programs fail, Harvard Business Review, July–August 2016 (online).
4, 5: Herdman, A, & McMillan-Capehart, A. 2010. Establishing a diversity program is not enough: exploring the determinants of diversity climate, Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, pp. 39–53 (journal).
6 Adams, M, Bell, L & Griffin, P. 1997. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Routledge (book).
7 Adams et al.
8 Morrow, RA & Torres, CA. 1995. Social Theory and Education: A Critique of Theories of Social and Cultural Reproduction, State University of New York Press (book).
9 The Leaven Centre. 2003. Doing Our Own Work: A Seminar for Anti-Racist White Women.
10 Taylor, E. 2016. Groups and oppression, Hypatia, Volume 31, Issue 3, pp. 520–536 (Journal).
11 Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Seabury Press, New York (book).
12 Adams et al.
13 Leaven (2003).
14 Adams et al. (1995).
15 South Africa. 2013. Employment Equity Act (No. 55 of 1998 and No. 47 of 2013).
16 South Africa (2013).
17 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2015. Creating an Inclusive Society: Practical Strategies to Promote Social Integration 2015; Belkin, GS. 2007. Measuring and Using Social Inclusion – Building a Nexus of Facts, Practices and Knowledge through the Lessons and Capacities of Public Health, Expert Group Meeting on ‘Creating an inclusive society: practical strategies to promote social integration’, 11–14 September 2007.
18 Indian Institute of Management. 2015. Inclusive workplaces: lessons from theory and practice, Vikalpa, Volume 40, Issue 3, 1 September 2015 (Journal).
19 Dobbin & Kalev (2016).
20 Vilakazi, S. 2016. Individual identity, organizational identity and racial transformation in the market research industry in South Africa. Study in
partial fulfilment for a PhD, Wits Business School (online).
21 Vilakazi (2016).
22 Dobbin & Kalev (2016).
23 Burrell, L. 2016. We just can’t handle diversity, Harvard Business Review, July–August 2016 issue (online).
24, 25: McKinsey. 2017. HBR McKinsey Award winners: Why diversity programs fail, and what World War II can teach us about success, McKinsey Blog, 18 April 2017 (online).
26 McKinsey (2017).
27 Dobbin & Kalev (2016).
28 Molefi, N. 2017. A Journey of Diversity & Inclusion in South Africa: Guidelines for Leading Inclusively, KR Publishing, Randburg (book).
29, 30, 31: O’Mara, J & Richter, A. 2017. From Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World, Centre for Global Inclusion (online).
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