|Workforce, Dec 1998 v77 i12 p26(8)
The harsh reality of diversity programs.
(includes related articles on diverse workforces and
diversity programs)(Cover Story) Gillian Flynn.
Abstract: Efforts to diversify the American
workforce appear to have failed. The number of sex-based
discrimination charges and race-discrimination lawsuits
continue to increase over the years despite the huge amount of
money spent by companies to promote diversity training in the workplace. The widening
gap in workplace diversity programs has been associated with
mismanagement concerns that promote counterproductive
programs. These programs allegedly treat women and minorities
as part of a public relations strategy that aims to make them
feel good to make the company look good. Companies are advised
to promote a well-established communications program among
their employees to analyze fundamental issues that affect
workplace diversity. Firms are also encouraged to examine
their business practices to learn more about their employees
and various developmental mechanisms.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 ACC Communications Inc.
Diversity programs are everywhere, but their actual impact
is often negligible. What's going wrong?
They keep coming.
They pop up in neatly packaged numbers, in pebbles of tidy
facts: That black unemployment is more than double white
unemployment. That just 10 percent of Fortune 500 corporate
officers are women. That women still make only 76 cents for
every dollar men earn. That of the 2.9 million women who hold
managerial or administrative jobs in the private sector, 86
percent are white.
They surface in shrill anecdotes, glaring blossoms of
misunderstanding, derision and hate: The African-American
employees who were called apes, the women who were told to go
home and make babies, the racial epithets, the unwanted
They're the shortcomings and disappointments of Corporate
America's diversity movement that was so aggressively hopeful
just a decade ago.
It's counterintuitive: U.S. companies spend an estimated
$200 million to $300 million a year on diversity training, yet lawsuits filed by women and
minorities rise annually. The EEOC had 32,836 resolutions of
sex-based discrimination charges in 1997 (resolutions meaning
outcomes favorable to the charging parties or charges with
meritorious allegations, a better judge than filings), up from
18,817 in 1991.
Similarly, there were 36,419 resolutions in
race-discrimination suits in 1997, up from 28,914 in 1991. And
progress - whether it's measured by numbers and rankings or by
the general sentiment among many women and minority employees
- is too slow.
The status quo is not acceptable.
"I think women have gotten nowhere in business," says
Harriet Rubin, a former executive who dropped out of the
corporate world. "If women made the same rate of progress in
the future that we made in the last 10 years, it would take
another 300 years to achieve equality with men. I don't think
women understand how serious this is and how far behind we
are. By any realistic measures, we are colossal failures."
In response, Rubin wrote The Princessa (Dell Publishing
Co., 1997), a get-ahead book for women that's based on
Machiavelli's The Prince. Its message: "The qualities, traits
and accoutrements that women traditionally relegate to the art
of seduction can be used to turn the war in the princessa's
favor. On the physical side these include clothes, voice,
hair, posture, makeup and tears."
Rubin is straightforward about her strategies. "It may
involve crying to get what you want" she says. "I wouldn't say
that it's manipulative. I'd say it's the same thing men do
when they resort to cutting humor or pounding fists on the
table or despotic demanding ... We've given companies a
chance, and it's clear they're not going to do anything for
us. We've got to do it for ourselves." And she's not alone in
her thinking; the book hit both BusinessWeek's and USA Today's
best-seller lists earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Ollie Stevenson, an African-American business
consultant, is making waves with her approach to diversity:
Downplay your differences. She also got fed up waiting for
corporate programs to kick in. She now advises people of color
to tone down any ethnocentric clothing (even tone down bright
colors, she says - go for the infamous dark pinstripe), censor
any speech that identifies them ethnically, and do what they
need to do to ingratiate themselves with the white-guy
Whether these approaches are the best for women and
minorities isn't the question here. The very fact that they
exist and have strong followings is another sign of the gaping
hole in workplace diversity programs.
Most diversity specialists will tell you they hear the same
thing, in company after company. Women and minorities are sick
of the status quo, and they're cynical about a lot of the
programs out there.
"I don't know of anybody who's satisfied," says Harris
Sussman, director of the human-relations firm Workways
Consulting in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Almost everybody's
angry. To me, that indicates that the diversity initiatives of
most companies have been badly mishandled. It's no wonder it's
hard to find any fans of employer-sponsored diversity
programs. People of color and women feel kind of misled about
what changes were going to occur, when in fact almost no
changes have occurred in all these years."
Well, at least some progress has been made. Today, a
handful of women and minorities are in the highest ranks of
Corporate America, where before only the
white-men-in-gray-suits sat. But still, there are
stomach-churning cases of high-level discrimination and abuse
that erupt almost weekly, and the insistent rumblings of women
and minorities demanding change only grow.
Another sign of impatience: In 1996, the National
Organization for Women (NOW) reassigned its considerable
grass-roots clout to business, with its Women-Friendly
Workplace Campaign. "People needed to get a wake up call, to
have somebody say 'Look, there's still a very serious
situation in our workplaces,'" says Elizabeth Toledo, vice
president for action at NOW, in Washington, D.C. Since then,
NOW has named two "Merchants of Shame" - Smith Barney and
Mitsubishi - with attendant boycotts and media pressure.
When asked to name a few companies that model diversity,
Toledo hesitates. "Well, I think there are pieces of
companies. We're still waiting. We haven't yet named a
merchant that we celebrate."
It gives pause that one of the most powerful groups
promoting equality for women and minorities can't come up with
one company to laud for diversity. What's gone wrong?
Diversity programs can be hurtful, not helpful, to
You're not going to like this, but you may be approaching
the diversity issue all wrong. As we move into what the
field's experts call "the next phase," many programs in
retrospect are being labeled passe - or worse,
See if any of these scenarios rings a bell:
1. You gather your employees for training. You break up
into groups of all women and all men for a problem-solving
exercise. The goal is generally something completely
unimportant - say, marketing a fictional product. After the
groups present their plans, the diversity trainer notes how
differently the two teams worked. The women's team is
invariably "collaborative," "intuitive" and "creative," The
men's team, conversely, is "competitive," "logical" and
"linear." See how differently men and women work? Respect
2. All the employees play a game. Through the course of the
game, they learn that Latin Americans have a more laid-back
management style, that African Americans prefer lots of
interaction, that women presented with a problem are more
likely to offer sympathy than solutions. See how these
different perspectives will help the company? Value them.
It's this type of approach that many women and minorities
find insulting. No, there's nothing wrong with raising
employees' awareness. Many women will tell you they do prefer
teaming with people to leading people. Of course, many women
will tell you just the opposite. Starting a conversation is
one thing, but perpetuating a stereotype is another.
And this, say diversity experts, is happening often. All it
does is translate any negative stereotypes about a group
(women are too emotional) into positive ones (women are
intuitive). These procedures do little to foster individual
respect. The goal is to allow each individual footing in the
company, not to give all employees checklists so they can say,
"Hello, you're Hispanic, I am aware you may not start meetings
on time. I value that approach."
Richard Hadden, co-author of the employee-relations book
Contented Cows Give Better Milk (Willford Communications,
1998), calls the checklist approach "a bit patronizing. I
think we're far too much focused on our differences and not
enough on our similarities," he says. "I think it's important
to understand [our differences]. But do we need to dwell on
them? Do we need to obsess over them? Probably not."
Focusing on a specific group doesn't necessarily integrate
Some women and minorities say they dislike being dealt with
as a homogenous group, and don't even like mentoring or
networking programs that target them. They feel this approach
is condescending. They want companies to tell them what to do,
not who to be, to get ahead.
So how did we get here? Certainly, diversity misfires
aren't solely, or even primarily, human resources' fault.
Companies didn't deliberately set out to handle diversity
poorly. The problem has come in part because the field is just
so new. There's been little benchmarking to be done,
especially back in the 1980s, when the industry really took
It was at this point that diversity programs were in large
part just feel-good projects - a new, inspiring idea that few
people knew how to effectively implement. There just weren't
any track records to look at or studies to help guide the way.
So it was indeed easy to take a simplistic approach to
diversity: HR gets a nice credit, employees feel their issues
are addressed and the company reaps some good PR.
Add to that the unregulated field of diversity consultants.
As one consultant said, anybody can slap a title on a business
card and set up shop. Many (usually well-intentioned)
professionals who have no diversity background hopped on the
bandwagon. They started out as good speakers, former
salespeople or trainers, and figured that was enough.
In addition, many consultants hailed from the
affirmativeaction realm, which, although not in itself a poor
foundation, it shouldn't be mistaken with diversity, say
experts. Installing an affirmative-action plan, they say, is
completely different from creating an environment in which all
different types of people have an equal opportunity to get
ahead. Many experts say that an affirmative-action approach
contributed to some of the guilt-trip programs they're trying
to distance themselves from (see "Experts Explain the
Evolution of Diversity Programs" page 31).
Instead, the focus of diversity efforts, they say, should
be on how to make a company work well for all kinds of people.
The object isn't necessarily to help women and minorities, but
to help employees better work together.
It's a much more pragmatic approach, say the experts, than
a quickie three-hour seminar of ffm and games - the approach
diversity experts say they see all too often. "HR has been
saying for years it wants to be taken seriously as a business
partner, but the way [HR] has been conducting diversity does
not reflect that," says Sussman.
Companies need to consider stepping up to the "next level."
So how should HR conduct diversity?
First and foremost, take a good look at whomever you have
handling your company's diversity. It's easy to get blindsided
by the gentle messages and soothing tones offered by many
consultants, but that doesn't make what they're saying fight.
Sit in on some meetings. Make sure they're doing more than
a men-vs.women talk or an "introduction-to-ethnic-people"
lecture. The most important thing for the trainer to do is to
start a dialogue about the issues. If you hear them trying to
quash dissent or oversell their agenda, they may be doing more
harm than good.
The best idea is to get a conversation going, and then
facilitate it in a healthy way. In fact, says Ellen Bravo,
president of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women,
in Milwaukee, if you have people who are willing to vent their
dissatisfaction, you may be at an advantage. "Involve [those
people] in the examination of those fundamental questions,"
she says. "Because it's generally true that if you ask the
angry people, 'What are your ideas for how to do it
differently,' they often will have some good ideas."
Much preferable to a checklist of gender and ethnic
"identities" is simply allowing women and people of color to
speak about their issues. They know far better what the
situation for them is like at your company than any outside
consultant, no matter how good.
On the bright side, finding that good consultant may be
getting easier. The National Multicultural Institute in
Washington, D.C., is planning a membership group for diversity
consultants. This will allow for more quality control. The
Institute plans to have members work under a code of ethics,
and will also conduct continuing education, and perhaps at
some point, member reviews, says President Liz Salett.
Another point: We dare you to find a respected diversity
specialist who will endorse training alone - no matter how
good, how often and how well-received - as your key to the
"You cannot do just training in isolation," emphasizes
Janice Dreachslin, Pennsylvania State University MBA professor
and author of Diversity Leadership (Health Administration
Press, 1996). "It will make women and minorities raise their
expectations, and then the bottom will fall out when they see
it's nothing but window dressing."
Take a closer look at the situation.
Training must be accompanied by an examination of how the
company does business. And it must be a thorough examination;
an organization can't just install a networking group and be
Bravo advises a sort of reverse engineering of the
workforce. Look at the people who are in the organization's
top spots, and then trace how those people rose through the
company. Approach the matter as if it were an investigation.
Are the white males telling stories about sealing deals on the
golf course? Heck, are the women telling stories about sealing
deals on the golf course? You need to know how and where these
types of connections are being made.
If the connections are being made in ways that are
exclusionary to other employees, that's something you can
address. (You'll be surprised at the unseen barriers that many
employees face. One woman at a San Francisco company said
members of a certain demographic group were racing past her in
promotions. Why was this happening? Unlike the Southerner,
these fast-trackers had all attended Stanford University, just
like the top executives.)
A successful program is one that keeps an open line of
discussion, makes the criteria of success clear to all
employees and addresses barriers to progress. It goes far
beyond valuing diversity - it's about valuing individuals.
Says Hadden: "The organizations that are moving ahead with
this are the ones smart enough to say, 'This has got to be a
place where a minority, or a woman, or a homosexual, or an
older or younger person, or someone from the North in a
company in the South, or someone from the South in a company
in the North - where all these people can perform to the full
extent of their potential.'"
Move toward the "next level" - whatever that may be for
For an organization that has the necessary recruiting and
development mechanisms in place - those basic diversity tools
of trade - the next level really means moving to a place where
diversity doesn't have a capital D, where it isn't so
For instance, picture this: It's a sunny day in Oakland,
California, and a group of employees - men, women,
AfricanAmericans, Latinos and Asians - have gathered. An
AfricanAmerican man is talking about a disturbing experience
the night before, when he'd been snubbed at a recital by a
wealthy African-American man.
He was stunned. The experience made him question how much
discrimination was along race lines, and how much was actually
class. The group launches into a bare-knuckled - but
respectful - debate about this, then gradually heads to myriad
other diversity topics. In fact, it's a two-hour feast of
shared views, information and ideas.
It's called "dialoguing," says Ralph Dechabert, director of
diversity and employee development for American President
Lines Limited. Dialoguing is a frank, thoughtful, facilitated
discussion of race, gender and personality issues that groups
of employees commit to have once a month, on company time, for
It was instituted because Dechabert felt that the company's
former diversity program ran on fumes - employees had covered
race and gender awareness, but there was nowhere to go with it
afterward. "We'd have our diversity
training and then what happens is
folks go away and don't have prolonged contact, so you have no
reason to talk to Joe Doe."
Dialoguing changed that. Several employees went through
training as facilitators, and then began recruiting other
employees to commit to their year-long conversation. The
groups that are at their best, says Dechabert, not only have a
cross-sampling of gender and race, but also have various
geographical, educational, sexual orientation, age and
personality differences. And the length of time commitment
from them is essential: Issues don't break down until defenses
break down, and that can take time.
The consistent conversation has forged bonds that would
never have been made otherwise. Indeed, Dechabert says he sees
less emphasis on who people are as a result of their skin
color or gender, and more on who people are - period. To
dialogue is to learn about what individuals bring to the table
as a result of their sheer individuality, and it's had
"It's amazing how when the session is over, we find ways to
access each other and we see each other differently," says
Dechabert. That access means more people of all colors knowing
each other, and consequentially, thinking of each other for
problem-solving, thinking of each other for teams, and
thinking of each other for promotions.
Too simple? Dechabert thinks that's part of its success.
Consider the company's Memphis office, a two-year
dialoguing old-timer. A black woman now heads the operations.
"She wouldn't have gotten that opportunity a few years ago"
Dechabert says without hesitation. Not only that, but
absences, tardiness and EEOC complaints have all dropped at
that office. This, during a period in which the unit was
actually downsizing, normally high season for problems.
Dechabert credits dialoguing in large part.
Dialoguing's ultimate achievements? Better communication,
acknowledgment of anger and shortcomings, and, says Dechabert,
"The hope is it will help people manage diversity more
To reach diversity management, try a step-ladder approach.
However, what if naturally managing diversity simply isn't
possible at your company? Perhaps senior management isn't
behind it enough. Or senior management is behind it, but you
just haven't made the progress you need. Or a lawsuit has made
everyone too edgy about diversity issues.
Such is the case of Chicago-based R.R. Donnelley & Sons
Co., which was hit with a multimillion dollar
race-discrimination lawsuit in 1996 that started with one
plant and has snowballed nationwide, preventing a trial from
starting because the number of plaintiffs has yet to even be
decided. How does a company in this situation - or any company
in an "early stage" - approach diversity effectively?
Several diversity specialists offer R.R. Donnelley &
Sons as a good example. Pre-lawsuit, the company had done
one-shot diversity-awareness training to focus on stereotypes and
prejudices. It was moving to a broader approach when the suit
hit, says Kevin Bradley, diversity manager.
One of the company's first moves was to switch its quickie
training to ongoing, curriculum-based training. "Freshman
year" now sees managers learning the basics of compliance.
They take courses on Equal Employment Opportunity, affirmative
action (because the company is a federal contractor), the
Americans with Disabilities Act and harassment. The following
year, they'll delve deeper into "diversity as a business
issue." Other years' curriculums are still in development, but
the idea is a step-ladder approach, beginning with the very
lowest denominator of diversity and working up.
To keep the lower-level employees involved, each of the 40
plants will have a diversity council to focus on issues at the
local level and address any problems.
Then there's the matter of sheer numbers - namely to
increase the amount of women and minorities working at R.R.
Donnelley. To do so, senior managers look at their job
openings for the upcoming year, then reserve a certain amount
of those openings for women and minorities. Part of managers'
bonuses is then tied to their meeting this goal.
The approach is a contentious one: Some companies swear by
it as a means of putting their money where their mouth is, and
have been quite successful as a result. For others, it has
more than a whiff of quota-setting. "Is it a bounty?" says
Bradley. "We're looking at it as performance. We're not saying
'Hire a minority, get a buck,' we're saying 'Do your job, and
if you achieve all your goals - and employment is one of them
- you'll get 100 percent of your bonus.' It is an emotional
issue. You'll have some backlash, some people thinking it's a
bounty or a quota."
Companies considering a similar plan should stay flexible.
At R.R. Donnelley & Sons, if a manager can present a
business case for not meeting the goal, he or she is excused -
a little. For instance, if a manager just can't find any
qualified women or minorities for a position, the company
doesn't demand a hire. What it does demand, however, is that
managers examine why there aren't any qualified women or
minorities for that position, and make sure there are some in
the pipeline for the future.
"These are goals, means to improve in the area in which we
need to improve," says Bradley. "Now is everyone going to buy
that argument? Probably not."
What they might buy, however, are the solid return numbers:
As of the last report, 14.6 percent of the total workforce
were minorities and 31.7 percent were women.
Does a rise in numbers necessarily mean a great place for
diverse people to work? No. But is it a good start? Yes. NOW's
Toledo cites recent California studies in the public sector
that show better-integrated workplaces receive fewer
complaints from women and minorities.
There are no easy answers to the diversity issue.
Bradley's summation of R.R. Donnelley's current status can
apply to all companies struggling with making diversity work -
no matter at what degree. "We're making progress. It's a path,
it's a journey and we're making some good first steps."
Not good enough, a lot of women and minorities may think.
There's no easy way to figure out the diversity issue - just
like there's no easy way to figure out people. We need to
realize that, and to stop looking for slick packages and easy
answers. We need to accept, and learn from, the criticism that
women and minorities often have a right to give. We need to
sit down and really talk to each other. Then maybe we can
start making real progress.
Diversity: Make It Work
This month's package at WORKFORCE ONLINE should help steer
your organization on the right track to a diverse workforce
that works effectively together. Among the tools available:
* HR's Role
What is the role of human resources in setting up diversity
programs? This concise guide takes you through five steps in
* Diversity Trainers
Looking to hire a diversity trainer? Here are the questions
you need to ask prospects - and the questions you should ask
* Communication Tips
Words can be divisive - whether written or spoken. These 14
tips on communication will help ensure you're communicating
with a diverse group of recipients in mind.
* Equal Pay Audit
Are you providing equal pay to both men and women? This
10-Step Self Audit will get you thinking about your hiring,
promotion, compensation and other practices.
* Good Web Sites, Good Books
Looking for a hands-on book that will help you set up a
training program? Or a Web site that will keep you up-to-date
with equal employment law? Here are some hot links.
To read articles of past Optimas Award-winning diversity
programs, go to
http://www.workforceonline.com/ideas/index.html. Look to a
future issue for perspective on how diversity programs have
affected white males - and what to do about it.
RELATED ARTICLE: Experts Explain the Evolution of Diversity
Anita Rowe and Lee Gardenswartz, partners in the Los
Angeles diversity consulting firm Gardenswartz & Rowe,
entered their line of work back in the 1970s. Both teachers at
the time, they were yanked out of the classroom to assist the
Los Angeles Unified School District through mandatory
integration. They helped schools deal with the impact of
change, teaching faculties how to serve students and families
from different cultures and backgrounds than what they were
In 1980, the two went into business for themselves. It's a
familiar career path for diversity consultants. "A lot of
people developmentally have come to the diversity field from
EEO, because that's kind of the process the country went
through legally," says Rowe.
However, Gardenswartz and Rowe both have doctorates in
human behavior, which isn't necessarily common in the
diversity consulting industry. It's that background, says
Rowe, that allows the well-respected duo to approach diversity
in a multidisciplinary way - using psychology, sociology,
anthropology, business and education.
"It's not just about affirmative action; it's not just
about EEO," she says. "Diversity is much broader and deeper
than that. For us, an inclusive definition makes everyone feel
this is for them."
The blur between affirmative action and diversity spurs
There's a huge and crucial difference between affirmative
action and diversity, say diversity experts. Many are
concerned with companies - and consultants - that mix the two
"Affirmative action means using an individual's group
identity as a criterion for making selection decisions," says
Janice Dreachslin, a Pennsylvania State University management
professor and author of Diversity Leadership (Health
Administration Press, 1996). "Valuing diversity assumes
diversity is a strategic advantage. There's a real difference
between those two, yet oftentimes in training, those aren't
distinguished from one another."
When that happens, training can end up focusing only on the
gaps and differences that exist between men and women and
minorities and non-minorities. It can become guilt-ridden (as
in, women and minorities have been downtrodden for too long,
we owe them) or condescending.
"It's a bit patronizing," says Richard Hadden, a
Jacksonville, Florida, employee-relations consultant. "[We're
put in a situation where] it's like, 'Well what can we do to
fix these poor black folk and poor women who obviously don't
really know very much about what's going on because, poor
things, they haven't been given a chance.'"
Raising awareness doesn't inspire change.
Lewis Griggs, trainer and creator of the much-touted
Valuing Diversity series (McGraw-Hill Inc., 1994) for
Corporate America knows this attitude is what gets many women
and minorities riled up. "[The message] is, 'I have the power
and the privilege and the right to give you equal
It's affirmative action - a controversial but arguably
successful program in a well-intentioned, but inappropriate,
diversity application, experts say. It's an evolution that's
easy to understand, but is time to move away from.
Diversity experts have more explanations of how things have
gone wrong. As far as charges of a simplistic diversity
approach, many consultants say that's what companies want.
Dreachslln says too many companies skip from one consultant
to another when quick fixes don't occur, and since most
diversity programs start with the basic building block of
awareness training, the company never gets past the bottom
rung. Or the diversity consultant may be allowed to stay on,
but not given enough autonomy, authority or involvement to
push any real change through.
Companies base marketing judgments on stereotypes.
Another defense: Fred Lynch, author of The Diversity
Machine: The Drive to Change the "White Male Workplace," (Free
Press, 1997) says many companies specifically look for
programs that emphasize what he calls "identity politics," the
idea that a person's race or gender is directly indicative of
the way he or she thinks.
Why? Because with the global marketplace, many companies
have spent a lot of money on the theory that Mexican Americans
can produce and sell products to other Mexican Americans; that
African Americans can work a similar magic with fellow African
Americans. These companies have a stake in the belief that
people of a certain race or gender think similarly, and they
favor diversity programs that support that belief.
In short: Don't be too quick to blame HR or your company
for any shortcomings in your diversity program, but don't be
too quick to attack the diversity consultants, either.
Problems, like people, come in all shapes and sizes.