Most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity.

Why Diversity Programs Fail, Harvard Business Review.
July-August 2016.

An article in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review is generating lots of buzz in the diversity, equity and inclusion arena.

The authors analyzed three decades’ worth of data from more than 800 U.S. firms and interviewed hundreds of line managers and executives. Here’s what they found: the most commonly-used diversity programs did not increase representation of women and people of color in management after five years. In fact, they seemed to have the opposite effect by making matters worse. These are the strategies that didn’t work:

  • Mandatory diversity training. Managers resist strong-arming, effects of training are short-lived, and training can actually activate bias or provoke a backlash.
  • Hiring tests. Hiring managers don’t always test everyone, give some applicants a pass, and don’t interpret results consistently.
  • Performance ratings. Raters tend to lowball women and minorities. Some managers give everyone high marks to avoid hassles and keep their options open when giving promotions.
  • Grievance procedures. Many managers try to get even with or belittle employees who complain. Most employees don’t report discrimination, which creates a false impression that no problems exist.

The good news is, the authors found diversity strategies that did work. These programs centered on the principles of voluntarily engaging managers in solving the problem, increasing their on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promoting social accountability—the desire to look fair-minded. Here’s what worked:

  • Engagement.
    • Voluntary diversity training. When managers voluntarily help boost diversity in their companies, they begin to think of themselves as diversity champions.
    • College recruitment. Managers who voluntarily make college visits take their charge seriously, and are determined to come back with strong candidates from underrepresented groups.
    • Mentoring. Managers are eager to mentor assigned protégés, and women and minorities are often first to sign up for mentors.
  • Contact.
    • Self-managed teams. These allow people in different roles and functions to work together on projects as equals. Working side-by-side breaks down stereotypes, leading to more equitable hiring and promotion.
    • Cross-training. Rotating management trainees through departments exposes both department heads and trainees to a wider variety of people.
  • Social accountability.
    • Diversity task forces. Having a task force member in a department causes managers in it to ask themselves, “Will this look right?” when making hiring and promotion decisions.
    • Diversity managers. When people know they might have to explain their decisions, they are less likely to act on bias, which prompts managers to consider everyone who is qualified.


Let’s discuss how your business or organization can implement diversity strategies that really work.

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