Are we there yet Mum? Harvard’s perspective on the long road to corporate diversity and equality

corporate diversity and equality

Harvard Business Review wrote about the failings of workplace diversity training in 2012 and again in mid 2016, and also ran a Spotlight on Building a Diverse Organisation in July-August of this year, based on the same research that spans 30 years and includes interviews with managers from more than 800 firms.

Many years and billions of dollars in sex discrimination payouts later, Harvard states that despite companies spending millions on diversity efforts, little to no return has been realised, and in some cases organisations have even moved backwards. Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity was “doing something over and over again and expecting a different result”. Isn’t it time we tried something new in the way we train for workforce diversity?

The researchers of this study, Professor Frank Dobbin of Harvard, Alexandra Kalev of Berkeley, and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota concluded; “In firms where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits, training actually has negative effects on management diversity.” By policing managers’ thoughts and actions they were in-fact activating bias rather than reducing it. Targeting specific groups for training created a ‘blame and shame’ culture, and caused the group to rebel and assert their autonomy instead.

Despite the cultural differences, and propensity for legal action in the US, a few interesting points are made within the research and in associated commentary from Consultants and Authors, Peter Bregman and Victor Lipman online.

It is my belief that bias education and awareness training needs to be enterprise-wide to avoid the ‘blame and shame’ culture assumed when targeting individuals or small groups, and also to encourage holistic and cultural change needed to create inclusive work environments which are productive and high-performance orientated. In particular, Researcher, Dobbin argues that white, male managers need to be included in the solution as influencers in positions of power, but not singled out as high-risk, or blamed for their biases thus distancing them and diluting the solution.

It’s more effective to engage managers in solving the problem and to normalise diversity by increasing on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promoting social accountability and equal opportunity as ‘just the way we do things around here’ – as part of the fabric of an organisation. And of course these kinds of attitudes and behaviours need to be leadership led, and role modelled authentically in order to succeed.

Learning needs to be engaging for employees to actually complete it and see some benefit. Many firms are using the same training approach from the 1960s! More consideration could be given to the training design, delivery, interaction, learning outcomes, measurement, and timing (optimum attention span for learning and time in the billable work day) of diversity training.

It would be ideal if in the future of work, diversity training did not even exist. If it were mainstreamed to become part of the generic developmental program for employees across all phases of the talent pipeline – dissolved into critical people and communication skills training, with perhaps some guidelines or expectations on how colleagues should treat each other… respect, understanding, and equality for starters.

“There’s no reason to lose hope, though,” Frank Dobbin says. “It’s just that companies tend to spend money on the wrong things!”

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