Since March, Nike has been conducting a massive overhaul of its company culture, executive leadership, and HR practices after a covert survey of female employees revealed widespread patterns of sexual harassment, discrimination, and hostile work environments for women. As the New York Times recently reported in a major story reviewing the upheaval, this toxic culture was driving talented women out the door. In recent months, several high-level male executives at Nike have left the company amid the scandal.
Some of these executives stand accused of engaging in sexist practices themselves; others do not, but have been faulted for failing to address employees’ concerns, creating the perception of an executive “boys’ club” in which male managers were protected from consequences for their misbehavior. Another key theme in the Times‘ report is the Nike women’s dissatisfaction with the response they received from HR.
Nike CEO Mark Parker has moved quickly to bring the situation under control and assure employees that the company is taking its culture problems seriously. At an all-company meeting last Thursday, Parker admitted that he and other executives had missed signs of the problems that have come to light recently, apologized to the affected employees, and promised a thorough investigation into their complaints, along with changes to the company’s training and compensation practices to make them more inclusive, particularly toward women.
While Parker and his executive team will be responsible for making these needed changes to Nike’s culture and practices, none of these changes would be possible without the women employees who took the initiative to bring the company’s problems to light. One important takeaway from this story, therefore, is the power and promise of employee-led D&I initiatives.
Mindful of the risk of alienating allies and the potential backlash against diversity and inclusion, some organizations have recently been rethinking and retooling their D&I efforts to be “colorblind”—i.e., to de-emphasize demographic differences and attempt to achieve greater inclusion by removing spaces created for employees of specific, underrepresented demographics. Reacting to this trend, and specifically Deloitte’s controversial decision to do away with employee resource groups, Paradigm founder and CEO Joelle Emerson lays out the case against colorblindness at the Harvard Business Review:
The negative impact of colorblindness on organizations and individual employees has been well documented. Downplaying demographic differences reduces the engagement of underrepresented employees and increases their perceptions of bias from their white colleagues. Moreover, the cognitive load of attempting to appear colorblind when we all, of course, do notice difference can ironically result in more biased behaviors from white employees, or lead them to avoid the intergroup collaborations that can spark innovation and enrich their work. Colorblindness is a quantifiably ineffective inclusion strategy for individuals and organizations. Multiculturalism, the opposite of colorblindness, stresses recognition and inclusion of group differences and has been shown to benefit minority employees and organizations at large. …
If both ally engagement and designated spaces for discrete populations are important, what’s the solution? Efforts need not be either-or. In fact, the most effective ones must do both.
Emerson is not the first critic to question Deloitte’s approach to ERGs along these lines. Before going down the road of ERGs entirely, organizations can consider other ways to make them more inclusive while also ensuring that they still primarily focus on the needs of underrepresented employees. If the challenge they face with ERGs is involving allies, particularly white men, leaders can consider opening up these groups to allies rather than abolishing them.
In our D&I research at CEB (now Gartner), we have also seen organizations questioning colorblindness (and gender-blindness) in making decisions on performance reviews and succession management.
Employee resource groups, which create spaces for members of historically disadvantaged or minority communities to come together in support of each other and to help leadership understand and respond to their unique challenges and concerns, are a cornerstone of diversity and inclusion practices at some organizations. Yet there is also a growing understanding among D&I leaders that the most effective initiatives are inclusive in the broadest sense, involving everyone in the organization, not only those in specific affinity groups.
That’s why we’re seeing more inclusion campaigns focused on cultivating allies and helping members of more privileged demographics recognize their own unconscious biases. When the Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to D&I last year, it focused heavily on the challenge of getting everyone on board with diversity without courting backlash.
In a controversial move, Deloitte has decided to take this shift toward a more broad-based approach one step further by eliminating ERGs altogether in favor of groups whose membership is not limited to specific demographics, Jeff Green reported recently at Bloomberg:
After 24 years, WIN, the women’s initiative at Deloitte, will end. Over the next 18 months the company will also phase out Globe, which supports gay employees, and groups focused solely on veterans or minority employees. In their place will be so-called inclusion councils that bring together a variety of viewpoints to work on diversity issues. …
“We are turning it on its head for our people,” says Deepa Purushothaman, who’s led the WIN group since 2015 and is also the company’s managing principal for inclusion. Deloitte will still focus on gender parity and underrepresented groups, she says, but not in the same way it has for the past quarter-century, in part because millennial employees—who make up 57 percent of Deloitte’s workforce—don’t like demographic pigeonholes.
Why settle for faux diversity like this when you can feature your actual staff?
Building an effective diversity and inclusion brand can be challenging, both in determining your organizational values and in deciding how to portray them within the organization and to external stakeholders. Putting forth a genuine representation of your workforce in visual media can be particularly problematic if you are using stock photos to do so. Fortune’s Grace Donnelly discusses why trying to communicate diversity with stock imagery is often a bad idea:
Generally using stock images on a company site is not a problem, said Tiffany R. Warren, Senior VP, Chief Diversity Officer for Omnicom Group and Founder of ADCOLOR, but when it comes to representing your company’s diversity though, a stock image can seem insincere. “I think people know the difference,” she said.
Instead organizations that want to signal to the public — and to their own employees — that diversity and inclusion are important should make an effort to represent their company in a more genuine manner. “Look within your company and support and salute and shine a light on your diversity champions,” she said.
Amid a series of high-profile deaths of black Americans at the hands of police officers this year, the attack on police officers in Dallas in July, and the recent mass protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, we’ve noted before how corporate leaders in the US can’t afford to ignore institutional racism, police violence, and the social movements that have arisen to address them. These are emotionally fraught and politically sensitive issues for executives—especially white executives—to wade into, and striking the right tone in talking about them isn’t easy.
With that in mind, take a moment to watch AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s recent remarks at his organization’s national Employee Resource Groups conference. Stephenson hits a number of concordant notes in this speech, acknowledging his own erroneous assumptions and blind spots when it comes to race, enumerating the lessons he learned by listening to black people talk about their experiences of racism as individuals and a community, and not only affirming the need to carry on this conversation at AT&T but also stressing that “it probably ought to start with me.” He then goes on to praise the Black Lives Matter movement and explain why he believes “all lives matter” is not an appropriate reaction to its rallying cry.
Stephenson may attract some controversy with this speech, but he nonetheless leaves no doubts in his employees’ minds about where he stands on these matters of great urgency to black Americans.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, the shooting death of Keith L. Scott, a 43-year old black man, at the hands of police has led to six nights of peaceful protests so far, as well as some violent unrest. As we’ve discussed before, the issue of racial profiling and police violence in the US is no longer something organizations can ignore if they want to foster an inclusive environment for their black employees and display empathy toward these employees’ own experiences of racism.
Recent events in Charlotte and other cities have brought this issue to the fore yet again, and employers may be wondering about the right way to respond. Fortune’s Ellen McGirt talks to one expert who thinks now is a good time to test out the potential of employee resource groups as agents of change:
“We would suggest that the work that most ERGs do could be leveraged to create a space where the targeted communities and the authorities could meet and have a dialog,” [Tolanda Tolbert, PhD, Director of the Inclusive Leadership Initiative of the Catalyst Group,] says, referring to the police and aggrieved activists in Charlotte. “We could also see ERGs functioning as advisors to either side of this conversation—working as a bridge to communication,” she says.
Tolbert, who studies and consults with ERGs as part of her job, thinks they can grow into a management force for change. “For example, imagine that situation with Arizona passing discriminatory laws,” she says. “We could see an ERG telling their leadership not to have their annual conference in a location, or to stop sponsorship of an event.” To her knowledge, she says, an ERG has not yet established itself as an ambassador in this way.
The demonstrations have been concentrated in Charlotte’s “uptown” business district, and after violence broke out on Wednesday night, many businesses there instructed their employees to stay home the next day. One organization, United Way, used that communication as an opportunity to express support for the city’s diverse community and acknowledge the pain it is feeling:
When we talk about unconscious bias, we’re usually talking about recruiting, and more specifically, about how to redesign hiring processes to correct for inherent bias on the part of recruiters or hiring managers. Yet unconscious bias arises in every part of the organization, including learning and development. At Training Magazine, Global Dynamics president Neal Goodman offers some suggestions for how L&D professionals can build inclusivity into their work and be mindful of their own biases, especially when high-potential employees are selected for special training:
To reduce biases in the selection of individuals for high-potential training programs, we have managers list the Top 7 candidates and then identify which ones they have the most and least in common with. We then coach the managers on how these commonalities may affect their judgement.
Other recommendations to enhance inclusivity are to create mentoring programs that promote diversity, and to involve leaders in sponsoring Employee Resource Groups. These have been used to enhance the opportunities of those who otherwise were in the “blind spot” of those selecting candidates for developmental programs. Another recommendation is to provide unconscious bias training focusing specifically on the selection process (why are taller and thinner people more likely to be selected for promotions?), so those making these critical appointments have the skills to make decisions that will promote inclusion.
Unconscious bias can also show up in training itself: