The Harvard Diversity Review

The July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review focuses entirely on diversity and inclusion, provocatively stating on its cover that most D&I programs don’t work. The editors are not suggesting here that diversity is not a critical topic for organizations to address, but rather that the most common D&I approaches and perceptions of what works need to be re-evaluated. For me and my colleagues on the CEB Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council research team, this set of articles is an important contribution to the business-driven conversation about D&I in which we help executives participate as researchers and advisors to chief diversity officers and other leaders. We’d absolutely recommend that you read the issue in full, but here are the top lessons we took away:

Make managers and employees feel like they chose to buy into D&I. In their cover story, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Professors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev analyze the returns of everything from overhauling employee diversity training to systems for reporting grievances. Dobbin and Kalev point to research showing that voluntary diversity training inspires better and more sustained results than involuntary alternatives:

[A]bout three-quarters of firms with training still follow the dated advice of the late diversity guru R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. “If diversity management is strategic to the organization,” he used to say, diversity training must be mandatory, and management has to make it clear that “if you can’t deal with that, then we have to ask you to leave.” But five years after instituting required training for managers, companies saw no improvement in the proportion of white women, black men, and Hispanics in management, and the share of black women actually decreased by 9%, on average, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women shrank by 4% to 5%. Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance—and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.

But voluntary training evokes the opposite response (“I chose to show up, so I must be pro-diversity”), leading to better results: increases of 9% to 13% in black men, Hispanic men, and Asian-American men and women in management five years out (with no decline in white or black women).

Make D&I a mandate that employees, managers, and leaders can’t help but rally behind. Get managers and employees involved voluntarily as a business or talent practice, rather than a compulsive exercise in employee relations. Dobbin and Kalev find that D&I programs are more successful when they frame their work as part of a commitment to the organization’s future—i.e., something managers will want to get involved in:

Take college recruitment programs targeting women and minorities. Our interviews suggest that managers willingly participate when invited. That’s partly because the message is positive: “Help us find a greater variety of promising employees!” And involvement is voluntary: Executives sometimes single out managers they think would be good recruiters, but they don’t drag anyone along at gunpoint.

Managers who make college visits say they take their charge seriously. They are determined to come back with strong candidates from underrepresented groups—female engineers, for instance, or African-American management trainees. Cognitive dissonance soon kicks in—and managers who were wishy-washy about diversity become converts.

Dobbin and Kalev also mention the power of mentorship programs for advancing diverse talent:

Mentoring is another way to engage managers and chip away at their biases. In teaching their protégés the ropes and sponsoring them for key training and assignments, mentors help give their charges the breaks they need to develop and advance. The mentors then come to believe that their protégés merit these opportunities—whether they’re white men, women, or minorities. That is cognitive dissonance—“Anyone I sponsor must be deserving”—at work again.

Embed diverse teams and accountability measures in business practice. As many D&I executives already know well, fighting the good fight is nigh on impossible when D&I is seen only as an “HR issue” or “compliance issue.” As Dobbin and Kalev underscore, successful D&I interventions are not perceived that way:

Why can mentoring, self-managed teams, and cross-training increase diversity without the backlash prompted by mandatory training? One reason may be that these programs aren’t usually branded as diversity efforts.

To this end, it’s not just about recruiting diverse candidates. In the issue’s next article, “We Just Can’t Handle Diversity”, senior Harvard Business Review editor Lisa Burrell observes the difficulties of making D&I stick for both individuals and organizations. Noting the significant role emotions can play in the recruiting process, Burrell writes that in order to select and champion diverse candidates, it is important to have hiring managers and reviewers from underrepresented groups on the decision-making side as well:

Nodding to the sociologist Randall Collins’s argument that “emotion is a critical basis of social sorting, selection, and stratification,” [Northwestern University management professor Lauren] Rivera found that candidates in the “maybe” pool ultimately needed a passionate champion on the hiring committee in order to receive an offer. And evaluators advocated most fervently for people who were most like them. Perhaps because women and minorities were more vulnerable in their status at the firm, they championed fewer people than white men did—they chose their battles, as one female evaluator put it. (There’s something to that reluctance. As Stefanie Johnson and David Hekman, of the University of Colorado, have found in their field and lab research, women and minorities who actively push for diversity are punished by their organizations—they get lower performance ratings than those who don’t. Men who promote diversity don’t suffer the same penalty.)

But even if an organization has diverse hiring committees and can get diverse talent in the door, it must also think about keeping that diverse talent in the organization. Leadership accountability from the top down, such as the convening of diversity task forces, can play an instrumental role in advancing inclusivity and diversity across leadership ranks, too, Dobbin and Kalev observe:

Task forces are the trifecta of diversity programs. In addition to promoting accountability, they engage members who might have previously been cool to diversity projects and increase contact among the women, minorities, and white men who participate. They pay off, too: On average, companies that put in diversity task forces see 9% to 30% increases in the representation of white women and of each minority group in management over the next five years.

Identify and enlist your greatest champions. In “Designing a Bias-Free Organization,” senior editor Gardiner Morse solicits suggestions from Harvard Kennedy School professor and consultant Iris Bohnet on simple workforce changes we can make to recognize and reduce the instances of unconscious bias that hinder efforts to create an inclusive workplace. Bohnet acknowledges that a focus on diversity and inclusion to level the playing field increases the competition previously privileged groups face: i.e., when gender equality advances, men can feel like they are losing out. But she also urges organizations and D&I practitioners to enlist men, particularly those with daughters, to become champions of gender equality:

Few men oppose the idea of benefiting from the entire talent pool—at least in theory. But some are concerned about actually leveling the playing field. In practice, of course, the blind auditions in orchestras have increased competition for male musicians. And the inclusion of women affects competition for men in all jobs. I understand that increased competition can be painful, but I am too much of an economist to not believe in the value of competition. There is no evidence that protectionism has served the world well.

Enlisting men is partly about helping them to see the benefits of equality. Fathers of daughters are some of the strongest proponents of gender equality, for obvious reasons, so they can be particularly powerful voices when it comes to bringing other men along. Research on male CEOs, politicians, and judges shows that fathers of daughters care more about gender equality than men without children or with only sons.

We often hear that working to advance diversity and inclusion can be like “moving water up a mountain.” D&I practitioners face many challenges in their day-to-day work, but these articles provide some sound advice for finding and creating champions so you’re not working alone. Permeating the entire magazine is a call to make corporate diversity and inclusion efforts feel even more inclusive; the authors suggest many ways to entice employees to come willingly to D&I, and welcome them when they do: Help managers want to help you. Allow people to get involved voluntarily, and make the experience a great one so that they keep coming back. Find ways to track and reward progress. Identify allies across the organization, whether that’s based on their personal interest, the moral imperative for D&I, the potential for business returns, or simply, as Bohnet suggests, because many men have daughters.

D&I efforts are a long, long journey. Even many of the most progressive companies we serve face constant obstacles just in sustaining the victories they have already achieved, and yet they still look to push forward. To this end, these authors have made some great suggestions for what’s possible and proven to work today. However, the corporate world will look very different a few years from now than it does today, and the conventions and assumptions of D&I must change with the times. We look forward to seeing these authors revisit and refine their ideas in the years to come, and encourage eminent publications like HBR to keep the vitally important issue in the spotlight.