Why ‘Colorblind’ Diversity Programs Can Be Shortsighted

Why ‘Colorblind’ Diversity Programs Can Be Shortsighted

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.

At our session on women in leadership at our recent ReimagineHR conference in London, many participants said they not removing identifying characteristics from applications and resumes. Instead, they are leveraging gender to bring awareness to the gap in succession and leadership. One organization, for example, created a heat map to visualize their succession plans and identify areas where there needed to be more women in the pipeline, then had teams compete to improve their succession processes in line with the organization’s overall goals for representation in leadership.

Further examples of how organizations can remove bias from talent processes can be found in our executive training materials on advancing inclusion by overcoming unconscious bias, available to CEB Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council members here. To see how ERGs can advance your business strategy, members can use our CEB Ignition™ Guide to Connecting Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to Business Results and read our case study on Chubb’s Marketplace Snapshot, which examines how Chubb uses ERG perspectives in new market strategies and demonstrates strategic, repeatable business results.