An ever-increasing number of organizations across Canada are developing and implementing diversity programs and initiatives, but their good intentions don’t always yield the desired results.
Ineffective diversity programs can create diversity fatigue for both staff who are supportive as well as staff who don’t see the need for the program. This can have them asking, "Are we there yet?"
Lack of progress and tangible change can frustrate those who understand the need for diversity programs. They can begin to lose faith that diversity programs can effect change within organizations.
Management and staff who don’t buy into these programs often use their apparent lack of effectiveness as justification for their opposition to diversity programs. They might claim that the programs themselves are ineffective rather than recognizing that the true source of the problem is the implementation of the program.
We have identified 11 common mistakes that undermine the success of diversity programs.
Deadly Sin #1: Misunderstanding the “why”
We oftentimes see that organizations have not clearly articulated why they are undertaking this work, or if they do, they focus on the moral imperative, arguing that “It’s the right thing to do.”
This can reinforce employees’ misperceptions that workplace diversity programs are about giving handouts to undeserving people. We often hear this stated as “hiring unqualified people” or “giving away our jobs.”
A broader understanding of why this work is important helps employees and managers to reframe the issue by understanding the benefits to them, the organization as a whole, and their clients. This means helping them understand the demographic imperative (“It’s about reflecting the labour market and our client population”), the business imperative (“It makes good business sense by making our organization more innovative, creative, and stronger”), and the legal imperative (“It’s illegal to discriminate based on various grounds”).
Deadly Sin #2: Focusing on diversity, but not equity and inclusion
Many organizations focus on diversity — to the exclusion of equity and inclusion.
Diversity is the range of differences among people. The organization’s focus then turns to ensuring there is a mix of people from various communities, backgrounds, and identities in the workplace. But what senior managers often don’t understand is that diversity adds little to the organization if equity and inclusion are left unaddressed.
Equity is about being fair, both in process and in outcomes. By focusing on diversity alone, many organizations fail to address the systemic and persistent discrimination in employment faced by women, racialized people (visible minorities), Indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities. So, an organization may look diverse, but will fail to see that it is not equally diverse at all levels of the organization nor will it examine the policies and practices that contribute to this lack of diversity.
Inclusion is about ensuring that all employees feel welcomed and included in the workplace and can contribute their best to the organization. An organization fails to reap the benefits of creativity and innovation from a diverse workforce if the work environment doesn’t support all employees in bringing their full selves to work so they can contribute their best.
In short, diversity is the mix, inclusion is about making the mix work, and equity is the pathway to both.
Deadly Sin #3: Believing diversity is the responsibility of one person
While it is important to assign someone to be responsible for your diversity program, one person cannot be solely responsible for making change in the organization.
On their own, the Diversity Manager has limited ability to make change. In fact, their role is to support and influence managers and the human resources department to change procedures and outcomes in hiring, developmental opportunities, promotions, and service delivery. They can also support senior leaders and managers to create and maintain a welcoming and inclusive work environment. But little will change if senior leaders, as well as managers and supervisors who are the frontline change agents, don’t see diversity as integral to all that they do.
Deadly Sin #4: Focusing on activities rather than results
Many organizations focus on assessing whether activities were implemented, not on whether outcomes were achieved. Focusing on a checklist of activities is easy. Changing outcomes is the real work, but is much harder. Successful change hinges upon collecting data that can be used to assess change in outcomes for employees and clients and establishing accountability mechanisms that focus on outcomes rather than results.
Deadly Sin #5: Avoiding the tough conversations
Even with the more open dialogue ushered in by the introduction of diversity programs, organizations can easily avoid having the much-needed tough conversations with employees, and many do. Managers are often willing to talk about diversity, but are unwilling to examine whether discrimination is embedded within their hiring practices — and therefore limiting the diversity in their workforce. Managers might also be unwilling to name how racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and so forth impact who gets hired and who advances within the organization. Managers might want to call themselves champions of diversity, but don’t want to hear from groups that are marginalized within the organization.
Avoiding the tough conversations can have significant ripple effects, as it signals to employees that the focus is on “diversity performance” (Deadly Sin #11). Those hoping for change will remain frustrated and unengaged. Those resisting change get the message that they don’t need to change their attitudes or behaviours. Keeping diversity conversation surface level also robs all employees of the opportunity to learn and grow.
Diversity Sin #6: Thinking that training is a cure-all
Many organizations don’t have a comprehensive equity, diversity, and inclusion program. Instead, when issues of harassment or discrimination bubble to the surface, human resources departments often bring in a trainer to “fix” the problem. But as with focusing on a mere checklist of activities, training alone can’t make or sustain change within an organization. The feel-good vibes often generated by training will quickly wear off when employees return to a workplace where equity is not embedded in policies, practices, and ways of engaging and where managers and senior leaders aren’t holding employees accountable or aren’t modelling the behaviours they expect from staff.
Deadly Sin #7: Failing to assess the current situation and chart a course for the future
Many organizations are quick to move forward with a diversity plan but fail to assess their current situation. How do you know which programs to implement and what changes to make without an assessment of where you are on the diversity map? As with any journey, knowing your current position is critical if you are to successfully chart a way forward.
Deadly Sin #8: Viewing those who raise issues as the problem
In many organizations, senior leaders and managers don’t want to hear about issues and challenges, particularly when they are about harassment, discrimination, and inequality. This attitude can become so entrenched that it becomes part of the organizational culture. People are told to “go along to get along” and are afraid to raise issues because, as they have told us, “I become the problem.”
Scared employees grow into unhappy and unproductive ones, increasing absenteeism, mental health issues, and turnover in the organization. In addition, when small issues aren’t nipped in the bud, they grow into larger and more serious problems.
Organizations should view employees who courageously raise their concerns as a gift. By coming forward, these employees are giving organizations the opportunity to address the issues and potentially avoid more serious issues.
Deadly Sin #9: Failure to connect individual issues to systemic issues
Every organization has human rights complaints and grievances that they must deal with. However, many organizations deal with them as one-offs — as the problems of a particular individual in a particular department. As a result, they often end up addressing the symptoms rather than the underlying issues, which often results in more human rights complaints and grievances.
Instead, at least annually, organizations should compile data on the nature of these complaints to identify individual issues and trends. This practice helps to identify systemic issues or hot spots of issues that need to be proactively addressed.
Deadly Sin #10: Lack of infrastructure
Organizations have established infrastructure for financial management, human resources, and even waste management because they recognize how critical such infrastructure is to making change and ensuring compliance with policies and practices. Yet, diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are treated differently, with organizations failing to appropriately resource the implementation of these policies. This means that the necessary changes to policies, practices, and attitude fail to be implemented or gain the momentum needed to create and sustain organizational change.
Deadly Sin #11: Focusing on the performance of diversity rather than the work
Some organizations prefer to focus on “diversity performance” rather than doing the hard work needed to make change. The leaders of these organizations are happy to take pictures of themselves in meetings about diversity or at religious or cultural celebrations. They are also willing to invest the time to apply to be formally recognized as a diverse employer and will happily advertise that recognition.
While these visible demonstrations of an organization’s commitment to diversity are important, what is most important is that senior leaders undertake the more challenging personal work of reflecting on their own biases, modelling the behaviours they expect of others, and challenging unfair organizational policies and practices. Without this bold leadership that moves beyond the superficial, the organization fails to engage in the deeper work needed to make real, lasting change.