Diversity & Inclusion Is Failing Us…Because We’re Failing at Diversity and Inclusion

How many years have we been doing diversity and inclusion work? 

In the mid-1960s, Xerox CEO Joseph Wilson created the Xerox National Black Employees Caucus to respond to racial tensions that were impacting his organization. This was arguably the first employee resource group (ERG) that we know of. If we use that as a (completely random) starting point, it’s been over 50 years since we’ve had a structural focus on D&I in workplaces. 

Yet how much progress have we made? 

Currently, there are only four black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, none of whom are women; Hispanic CEOs total seven; and a whopping 37 Fortune 500 CEOs are women, all but three white. 

When reporting on the numbers for women, Fortune talked about the statistic like it was astounding progress; yet women have been taking home the majority of undergraduate degrees since the early 1980s. This so-called progress is like coming in second place in a marathon against a sloth. The point: This isn’t much progress at all.

Many employers hold out their D&I tactics as “leading practices,” but the truth is they’re not leading at all. Mainly because they’re doing it wrong. 

D&I That Lives in HR, Dies in HR

I really hope your head didn’t explode reading that. I realize saying this on an HR site is a bit controversial, but sadly, it’s a true statement.  If D&I is considered an “HR program,” you’ve failed before you’ve started. 

That is not a dig on HR. I have the utmost respect for HR professionals and argue vehemently that they are not given the respect they deserve in most organizations. Far too often, they are not seen as a critical part of the organization’s infrastructure. Still, HR practitioners are not necessarily D&I experts, nor should they be. 

What’s more, there are two reasons why my statement is true:

  1. First, if D&I is a program in HR, what happens if, for instance, there’s a global pandemic and there’s cost-cutting across your organization? What happens when your D&I program is right beside your health benefits? Which one is going to get cut first? We’ve seen this in hundreds if not thousands of organizations impacted by COVID-19, as companies struggle to stay afloat. They view D&I as a “program,” which isn’t as valuable as something like medical and dental benefits. Hence, it’s always the first to go.
  2. Second, D&I isn’t just about people. Yes, the people function is an important piece of the puzzle, but there’s so much more that has nothing to do with your internal HR function: marketing, advertising, communications, IT, facilities, suppliers, product development, and community relations, just to name a few. These are things that HR has no accountability for. 

You should think of your D&I function as an umbrella that covers the entire organization. It touches everything you do. It needs to collaborate with all departments, including HR, to make sure that there is a D&I lens being applied to every aspect of the organization. 

Employee Resource Groups: The Ultimate Failure

I hate to burst your bubble, but ERGs are not a leading practice; they’re table stakes. It is not earth-shattering to allow a group of people to volunteer their time to make your workplace better for their community. Still, ERGs executed properly are an incredible resource. Emphasis on “properly”.

The reality is that most executives — the vast majority of whom are SWAMs (straight, white, able-bodied men) — don’t really understand the power and value of an ERG. Heck, most people in general don’t understand the purpose of an ERG. They continue to think of them as social clubs. As an example, men don’t attend events put on by the women’s ERG because they think it’s just a group of women standing around, sipping Chardonnay, complaining about those mean men. 

I’ve attended countless events put on by women’s ERGs, and I have never stood around complaining about men, although I have had way too much Chardonnay. 

People don’t “get” ERGs. They don’t understand what their purpose is. With that lack of knowledge, they fill in the gap for themselves. I have been a member of several ERGs, including being part of the leadership of one focused on LGBT employees and their allies. At no point was the purpose social. I have enough gay friends, thanks (can you ever have enough gay friends?). ERGs serve lots of different mandates (sometimes social), but that’s not their only or main purpose.  

In today’s context, there are two types of ERGs. The first kind focuses on support, meaning they provide some form of required help to their members. An example would be an ERG for parents of children with special needs. There is little direct benefit to the employer to have such an ERG other than providing support to your employees that have children with different medical needs. The benefit to the employer is in increased engagement and loyalty.

The other type of ERG is one that has a “business” focus. I put business in quotes because every organization has some form of “business” focus. Such ERGs are intended to provide benefit back to the employer in some tangible way. The ERG may have a talent attraction mandate or a focus on business development within their community. Sometimes these are called “business resource groups.” Same difference. 

Ultimately it will be up to an ERG to determine what its mandate is, but it needs to align with the organization’s strategic priorities. And that often doesn’t happen. Which is another problem area. The mandate of the ERG must align with the organization’s strategic priorities to ensure it isn’t working at cross purposes. 

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Now, if there is an expectation on the ERG to deliver on business priorities, why then haven’t they been given a budget to do that, and been recognized for their work? ERGs are often woefully underfunded, and the people involved don’t get recognized often (if at all) for their contribution to the organization. 

Case in point: A large national professional services organization based in New York (that shall remain nameless) had agreed to give the leadership of their ERGs a five percent “pass” on their billable hours to credit them for their contribution to the firm. They still had to be 95% utilized, but they had a pass on the five percent. When it came time for performance reviews and compensation discussions, one ERG lead was put on a performance improvement plan solely because this individual was off on a billable hours target by 5%. The partner this person reported into didn’t give a hoot about the ERG. The person ultimately went elsewhere. 

ERGs are a powerful tool if wielded correctly. They can be used to attract talent from specific groups, increase retention and engagement, boost customer satisfaction, and even help improve market share among their communities. Emphasis on “correctly.” 

Resources and Respect: The Key to Failure

One of the more frustrating things I’ve seen is when an employer makes a volunteer D&I council responsible for all the work. The employer takes a group of really busy people and expects them to deliver on the organization’s diversity and inclusion strategy. Yet they still have to do their full-time jobs and deliver on the things for which they’re actually getting paid. The council is motivated by their personal passion, and gets little for their efforts. 

On top of that, council members aren’t subject matter experts and spend a lot of time Googling to figure things out because they don’t have the budget to bring in actual subject matter experts. In the end, you spend far more time doing an average job than you would if you just hired the professionals.

The field of diversity and inclusion is a specialty. It takes knowledge, skills, and experience that go beyond the subject matter expertise. It requires an understanding of change management, stakeholder engagement, and project management, among other things.

Imagine taking your total rewards team and getting them to do talent attraction off the side of their desk. You can’t just take a person with no experience and throw them into the deep end and expect them to fly. Something is wrong with that analogy, but I think you get the point. 

As any D&I council member has discovered, D&I work is work. It takes a lot of time. Whether you’re writing policies, reviewing procedures, attending events, conducting assessments, developing strategies, or creating dashboards, it’s all important work. And it is ridiculous to expect that volunteers should do it. 

Better still, hire D&I professionals. That’s professionals, plural. For every 1,000 to 1,500 people you have in your organization, you need one D&I practitioner. The bigger the organization, the more people you need. 

If D&I is core to what you do as an organization (as so many employers will tell you it is), then you need full-time resources, paid appropriately, with a budget to help them achieve goals. 

The truth is that there are a lot of leading practices out there on D&I, but more often than not, the execution is where things fall down. Hire good full-time D&I professionals, pay them appropriately, and give them a budget to achieve goals. That’s how we get closer to an equitable society.

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