Jobs and the Future of Work

Companies have no excuse for 'diversity fatigue'

hidden obstacle diversity fatigue diverse groups

Diversity fatigue: Companies should not take their eyes off diversity efforts. Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Miki Tsusaka
Senior Partner and Managing Director, Boston Consulting Group
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Corporations are investing in diversity programs, but it’s not working.
  • While many corporations complain of diversity fatigue, there are certain gaps that need to be filled instead of giving up on diversity efforts.
  • It turns out that there is a distinct mismatch between what those in the majority in the workplace feel are obstacles to diversity and inclusion, and what those from diverse groups are saying is important.

As a chief spokesperson on corporate diversity for Boston Consulting Group, I’m frustrated to find myself here – again – raising the issue when so little progress, year after year, has been made. That slow progress is not for lack of trying. Company leaders are well aware of the diversity problem – the lack of equal representation at the top of the corporate pyramid and the need for it as a key ingredient in long-term survival.

Corporations are investing in diversity programs, but it’s not working. Research – to be published in an upcoming BCG report and building on 2017 findings – shows that 97% of companies have diversity programs in place, but only 25% of employees representing diverse groups feel that they have personally benefited. Today, just 24 Fortune 500 CEOs are female, three are black, and one is openly gay.

Despite these dismal numbers, now is not the time to grow weary of the cause, and give in to diversity fatigue. If we think of diversity as a business imperative – which extensive research shows that it is – then we have to better understand the root causes of why we keep spinning our wheels. The call to action to leadership is threefold:

Get back to basics and focus on measures that all diverse groups agree are effective, such as reducing and eliminating discrimination and bias.

In addition to the proven measures, pursue the hidden gems, or the initiatives that diverse groups say make a difference but are often blind spots for leadership.

Hold yourself accountable as an individual and understand the direct impact that a single person can make.

One potential reason for diversity fatigue is that corporate leaders underestimate the obstacles faced by the member of diverse groups at work.
One potential reason for diversity fatigue is that corporate leaders underestimate the obstacles faced by the member of diverse groups at work.

What are diversity programs getting wrong?

A recent BCG survey on this topic drew responses from about 16,500 people from a range of industries based in 14 countries. Respondents included 8,600 women, 3,200 racially or ethnically diverse employees and 1,650 people in the LGBTQ community. Results revealed why so many diversity programs are missing the mark. It turns out that there is a distinct mismatch between what those in the majority in the workplace feel are obstacles to diversity and inclusion, and what those from diverse groups are saying is important.

Most of the people who make up the leadership ranks – primarily heterosexual men age 45 and older – underestimate the challenges diverse employees face. Their perception of the obstacles to gender diversity is similar to that of women, but there is a large gap between what they think hinders the LGBTQ community and people of color at work and the perception of people representing those groups. Without understanding the extent of the problem, leaders cannot be part of the solution, and will lack the necessary commitment.

In addition, research shows that older heterosexual men tend to mis-identify the main problem. The traditional thinking among many leadership teams is that recruiting is the biggest obstacle – particularly for women and racial and ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Hiring people from diverse groups is relatively easy compared with addressing the deep-rooted cultural and organizational issues that those groups then face in their work environment.

Members of diverse groups experience first-hand the day-to-day biases that keep them from staying at an organization and rising through the ranks – obstacles across the entire employee cycle: recruiting, retention, advancement, and the commitment of leaders.

One bright spot in the research is that younger heterosexual men are more aware of the range of obstacles that diverse groups face than their older counterparts are. And it makes sense. Younger employees haven’t had to incorporate diversity into their thinking because it has been a public issue throughout their lives. Engaging them in tackling the issues of diversity should be part of every company’s strategy.

Back to basics

Although members of different diverse groups view the biases and obstacles they face differently, there are three core initiatives that members of all groups find universally effective:

1. Strong anti-discrimination policies. Often, these policies go unread on the company intranet, but organizations can do far more. Communicating well-crafted policies frequently and explicitly to employees sends a signal that the company takes the issue of diversity seriously. And organizations need to take decisive action when problems arise. If employees are skeptical of enforcement, they will be reluctant to report issues.

2. Bias-awareness trainings. Most managers and executives don’t think of themselves as biased. Nonetheless, unconscious biases are wired into human nature and overcoming them can be challenging. Compelling, formal training does make a difference, while bad training can actually make things worse! Training needs to fit your organization’s purpose and focus on actionable strategies, complemented by changes to programs and policies that help people identify biases and understand how they affect decisions.

3. Bias-reducing evaluation and promotion processes. First, organizations should track diversity metrics related to promotion. Second, they need clear criteria and hard metrics for employee evaluations – and for promotion decisions – to help strip bias out of those decisions and also demystify the process for everyone. And since the criteria themselves can be biased, managers must scrutinize the language and make sure nothing is gendered or imbalanced. Finally, managers should undergo training to help them focus on the completion of projects and goals and not on personality-based observations that may be subject to bias.

Hidden gems that could beat diversity fatigue

In addition to those three back-to-basics initiatives, there are the hidden gems – measures that employees representing diverse groups value and believe make a difference, but that are blind spots for leadership and routinely underinvested.

1. Hidden gems for women employees:

• Flexibility, including the ability to adjust work hours and the option of working from home

• Appropriate healthcare coverage

• Female role models in leadership positions

2. Hidden gems for racially and ethnically diverse employees:

• Bias-free work environment

• Formal sponsorship programs that provide support regarding promotions and key assignments

3. Hidden gems for LGBTQ employees:

• Inclusive healthcare coverage

• Bias-free work environment

• Structural interventions to accommodate a gender orientation broader than male and female

From diversity fatigue to the power of the individual

We can’t afford to let discouraging results turn into diversity fatigue. As leaders of corporations, we can make sure we’re investing our diversity dollars in the right places. As individuals, we can affect specific people one by one. And that’s a lot of power.

Here’s what we can do. We can shift the minds of the skeptics in the room by continuing to talk about the case for change – explaining why some efforts haven’t paid off and why others will. We can mentor and sponsor individuals, making sure that there will be women and other members of diverse groups poised to move higher and higher in the organization and take our place some day. We can broaden our audience by discussing the benefits of all kinds of diversity with young potential leaders, both male and female. And we can’t get tired of talking about it.

Our future depends on increasing diversity. We all know by now that even though it’s hard to achieve, it just makes plain business sense. With the solutions in hand, let’s keep diversity at the top of the agenda and finally make change happen – now.

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkEquity, Diversity and InclusionEducation and Skills
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