Corporate Responses to Diversity Challenges – by Marc Brenman

In the aftermath of tragic police violence and subsequent street protests, many US corporations and other organizations have issued ritualistic and formulaic statements declaring their support for Black Lives Matter and decrying racism. What does this mean, and what will they do to follow through? Many of these companies already have diversity programs and are already required to comply with state and federal nondiscrimination laws and regulations. A number of states, cities, and counties have broader non-discrimination prohibitions than the federal government, for example, to include LGBTQ status.

The larger companies employ Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) or someone with a different title but similar responsibilities. The vast majority of people in these positions are African-American females. Some are male, and some are Hispanic. A few are white females. Almost none of the CDOs are members of the executive teams of these companies. Diversity does not occupy a place similar to core missions, such as production, operations, marketing/sales/ advertising/branding, finance, legal, logistics, supply chain, health and safety, etc. Only a relatively small percent of companies report their diversity demographics publicly, and almost none disaggregate the figures by level of employment, pay grade, responsibility, etc.

Almost none can point to actual improvement in employing/training/promoting people from traditionally discriminated against groups. Some have leapt to providing training on implicit or unconscious bias, even though the concept is a neurological one, and almost no one knows enough about the neurology to accomplish anything about it. In fact, some experts state that if done poorly, such training can excite unconscious bias and bring it out into the open, where it can have bad effects.

At the moment, the diversity expert and training world is reeling from a Trump Executive Order banning most diversity training and programs that engage in what the Order refers to as stereotyping by race and ascribing blame to one race. The Order applies to federal agencies, and by extension to federal contractors and recipients of federal financial assistance. This universe is very large.

As I write this, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) of the US Department of Labor, which oversees federal contractors, is soliciting input on elements of diversity programs at federal contractors that might not meet the requirements of the Order. Executive Order 13950 “notes that materials teaching that men and members of certain races are inherently sexist and racist have recently appeared in workplace diversity trainings across the country” and “invites the public to provide information or materials concerning any workplace trainings of Federal contractors that involve such stereotyping or scapegoating.”

The OFCCP requests to federal contractors and subcontractors is wide-ranging with the following questions:

  • Have there been complaints concerning this workplace training? Have you or other employees been disciplined for complaining or otherwise questioning this workplace training?
  • Who develops your company’s diversity training? Is it developed by individuals from your company, or an outside company?
  • Is diversity training mandatory at your company? If only certain trainings are mandatory, which ones are mandatory and which ones are optional?
  • Approximately what portion of your company’s annual mandatory training relates to diversity?
  • Approximately what portion of your company’s annual optional training relates to diversity?

Corporations often receive awards for their diversity efforts from a variety of self-appointed organizations that “speak” for diversity and equity. When I see such announcements, I often look at the composition of the executive teams of these corporations. About 80% of the time, I find that the executive teams are very undiverse, being composed almost entirely of white men. Sometimes, there is one woman as human resources head. In some companies, there might be one Chinese-American or Indian-American. So these companies are in violation of one of the cardinal rules of diversity initiatives—start at the top and set an excellent example. The actual message is clear: diversity is fine for the underlings, but not for the people at the top.

Another area of contradiction is the argument put forth by diversity experts that diversity is good for company revenues and the bottom line. A number of prestigious foundations and think tanks are complicit in this myth. When I examine the studies that arrive at the diversity return on investment (ROI) argument, I find that the studies have conveniently left out successful firms in IT, Silicon Valley, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and China, which are all very undiverse in employees, management, and executives.

A third troubling area of organizations and equity today is that of anti-racism programs. When I ask those in the anti-racism field if they can show quantitative improvements on the ground in anti-racism effects, almost none can. Usually I hear a great silence. In fact, on many criteria of progress and participation in American society, African-Americans have moved backwards—in education, housing, healthcare, employment, and family wealth, for example. Thus, one can legitimately ask about the efficacy of diversity and anti-racism programs and initiatives.

The other core functions of organizations listed above (such as production, operations, marketing/sales/advertising/branding, finance, legal, logistics, supply chain, health and safety) all have to show positive results, or the managers of the efforts will soon be gone, and/or the effort will be reorganized/shaken up. Why should diversity, equity, and anti-racism efforts get a pass, an exemption, or a waiver from rough organizational life? Do we have a problem consisting of lowered expectations, symbolism, and tokenism?

This is not to say that the problem is due to the professionals in these fields. There is plenty of blame to go around, including institutional racism, intransigence, organizational culture, white supremacy, structural inertia, foot dragging, etc. To me, those in the diversity/equity/anti-racism fields need to do some serious soul-searching, thinking, innovation, creation, and classic strategic planning and evaluation. The last is almost entirely lacking in the fields listed. About the only evaluation criteria is “don’t rock the boat.”

I once proposed that members of a corporation’s executive team be cycled through the CDO’s job for six months, and evaluated on firm success criteria, such as increasing the employment of X traditionally discriminated group members by Y% over Z period of time. In corporation parlance, this is calling “making the numbers.” I bet that we would see some surprising improvements in such hiring. Anybody willing to take this bet? Or are folks in the diversity/equity/anti-racism fields willing to slide along in the world of low and no expectations?

Marc Brenman

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