Not long ago, I found myself at a celebration honoring diversity award recipients. I squirmed in my seat throughout the affair, although it was a most enjoyable evening.
A period of joyous networking preceded the awards. The room buzzed loudly as people interacted. Proud honorees had driven some innovative and impressive diversity efforts in their organizations and unquestionably deserved their awards.
The audience — engaged, enthusiastic and electric — stood and vigorously applauded each honoree. I, too, readily joined in the applause with excitement and appreciation for these people and their achievements. Yet, I squirmed. Later I concluded the sources of my discomfort were as follows:
I realized about two-thirds of the way through the event that despite the innovative and creative works being recognized, much, if not all, could have been done, or had been done earlier, under the banner of social justice or affirmative action.
Although participants made the obligatory remarks about diversity and inclusion being good for business, the moral motive inevitably surfaced implicitly as the primary motivation undergirding not only the activities being honored, but the event itself. The fact that whenever you heard diversity and inclusion, you could substitute social justice or affirmative action without changing the meaning of the statement, confirmed the moral motive was paramount. The event clearly represented a current battle in a war that has been at least 40 years in duration.
The participants, especially the honorees, were true believers. As such, they exuded passion and commitment and also a dedication to persevere with the good fight. They expressed little awareness that they might have to amend their strategy. As one who has argued for 25 years that advocates for social justice, desegregation and pluralism in the workforce must broaden their efforts to include a capability for quality decision-making in the midst of diversity, I found the attendees’ fervor suggestive of organizational environments not open to change.
Rightly or wrongly, I sensed that the celebratory atmosphere served in significant part to compensate for limited success with diversity. Some attendees even mused openly as to whether this event had made any difference in their organization’s efforts to create, sustain and utilize a diverse workforce.
What are the implications? To the extent my observations and conclusions about this diversity awards event hold true for similar gatherings and reflect realities in organizations, we can expect little progress generating creative and innovative workforce diversity approaches. We are in for more of the same.
The true believers’ commitment to the status quo threatens to harm the credibility of social justice and the diversity field. People, in general, are realizing that diversity and social justice are not synonymous, and that what passes for diversity is really a ruse.
When I visit corporations, I frequently hear from knowledgeable individuals distressed by the intransigence of their leaders: “I really thought we were set to supplement our emphasis on the numbers and sensitivity. Set the new semantics aside and you have the dated agenda of the ’60s and ’70s.” Their point is not that the traditional agenda should be abandoned, but rather complemented.
If you are a CDO who squirms at awards ceremonies even as you win awards and enjoy the festivities, explore the possible reasons for your discomfort. Then ask, “What are the costs of sticking with the status quo? What gains am I forgoing because of an unwillingness to act out of the box and challenge the shortcomings of the assumptions behind traditional celebratory events?”
This squirming highlights an opportunity for CDOs individually and collectively to pioneer and search for ways to advance the diversity field, as opposed to institutionalizing traditions with questionable, diminishing benefits. Identifying and understanding your squirming might generate awareness of promising possibilities for change.
And, if you do not squirm at these events and are comfortable with their basic premise, determine why you are so accepting. This understanding also might be helpful.