Diversity Research Must Be Practical

Kudos to the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, or HACR, a national Hispanic nonprofit. In September 2012, at the request of its corporate partners, the association wanted to study what makes Hispanic employee resource groups different from other ERGs. It reviewed research reports but found no studies that focused exclusively on Hispanic ERGs.

HACR realized that for corporations to enhance the impact and effectiveness of their Hispanic ERGs, they needed a more detailed investigation of key issues. I was honored when the association reached out to me in November 2012 to help conduct research to find out what is driving Hispanic ERG growth, what elements lead to their success, what obstacles they face and how companies and Hispanic professionals leverage ERGs.

The HACR Hispanic ERG Research Study was conducted from December 2012 to June and included a survey completed by several dozen corporations, focus groups with numerous Hispanic ERGs, one-on-one interviews with executive sponsors and an analysis of how assessment results for Hispanic ERGs compare with results for non-Hispanic ERGs.

I mention this research because I hope we continue to see more elaborate research in the same vein. But I want to be clear; I’m talking about research that is a step above what is often conducted when putting together a white paper. I’m not talking about the type of research that usually appears in academic journals and whose goal is to produce theoretical knowledge.

We need scholarly research, but I think there’s a gap between theoretical research and white papers. In my opinion, we desperately need research that is rigorous, but more practical in nature — research that informs companies and provides useful insights on diversity initiatives. Such practical research helps companies understand diversity more thoroughly and will identify some yet to be discovered elements that influence the success of diversity programs.

For instance, I think chief diversity officers would be ecstatic to gain access to research that provides greater insights and clarification about diversity and company performance. Plus, I wholeheartedly believe employees would love to share their experiences as stakeholders in various diversity initiatives as well as their everyday realities.

I would love to see more practical research on three specific topics. First, I want to know if a lack of diversity in senior management and on corporate boards impacts consumer spending. Corporations rely heavily on female and minority consumers to reach their sales objectives, but do these consumers care if these firms have a diverse board or senior executive team?

Another area is the often-cited phenomenon related to a lack of support from middle management. For years, I’ve heard CEOs tout the importance of diversity. But consistently when diversity and inclusion programs are evaluated, lack of middle management support is often given as a reason why diversity initiatives are struggling.

I often hear how middle managers don’t want their employees in ERGs, how they often bypass female and minority job candidates, and that the lack of a diverse pipeline of talent is due to inadequate mentoring and sponsorship from middle managers.

Last, I believe we need research on why some female and minority executives hesitate to support diversity efforts. Diversity executives would benefit from knowing why some Latino corporate executives are not actively engaged in Latino talent initiatives at their firm. Why are some female executives less than supportive of the next generation of female leaders at their companies? I’d love to see research that dives deeper into their motivations, or lack thereof, to provide more richness and intensely detail their experiences. Only through such interviews can we identity themes to use in practice.

Ultimately what I’m advocating is for corporate America to help fund more research that will explore diversity issues. Not theoretical research — let’s leave that to the academics. Not white papers — let’s leave that to the consulting firms. We need research that allows the true meaning of diversity success to emerge from the participants who contribute to or hinder that success.