Diversity Through Compliance vs. Culture

There has been ongoing criticism from diversity professionals and business leaders alike that diversity is less about business and more about compliance.

I join those criticizing the state of the profession because diversity professionals have not made the case made by the chief marketing officer, chief technology officer or chief brand officer — that the functions they perform have a measurable impact on the bottom line.

Indeed, many in the C-suite have aligned themselves with the compliance movement, which suggests that diversity has minimal business impact and is thus expendable. The profession requires a shift from a compliance mindset to one where diversity is seen as an agent of cultural change powered by branding.

The compliance focus means diversity executives continue to count heads, be viewed as a cost center and are seemingly content to be without a seat at the proverbial table where decisions are made.

Because so many diversity professionals have embraced compliance and avoided diversity as a culture change agent, organizations freely hand over the keys to the compliance kingdom. For example, if you were to review a representative sample of diversity plans, you might find the emphasis is on recruiting diverse candidates — code for women, racial minorities and others traditionally protected by anti-discrimination laws.

To shift from a culture where diversity is held aloft by compliance to one where diversity informs a culture powered by business, we must look at branding our work internally and externally as a recruitment and retention tool. Internal branding will be directed at how individuals experience diversity. External branding will detail how the marketplace views an organization through a diversity lens.

Putting diversity forward as culture change agent simply means explaining the way things are made to happen in an organization. It is how people, in spite of their differences, get things done. For example, to succeed in any organization, employees need to follow the written rules and be aware that in some cases, things get done by being aware of unwritten rules.

Employees who are different are often unable to get things done because they don’t understand culture and those unwritten rules. And since so many organizations still view diversity as a primarily compliance-driven function, they are incapable of diagnosing poor employee performance as an issue related to organizational culture. Instead they conclude the issue is solely motivated by individual failure.

Diversity as compliance provides the rules. It does not provide the blueprint to get things done. But by using diversity as a key pillar in a culture framework, leaders can better realize the power of workforce differences.

Making the shift from diversity as compliance to organizational culture requires that leaders understand culture and its relationship to diversity. The disconnect is often visible in how poorly business leaders handle diversity-related recruiting efforts.

Organizations can both recruit for diversity and plan for retention by using diversity as a culture change framework. Diversity as culture framework encourages the diversity professional to use organizational tools to change the culture. It also holds managers accountable for organizational change and recruiting. In this context branding is one beneficial tool.

Organizations realize they must set themselves apart from their competitors. Branding helps. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a name, sign, symbol or design, or a combination thereof, intended to identify one seller or group of sellers’ goods and services and to differentiate them from those offered by other sellers.

Given that branding is a commonly accepted organizational strategy, a diversity-as-culture framework can be used to demonstrate the importance of different perspectives in helping an organization set itself apart from competitors. This framework will also help diversity leaders make the shift from making heads count to making ideas count. Further, culture helps to retain diverse employees because they can look at the brand and realize how it can have a direct reflection on the bottom line, which is critical for the organization.

For diversity professionals, a shift away from how many diverse people you have to how diverse ideas impact your organization works.

Christopher J. Metzler is senior associate dean at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. He is the author of “The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘Post-Racial America.’“ He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.