Fight for Systemic Change

I had a deep conversation with some senior business and diversity leaders recently about what has gone so terribly wrong with diversity and inclusion work. Why have organizations invested so much time, effort and money yet made so little measurable progress?

I am not suggesting nothing has changed. In fact, there are more diverse people in many organizations at varying levels than ever before, and more C-suite level officers are openly discussing the topic than before. The chief diversity officer’s role continues to expand. This is all good news. However, diversity and inclusion work in organizations fails in that, for too many companies, meritocracy is a myth, diversity work is still largely about training and activities, and there are no universal standards for diversity practitioners.

I am not the first scholar/practitioner to write about this concept. In their book “The Meritocracy Myth” Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller Jr. argue there is a gap between how people think the system works and how the system actually does work. They refer to this gap as “the meritocracy myth,” or the myth that the system distributes resources — especially wealth and income — according to an individual’s merit.

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Does Diversity Training Really Work?
i4cp, 2009

While merit does affect who ends up with what, the effect of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overestimated by the ideology of the American dream. Further, the authors identify a variety of nonmerit factors that suppress, neutralize or even negate the effects of merit and create barriers to individual mobility.

Until organizations directly address nonmerit factors such as the difference between policy and practice from a systemic standpoint, little will change. For example, where an organization has a policy that allows executives to exercise discretion when allocating sign-on or retention bonuses, such a policy should be known to the organization. And, the organization must monitor the effect of such discretion on merit and act quickly to address the inequities that permeate in too many companies.

Now let’s talk about diversity training. According to Peter Bregman in Psychology Today, a study of 829 companies over 31 years showed it had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” Essentially, millions of dollars a year are spent on training resulting in, well, nothing.

While I applaud diversity training efforts in theory, there is simply no credible evidence the training leads to organizational change. In fact, when CEOs who champion diversity in private refuse to hold leaders — including themselves — responsible for changing the systemic reality of diversity and inclusion practices in public, there is seldom sustainable progress.

I have always been fascinated by organizations that chase external accolades to be the best at diversity, thereby feeding a cottage industry of vendors who mean well but whose ability to help make true change is often limited by the organization’s unwillingness or nonreadiness to do so.

The rigorous and sometimes rancorous debate about establishing universal standards for the practice of diversity doesn’t help matters. Some argue that by its very nature, diversity rejects standards — that differences cannot or should not be standardized. But the issue is not making all diversity work the same. It’s asking whether universal standards such as those practiced in so many professions can be adapted to help create sustainable change rather than quick fixes and crisis interventions.

Diversity and inclusion will continue to be marginalized until we erase myths, stop colluding with the status quo and insist on sustainable change at all levels.