Diversity: Faking It Will Not Make It

Doing diversity for the right reasons has an effect on the bottom line, not just on the board’s conscience.

A study published in February by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that organizations with lower revenue growth, market share profitability and customer satisfaction over five years were 2.5 times more likely to say they pursue diversity and inclusion to enhance public relations and branding efforts. These low-performing organizations were 2.8 times more likely to say they use diversity for legal compliance and risk management and 3.3 times more likely to say it’s to meet shareholder expectations.

“Those are the kinds of drivers for their diversity and inclusion program that are more about how they look and how they’re presented to other people, than they are about how they operate within the company or how they help the company advance in something like strategy or innovation,” said Eric Davis, creative director and senior editor at i4cp.

Meanwhile, high-performing companies were 1.7 times more likely to say they use diversity and inclusion to support culture, 2.3 times more likely it’s to increase innovation and 3.8 times more likely to say diversity is integral to their business strategy.

The study found that 15 percent of participants fell into the “wrong reason” category, such as branding or legal reasons, Davis said, but closer to a quarter to a third of organizations pursued it for the right reasons.

The companies in i4cp’s study are at least pursuing diversity, rather than doing what some organizations have done in the past 15 years to promote their media image by faking diversity. 

For example, the Republican Party received criticism in 2014 for using a stock photo of a black woman with the tagline “I’m a Republican” to emphasize its diversity, rather than featuring a real African-American voter.

Similarly, colleges overstate their diversity makeup by disproportionately representing minorities in their brochures, either by using many photos of Asian, African-American or Hispanic students or through more blatant means — like the University of Wisconsin’s 2001-2002 undergraduate admissions brochure that featured an African-American student digitally inserted into a crowd scene on the cover.

“Every photographer who I’ve spoken to working in communication departments for any length of time has been asked to do this (pose a picture or use Photoshop to diversify a photo) at least once,” said Nancy Leong, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “The fact that so many people are doing it shows that it’s not just a few bad actors.”

Faking diversity isn’t always a devious practice, Leong said, as many do it because it’s something they’d like to have but haven’t yet achieved.

That said, using unauthentic images is the wrong way to go about it. Organizations lacking diversity should acknowledge their shortcomings and vocalize how they’re extremely open to ideas and creating an environment inclusive of people of all backgrounds.

For example, Leong said the University of Denver, a predominately white campus, reaches out and educates minorities in the community to what sorts of opportunities might be a good fit for them.

“There’s only so much time and hours in the day and energy that people have,” Leong said. “If you’re spending time falsifying something, that’s time you’re not spending acquiring the real thing.”