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Why So Many Diversity Programs Fail

Source | FastCompany : By Lydia Dishman

While some tech companies have made incremental gains for their efforts to increase women and under-represented minorities among their ranks, the overall business landscape isn’t faring much better.

According to theEqual Employment Opportunity Commission’s last tally,American companies with more than 100 workers have posted marginal increases. A national aggregate of all industries between 1985 to 2014 shows: An increase from 3% to 3.3% of black men in management roles, and an increase from 22% to 29% of white women in management through the year 2000, and no movement since then.

This despite multi-million dollar investments in programs designed to make companies attract and retain a more diverse group of employees. The problem, according to Frank Dobbin, sociology professor at Harvard, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, is that these programs don’t work.

“Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data,” they write, “companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s—which often make things worse, not better.”

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Dobbin and Kalev discuss how they delved into three decades of data drawn from over 800 U.S. businesses, as well as hundreds of interviews with managers and executives. What they found was that the programs which were originally put in place were heavy on policing bias in order to tamp down expensive lawsuits. The reasoning was that it simplified the expectations which made them easy to defend.

This tended to have the opposite effect. “You won’t get managers on board by blaming and shaming them with rules and reeducation,” Dobbin and Kalev write. One by one, they debunk the most common tools used to promote and protect diversity.


Training is a big offender, partly because at some companies it’s mandatory and remedial, and partly because it can be cloaked in negative language.

Dobbin and Kalev note that nearly 1,000 studies have been conducted to gauge the efficacy of diversity training to help people abolish their biases. While they help in the short term, as soon as a couple of days later, participants forget. Worse, they actually incited biases according to some of the research.

According to their five-year analysis, required training resulted in a decrease in the number of people of color across the companies studied. “The share of black women actually decreased by 9%, on average, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women shrank by 4% to 5%,” Dobbin and Kalev report.

Hiring tests don’t really solve the diversity problem, either, for some of the same reasons. In theory, skills-based testing is designed to level the playing field and let the best candidate shine. But managers didn’t appreciate being told to hire someone they didn’t hand select. Dobbin and Kalev also found that some companies were only giving the tests to people they didn’t want to hire, i.e. under-represented minorities. Or, they just ignored the results in favor of picking who they wanted.

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