Diversity programs at companies can backfire against women and minorities, according to a recent study outlined in the Harvard Business Review. Specifically, they can result in a decrease in the representation of black women.
The findings don't apply to all diversity programs, as the title of the HBR piece -- "Diversity Policies Don't Help Women or Minorities, and They Make White Men Feel Threatened" -- might have you think.
Study authors Cheryl Kaiser, Tessa L. Dover and Brenda Major found problems with what they described as "the most commonly used diversity programs," or programs that consist primarily of policies.
One issue is that companies are known to use the mere presence of a diversity program as an excuse to brush off allegations of discrimination, the psychologists wrote in HBR.
"Even when there is clear evidence of discrimination at a company, the presence of a diversity policy leads people to discount claims of unfair treatment," they wrote.
It might sound crazy, but these excuses work pretty well. Walmart defended itself against claims of gender discrimination in a 2011 class action lawsuit by citing the presence of an anti-discrimination policy at the company.
Other findings, according to the researchers, were that use of pro-diversity rhetoric in company materials could lead white men to believe women and minorities are being treated more fairly than white men.
"Diversity policies must be researched, assessed for effectiveness, and implemented with care so that everyone in the workplace can feel valued and supported," reads the post.
Going back to that title, Kaiser says she and her coauthors "were horrified by the inflammatory, and inaccurate, title (that was provided by the editor)."
"Although it's not the focus of our research, there are diversity policies that are effective at increasing demographic diversity," says Kaiser, who is an associate professor of psychology at University of Washington. "Those include approaches that engage managers in the solution and provide accountability and oversight with respect to diversity goals."
Examples of such solutions might include mentoring programs or diversity task forces, she says, citing research by sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev. You might ask employees to help find diverse candidates, wrote Paradigm partner Carissa Romero in a Medium post responding to the HBR article. Paradigm is a startup devoted to increasing the diversity of staff at companies.
Y-Vonne Hutchinson, executive director of diversity recruitment firm ReadySet, says that while she would have liked to see more empirical data to explain the researchers' findings, "the piece does confirm something that I have long believed, which is that diversity policies are not enough. Most, when taken alone, simply don't have the teeth to ensure change, particularly where cultures of exclusion are more entrenched."
The exaggerated title had a certain accuracy, even if it didn't accurately reflect the researchers' findings. Diversity policies aren't the end of the story.
Says Hutchinson, you need the highest levels of management to buy in to the goal of a policy to ensure accountability.
"Without adopting effective management structures for implementation, a diversity policy alone is nothing but a communications exercise. If the article is to be believed, then most policies fail to achieve even that goal."