Companies institute diversity programs to make their workplaces more welcoming to employees from marginalized backgrounds.
Or at least this is the idea.
According to a recent report from BTS consultants Jacobs, Quartarone, and Hemingway, some diversity initiatives don’t actually promote inclusion but rather encourage participants to act more similarly to dominant group members.
How did they come to this conclusion?
A company asked BTS to create a program that prepared “diverse talent” for promotions. But the company sent two inadvertent messages by initiating this program. First, it signaled that employees from marginalized groups needed more help gaining skills for promotion. Second, it indicated there was only one way to behave if an employee sought promotion.
In fact, programs like these actually expect members of marginalized groups to change their behavior – to assimilate.
“It is not uncommon to see the group with the least privilege expected to change its behavior to help achieve equity in an organization. Rarely does anyone feel safe and included in any dynamic where they are the only ones expected to change,” the consultants explained.
How, then, can you plan diversity initiatives without promoting homogeneity?
Here are a few suggestions.
Interrogate your “professional” standards.
Programs and initiatives designed to promote diversity backfire if they set narrow parameters for professionalism. The term itself often indicates that employees must dress and behave in particular ways – both implicitly and explicitly mandated by the company – to demonstrate their competency.
There are examples of positive assimilation, like the idea that everyone shows up at work around the same time. But if employees have to change too much about themselves – like wearing clothes that are not comfortable to them or removing “unprofessional” language from their vocabulary – they are less likely to feel psychological safety at the organization. This type of safety encourages productivity.
So, if your diversity initiatives are asking for a conformity that you haven’t interrogated, then you may be forcing unnecessary assimilation. Some shared norms are necessary for organizational functioning, but if your team members must exhibit a high degree of uniformity, they are not bringing their whole selves to the table – and likely exhausting themselves in the process.
Develop a collectivist, rather than individualist, mentality.
Diversity is a benefit to businesses, encouraging innovation and exploration of multiple perspectives. However, hiring people of color and people of different class backgrounds doesn’t mean this team is immediately cohesive.
Instead, connecting people who are different from one another isn’t easy. It takes work, time, and effort.
“When leaders talk about diversity in organizations, we all hear, ‘Diversity is good.’ But if that’s the message you’re purveying in your organization, you’re not accurately reflecting a more complex reality. The more complex reality is that diversity is good, but hard,” writes Lisa Leslie in Greater Good Magazine.
Diverse teams need a shared goal to move beyond their differences. They have to want the group to function effectively, rather than prioritizing their own needs first and foremost. From an anti-assimilationist perspective, too, longer-standing team members need to change, as well, not simply expect that newer colleagues will mold their behavior to fit into “the way we’ve always done things.”
Truly transformational diversity initiatives encourage team members to see situations from others’ points of view. This, in turn, elevates the often-mentioned benefits of this team diversity.
Identifying the purpose and relevance of the initiative.
In order for a program to be useful, it needs to solve a particular problem identified in the organization. For instance, does your company culture ignore individuals from a particular religious background? Or do your employee referral programs veer too heavily towards “like me” recommendations?
Once you have identified the problem, then you want to figure out who needs to participate and if the program will help your organization work towards the solution. If you end up creating a program that changes “them” to be more like “us,” then you’re not promoting diversity, you are forcing assimilation.
Recognize how equitable you offer feedback.
Men are more likely to receive actionable feedback that can help them improve their performance and, eventually, meet the “professional” standards for promotion. Women, people of color, differently-abled individuals, and sexual minorities were also less likely to receive this type of feedback.
Another way feedback can be unproductive for marginalized groups is if it isn’t relevant to their work performance.
“When we focus on creating employees who are just like us, we either ignore people who have different experiences and knowledge or create strain for employees to work extra hard to emulate us — which is effort that could be better used to develop their skills,” the BTS consultants note.
Diversity Initiatives Shouldn’t Homogenize Your Workforce
Diversity programs can inadvertently encourage members of marginalized groups to become more like employees from dominant populations. For instance, if your diversity initiatives suggest minoritized people need to be professionalized, then you may be promoting assimilation. By creating meaningful expectations of non-conformity for all employees, companies and employees alike will reap tremendous rewards.