Diversity & Exclusion: A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in HR and Recruiting.

diversity-cartoonAs a white male, there are few conversation topics more taboo than talking about (much less writing about) the issue of race. It’s one of those things, like politics, sex or religion, that’s just not considered apropos for the workplace.

This is why we only speak of ‘race’ in terms of “diversity” and “inclusion.”

While these precepts are predicated on overt prejudice, frankly, for some reason the not so subtle institutionalized quota system that equal opportunity employment and affirmative action represent have become firmly entrenched as a dedicated HR discipline.

Loving Your Enemies.

This has become another egregious example of HR hypocrisy; a recent survey by executive search firm Witt/Kiefer found that 84% of active Chief Diversity Officers at enterprise employers were themselves visible minorities (with African American males predominating within this professional demographic).

This, of course, mirrors the larger trend that HR has become, in fact, a little too effective at diversity within its own function; according to Forbes, 69% of all HR professionals and fully 74% of HR Managers are female, which, in fact, is the very same type of disproportionate representation that diversity initiatives were designed explicitly to address (by comparison, about 55% of the US workforce, according to the Department of Labor, was female).

HR is essentially the home economics of professional functions, demographically speaking; statistically, preschool and elementary education is the only other category where women are more prevalent than men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, the same organization suggests around 52% of practicing HR professionals are “visible minorities,” which far surpasses the 37% rate of the overall US workforce.

That HR maintains such an overrepresentation of women and minorities should mean, theoretically, that inclusion efforts within the function should shift towards targeting white males, at least according to the stated purposes of corporate diversity efforts. Of course, that’s not the case.

In fact, HR professionals with less than 3 years of experience, according to SHRM, were somehow more predominantly female or persons of color than their more experienced counterparts, meaning the growing gender and diversity divide in the profession will only continue to grow.

This mirrors the larger trend within the US workforce, where minority representation is expected to rise to 57% by 2060, with the US Department of Commerce projecting nonwhite ethnic groups will represent fully 85% of U.S. employee population growth through 2050.

Such demographic changes will inevitably transform the workplace; how they will transform diversity hiring initiatives, of course, remains to be seen.

Rediscovering Lost Values.

groupthinkOne fact, however, is becoming crystal clear: in order to prepare for the workforce of tomorrow, we need to rethink our approach to diversity and inclusion – furthermore, that change needs to start in HR if HR will continue to be the primary arbiter of diversity and inclusion programs, initiatives and organizational compliance.

Because these efforts today are not only completely extraneous (as evidenced above), but largely ineffective,

In fact, a recent longitudinal study of over 700 companies demonstrated that implementing formalized diversity programs has little positive effect in addressing underrepresentation, and may in fact decrease participation of women of color.

This is only one of a litany of studies producing data to suggest that diversity programs actually exacerbate the same problems they purport to address.

A recent Harvard Business Review article’s title really says it all when it comes to our current approach to diversity: “Diversity Programs Don’t Help Women or Minorities, and They Make White Men Feel Threatened.”

This central thesis was reinforced by an experiment conducted to measure white male attitudes towards workplace diversity conducted by the authors of the aforementioned article. In this experiment, college aged white men were subjected to a hiring simulation for an entry-level job at a startup technology company.

For half these young, white and male “applicants,” the recruitment marketing materials and company culture collateral for this fictional firm incorporated references to their “pro-diversity” values; for the other half, diversity was not mentioned during the application process. Besides this slight difference in positioning, the company career copy was identical.

Each “applicant” was then subjected to a simulated, standardized “interview” to gauge their attitudes towards their fit at each firm. During these simulated interviews, each participant also had their cardiovascular activity monitored to determine stressors.

The study found that compared to the control group, to which diversity was never mentioned, the group of white men interviewing at the company who explicitly highlighted diversity was much more likely to enter the interview with expectations that such a firm would evidence more unfair treatment and reverse discrimination towards them than their counterparts.

Additionally, the ‘applicants’ for the “pro-diversity” employer performed much more poorly in the standardized job interview, during which their cardiovascular responses evidenced far more stress than the control group. These stressors spiked when topics related to “diversity” and “inclusion” were mentioned – far more than any subject tested.

According to the study’s authors:

“Pro-diversity messages signaled to these white men that they might be undervalued and discriminated against. These concerns interfered with their interview performance and caused their bodies to respond as if they were under threat.

Importantly, diversity messages led to these effects regardless of these men’s political ideology, attitudes toward minority groups, beliefs about the prevalence of discrimination against whites, or beliefs about the fairness of the world.

This suggests just how widespread negative responses to diversity may be among white men: the responses exist even among those who endorse the tenets of diversity and inclusion.”

Yeah, diversity kind of sucks  – at least from where I’m sitting.

How Long? Not Long!

ted_20120216I am, personally, part of this aforementioned group of white guys who actually believe in the principals behind diversity and inclusion, and applaud organizations committed to making these efforts.

The fact of the matter is, though, I do believe that the existence of diversity and inclusion initiatives have more or less led to diminishing returns.

It’s time we address the fact that such efforts fail what’s largely becoming a minority group overall, but even more so, within the same HR profession tasked with diversity and inclusion in the first place.

In addition to threatening white men, as the study suggests, diversity initiatives also seem to do little to convince minorities that companies will treat them more fairly.  After doing the same experiment with visible minorities, it turns out that even the company who aggressively advertised their pro-diversity position and initiative was seen as “no more inclusive, no better to work for, and no less likely to discriminate against minorities than a company without a pro-diversity stance.”

The study’s authors, reviewing their results, suggested that the only success corporate diversity initiatives really have achieved is in compliance with diversity and EOE/AA/OFCCP legislation. In conclusion, however, they caution that “when people feel threatened, they may resist efforts to make the workplace more inclusive.”

Extending this logic, then, the realization becomes readily apparent that the only true way to achieve diversity and inclusion, and have these efforts pay off, is through eliminating – or at least completely changing the context – of current diversity and inclusion efforts.

The same study showed over 80% of white males agreed with the fact that race and gender shouldn’t inhibit employment or advancement opportunities, meaning that white men are actually more active advocates of diversity (at the moment) than racial minorities (at around 65%), and about equal to women across all races (81% of whom agreed, in theory, with diversity recruiting).

I See the Promised Land.

white-guys-suck-and-they-can-lauWhile I’m unsure what the future of diversity hiring looks like, one thing is clear: if it continues to mirror present practices, it’s not only going to threaten the very same historical gains these programs have made, but are likely going to increase discriminatory hiring practices, decrease employee perceptions of inclusion and make race, that “elephant in the conference room,” as it were, a point of contention instead of consensus.

I know even writing a post questioning the conventional wisdom behind diversity, as a white guy, is pretty much asking for controversy, or else suggestions of complicit racism or explicit discrimination, but in fact, the exact opposite is true.

I’m just sick and tired of reading about the importance of diversity while being marginalized – and knowing as much as I agree with conventional wisdom (like the fact McKinsey found organizations in the top quartile of racial diversity performed 35% better in terms of financial returns), the fact is that these programs don’t work as intended.

Of course, I’m just following the advice of Dr. Kira Hudson-Banks, who studies hiring bias and diversity programs at Saint Louis University, who writes that the most important way to address this issue is by bringing it up in the open. She writes:

“Be prepared for some harsh truths. Racial discrimination, tokenism, and the sense of isolation are common concerns. But if you don’t hear, acknowledge, and understand them, you can’t do anything about them.”

Which more or less seems to be the direction diversity initiatives seem headed unless we change the course – and conversation – around inclusion. Because no matter what terrible societal and historical problems white dudes were responsible for in the past, the fact of the matter is, that we are the diversity candidates of the future – and the exclusion has to stop.

Or at least, on MLK Day, a guy can dream, right?



  • Matt, I think I’m justified in responding with experience as a VP of diversity talent sourcing at
    a large US corporation (though these points will be my own and not necessarily those of my employer). And like you, I’m a white male, but I’m not going to claim that disproves the data trends you stated. Unfortunately, you were very selective about data throughout your post to make your points that question the progress of diversity.

    First, which “diversity programs” are we talking about? There’s a difference between ones that seek to attract external candidates and ones that seek to affect attitudes among existing employees. Your piece mixes both to draw conclusions, which makes the waters murkier.

    Second, concluding that diversity sourcing/recruiting is excluding white male talent is problematic: Sure, the number of diverse hires is increasing in most industries – it’s inevitable in the US, given the demographic trends as a whole. However, diverse hires at higher levels (with rare exception) are growing more slowly – for a host of reasons that we don’t have time for here – but they are particularly impactful, both in business decision-making perspectives and by giving junior diverse employees a tangible vision of where their career can take them. So smart companies address this at both levels: hiring junior diverse candidates (even pre-college
    programs) and growing them to leadership roles, while hiring senior diverse candidates who can have proportionately greater impact now. Plenty of white male candidates still get hired through those systems, too.

    Third, you significantly underplayed the McKinsey study’s conclusions on senior diverse leaders’ impact within companies and didn’t even mention the newer and broader Credit Suisse Gender 3000 report that shows similar impact on company performance as measured by return on equity. On a more micro level, how can you say, for example, it isn’t progress that the most recent year’s batch of people promoted to Managing Director at Goldman Sachs had a record number/% of women? And if the other study you cited is generalizable about white men becoming slightly more nervous by pro-diversity messaging from a company, should that take precedence over making non-white male candidates significantly more comfortable via that messaging?

    Fourth, you state that HR has become “too effective at diversity within its own function” by having 69% of all HR pros being female vs. 55% of the US workforce overall. You further state “I’m just sick and tired of reading about the importance of diversity while being marginalized.” Come on — you feel marginalized in your industry? You admitted HR is one of the very few industries where you could make this point (“preschool and elementary education is the only other category where women are more prevalent than men”) but even in the education industry, do male teachers really feel marginalized without opportunity to advance? You have to go a bit overboard to set a visible example and finally hit the metrics that start to tip the scale before the rest of the economy will catch up.

    Finally, maybe this analogy will resonate: Up until the 1960s, people thought smoking was fine. It took a lot of legislation, lawsuits, education, messaging, etc., before people realized it wasn’t fine. (Not quite there yet on climate change, but that’s another story. 😉 Some white men might think a pro-diversity company is going to hurt their chances of finding a job. But a truly pro-diversity company seeks the best talent reflecting a range of perspectives, and if you pass that bar and get hired, you’ll learn that once inside a company that lives up to the messaging, you realize it’s actually a more fair environment – besides being in a company ahead of its peers financially — so your chances of having a growth career path are better.

    According to your article title, the piece was intended to question diversity’s “Progress in HR and
    Recruiting”. Instead, I think you need to question whether your white male/reverse discrimination argument is the rule or the exception, and whether the problem you describe is significant or just a temporary blip during a transition from one traditional concentration of power
    to a more balanced, healthier end-state.

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