What Diversity and Inclusion Strategies Really Work?

With so many diversity and inclusion strategies out there, what really works? Beagle Learning CEO, Turner Bohlen, shares research and proven best practices.

What Diversity and Inclusion Strategies Really Work?

The death of George Floyd this summer fueled a rebirth of the Black Lives Matter movement. It brought it into the center of everyone's conscience. One weekend, my partner, Liz, and I went in to downtown Concord, NH to join the BLM march. Thousands of people were flooding through the streets of this fairly small city - just 50,000 people live here. We joined in a few blocks from the capital building, following the crowd through closed-down streets. Police stood silently in the yards along side the street. The crowd started chanting "defund the police." I kept wondering, "What does he think of all this? Does she believe the fatal biases we are marching to change exist? Does he feel this is an attack on him personally, or a movement to join and support?"

A few days later, my parents and I were on the phone talking about our experiences at the marches. My stepdad and I both were reflecting on how uncomfortable we felt about joining some of those chants. For me, I think my hesitancy came from wondering whether those chants really were doing good. Recently, Barack Obama has been alternatively celebrated and criticized for saying the phrase "defund the police" alienates the people we most need to change, and therefore hurts the cause. But plenty of people argue that stepping back from a statement like "defund the police" is just giving up or giving way when we need to be pushing harder.

Within the Beagle team, we've been having our own conversation on racism and Beagle's role in fixing it. Even though we'd talked about this before, we had never asked a fairly fundamental question: What strategies really do help companies change their culture and become more diverse, inclusive, and equitable?

I think in a lot of ways this is the same question my parents and I were asking about the chants during the Black Lives Matter protests. Wouldn't it be great if we knew what really worked?

Diversity and Inclusion Trainings

On first google, diversity trainings pop up. It's the silver bullet right now, it seems, at most companies. Do a training and everything will be solved! Having worked in education for the past five years, I'm a bit skeptical; knowledge retention from lectures is shockingly low.

When people go through D&I trainings, they do change. They're more likely to acknowledge they have biases afterwards. Unfortunately, most don't seem to change their behaviors. The only people who do are those without power. Junior women will be more active in advocating for themselves and finding mentorship. (Harvard Business Review)

Another review of papers actually showed that most actions taken actually directly damage diversity in the company.

I’d recommend you take a look at the source article for this image.

One of the main problem seems to be that people react poorly to required trainings. Imagine being told you have to take a 3 hour training on safety at your job. You know what it's going to look like - 3 hours of sitting at a table listening to someone ramble, mostly about things you already know or that don't apply to you. It's no good to have the sort of negative feeling we all have towards that experience applied to diversity and inclusion efforts, too.
And of course, someone has gone out and directly measured this effect. A group of white individuals were given a brochure about bias. If they felt a pressure to agree with it, they ended up acting more biased. If they felt free to choose their own interpretation, they became less biased. (http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5186d08fe4b065e39b45b91e/t/51e3234ce4b0c8784c9e4aae/1373840204345/Paluck_Green_AnnRev_2009.pdf)

An apparent solution is to use voluntary, rather than required trainings. It has shown substantial increases in inclusion of Black men, Hispanic men, and all Asian individuals. That said, a 2007 study confirmed what a lot of us might guess: those who most need trainings might not show up if they are voluntary.

Job Tests and Grievance Systems

HBR has done an amazing overview of the reasons these strategies fail. A grievance system gives employees a standard way to file complaints about managers or others who are acting biased in their work. If your grievance system publicly humiliates someone, that person is going to be angry at the person who reports them. 45% of harassment cases included an accusation of retaliation, harming the people we're trying to support, and further alienate people we want to change.

Companies also put in place standardized hiring processes to try to improve diversity. The theory is that you give every new hire the same, standard test, and then hire based on the results. The test is seen as unbiased, and so you are able to select for true talent rather than falling prey to implicit biases. Unfortunately, managers don't seem to implement these sorts of standardized tests consistently. They'll hire white males that don't take the test, but not black individuals who took it and failed. Or they'll ignore bad results from white males who, probably unconsciously, they are biased towards.

Mentoring Programs

On the positive side, mentoring programs do seem to make a positive impact. One of the most interesting points, to me, is that many leaders feel uncomfortable reaching out to minority or women mentees, but are very happy to support them if they are assigned to by some formal structure. It seems like it's more about getting over our social anxiety than because of a direct and immediate bias (although I'm sure those things are connected). Another key point - these programs do not mention diversity in their charter. They simply talk about mentorship, but minority groups sign up in droves.

Social Accountability

Another interesting tidbit from HBR - just telling people they will have to share their rationale for grades, performance ratings, or raises with peers seems to result in less biased decisions. I wonder if this is because people start being more critical of their own thinking, even when race or gender is never mentioned. Diversity managers and diversity task forces work, too. This could have to do with social accountability more than anything. Employees know they may need to explain their decisions at some point, and because of that they think more deeply about why they are making those decisions and how those decisions might look.

Ideas on What to Do

I feel like this affirms, at least a bit, the comments President Obama made. To make real change we do have to be careful not to alienate those who disagree with us. Here are a few things that I'm thinking about doing based on this research:

  • Continuing casual conversations during team meetings about team culture and diversity.
  • Putting in place a structured mentorship program that allows mentees to sign up and mentors to be matched with them.
  • Requiring people involved in hiring processes to explain their decisions to advisors or others outside of the decision as a way to build social accountability.
  • Offering alternatives to traditional grievance systems. Rather than complaints going to a disciplinary board or legal action immediately, give the person being accused an opportunity to change without public shaming. Provide deep and always-available support to the victim. It seems this actually works better and avoids retaliation.

There's lots more learning to do, but as a culture we do seem to be identifying some things that work. Let's go take actions that can make real change.