Born out of a necessity to curb discrimination lawsuits, workplace diversity programs began to blossom across the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. By the 2000s, they became an imperative to business success—matching the look of the increasingly diverse U.S. consumer. Diversity, equity and inclusion programs are now commonplace.
But, largely, they don't work.
The benefits of a diverse workforce are well-studied. Companies with high ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams were 33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability, according to a 2015 study by McKinsey & Co. But getting there is a challenge for most companies, and experts warn that traditional methods of combating bias and promoting inclusion aren't increasing diversity.
The reality is an effective diversity program is incredibly difficult to achieve and even harder to prove out as most companies don't report their demographic makeup. Diversity in the workplace is complicated and often messy, but experts agree programs should be intentional, accountable and engage the entire workforce if they are to stand a chance at success.
Mandatory diversity training is the first stop for nearly all major companies on the road to improving the racial and gender makeup of their workforce, but it rarely produces results, according to a 2016 study by Harvard University.
"It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers," the researchers said of their findings. "The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash."
The study, which analyzed 30 years of data from more than 800 U.S. companies and hundreds of interviews with managers and executives, found that mandatory diversity training resulted in a 9.2 percent drop in black woman managers, a 4.5 percent drop in Asian men managers and a 5.4 percent drop in Asian woman managers.
Steve Spreitzer, president and CEO of Detroit-based Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion, said people often see diversity programming more as a burden than an imperative. The U.S. civil rights movement isn't far in the rear view mirror, and while most leaders recognize it's important, they want the problem to simply fix itself, he said.
"Our history of hyper-segregation is so baked into the individual and also systems, which puts a gravitational pull toward token efforts," Spreitzer said. "The result is more Rodney King than Martin Luther King."
Voluntary diversity training leads to better results, according to the Harvard study, such as an increase of 9 percent of black male managers five years after implementation.
But there's a push-pull when it comes to implementing programs. While mandatory training is ineffectual, that doesn't mean improving diversity shouldn't be an enforceable goal for managers, said David Thomas, president of Morehouse College, a historically black men's college in Atlanta, and former business professor at Harvard University and dean of the business school at Georgetown University.
"The reason (diversity programs) fail or fail to produce the results with what they espouse is the same reason many of these initiatives failed for the last 40 years," Thomas said. "Leadership is not engaged. It's simply become a program owned by HR. They don't put metrics around what they are trying to achieve. When they measure employee engagement, are they analyzing differences among demographic groups and holding managers accountable for eliminating those differences? That's been the chronic failure of diversity programs since we started using the word diversity in the late 1980s."
General Motors Co. is among a growing throng of Fortune 500 companies that are setting and tracking goals to ensure their management teams reflect the diversity of their customers.
The auto maker set "aspirational targets" in 2014 to improve diversity among its ranks when it hired its first chief diversity officer, Ken Barrett. The goals were determined by cross-referencing demographic data within each job category and extrapolating that figure with the overall demographic population of that minority, said Barrett.
For example, Hispanics make up approximately 17.8 percent of the U.S. population and about 7 percent of the those graduating from college with a degree in a science, technology, engineering and math field. Barrett declined to reveal the actual internal target, but said GM is targeting a figure of between 7 percent and 17 percent of new hires in STEM-related jobs to be Hispanic by 2022.
In 2018, GM tripled the number of Hispanic engineers within its ranks since 2014, Barrett said, but still fell short of its aspirational mid-point goal.
"We made progress, but we fell short," Barrett said. "But now we see it. This is not a static thing. We can now work to improve from there."
GM did hit its target for hiring women within its ranks globally, but not for black engineers. Women account for 34 percent of GM's global management positions, according to its most recent talent report.
GM CEO Mary Barra also requires diversity reporting from her direct reports and quarterly reports identifying minorities with executive management potential, Barrett said.
"It's not just a recruiting piece," Barrett said. "She wants to know how many minorities are identified as high potential. She looks at the data. It's not just about counting heads, it's making sure within this organization we drive the behaviors and have the accountability our customers demand of us."
But an increasingly diverse workforce doesn't fix all the systemic biases within an organization, as GM has found in recent months.
In 2018, three separate lawsuits were filed against the auto maker, alleging rampant racism at its Toledo Transmission Plant. The lawsuits allege years of racist language on the assembly line, swastikas drawn on restroom walls and nooses suspended in the workplace.
In May 2018, GM shut down a line at the plant and conducted anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all of its Toledo employees and more than 50,000 manufacturing employees across other U.S. sites.
But as experts suggested about mandatory training, it didn't appear to work for GM. In January this year, a toy monkey was displayed at the Toledo plant to taunt black coworkers, lawyers for current and former employees at the plant told Automotive News.
Training for respect, dignity
Amy Young, lecturer of business communication at University of Michigan, said these kinds of mandatory programs fail to teach the basic skills required to maintain diversity in the workplace—handling conflict that maintains dignity between all members.
"These programs always say they are going to address the inequity or violations, but don't focus on the real topic of dignity," Young said. "They should be talking about how we can improve the way we relate to each other; to teach very basic skills. How to handle conflict while maintaining someone's dignity."
Young said the top-down approach of diversity programs, for better or worse, leaves the majority—that is, white men—alienated from the company's objective.
"They often run from those programs," Young said. "They feel they've heard that story before and they know what the agenda is. If you approach it this way, you're going to get resistance. Don't identify it as a white male issue, but train that there's a business outcome for respect. Training to be respectful is really basic, but it does prevent some of these problems that are going on."
Young said the training is as basic as instructing managers to greet every single person in the office hallways. Only greeting familiar coworkers often results in other direct reports feeling alienated.
"If it's so easy, then why aren't more people doing it?," Young said. "This is a hard exercise and it has to be taught. At the surface, it does seem easy, but add the challenge of time pressures and it becomes very difficult and you don't know how others perceive you."
The Harvard researchers concluded that many of the procedural initiatives designed to combat racist and sexist behavior, such as jobs tests, performance reviews and grievance systems, often did the opposite.
Jobs tests often result in an employer testing outside job candidates—sometimes minorities—but not internal prospective hires—often white, with whom white hiring managers may already be familiar.
"(A researcher) found that the team paid little attention when white men blew the math test but close attention when women and blacks did," according to the Harvard study. "Because decision makers (deliberately or not) cherry-picked results, the testing amplified bias rather than quashed it."
Jobs tests reduced the number of black male managers by more than 10 percent, black women by more than 9 percent, Hispanic women by nearly 9 percent and Asian women by more than 9 percent, according to the Harvard research.
More than 90 percent of midsized and large companies use performance ratings as a method to prevent bias, but the Harvard study shows five years after implementation it led to no more racial diversity among managers, and actually led to a decrease of 4 percent among white women.
Grievance systems caused a drop in all minority managers except Hispanic men by 2 percent to more than 11 percent. Researchers said this is caused by unfettered managerial bias, because said managers believed the system created fairness, thus relieving them of the personal responsibility.
The most effective diversity program—mentoring—is one of the most difficult to pull off. Mentoring increases the ranks of diverse managers and leads to more diverse subordinates and more tolerant work environments, the Harvard study found.
Mentoring improved the diversity of managers for black women by 18 percent, Hispanic women by nearly 24 percent and Asian women by 24 percent, according to the study.
"Maintaining pipelines needs to be a top priority," Thomas said. "Mentoring initiatives can be very effective when people are earlier in their career or moving into a brand new job. Connecting minorities to people within the organization that help them further their careers moves the needle."
But getting leaders to mentor workers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds is challenging.
"People are naturally more likely to mentor people they identify with," Thomas said. "They say, 'I see in you what I saw in myself at that time in my career.' When I look out, it's easier for me to see myself in a young African American man than a young white female. I instinctively assume that guy wants to be like me, a chip off the old block. But she's likely exhibiting the same behaviors. I should recognize that."
This disparity has become increasingly clear in the #MeToo movement. A survey by women's empowerment nonprofit Lean In in May revealed that 60 percent of male managers were uncomfortable mentoring women due to the rise in public claims of sexual misconduct.
Thomas calls these claims a red herring.
"The MeToo thing is just an excuse they grant for something they weren't going to do anyway," Thomas said. "That's the attempt of privileged men to claim victimization to explain why we haven't been doing this all along."
The Harvard study indicates other successful diversity programs include self-managed teams, minority college recruitment, hiring diversity managers and diversity task forces.
But Thomas warns that diversity programs are slow to change workplace culture and that's the most critical piece of creating a diverse and inclusive workforce.
"When Obama got elected, we decided we were in a post-racial America," Thomas said. "One mistake (companies) make is thinking these programs are going to solve all their problems, all their challenges. They're not."