Diversity and inclusion initiatives: What evidence warns us doesn’t work

Despite the extensively evidenced benefits of increased diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the effectiveness of most initiatives aimed at making improvements in these areas is mixed. This article highlights three aspects to be aware of when planning your next diversity and inclusion initiative.

Despite the extensively evidenced benefits of increased diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the effectiveness of most initiatives aimed at making improvements in these areas is mixed.

Some simply fail to deliver the benefits intended. Others produce temporary improvements that can’t be maintained. And some, unfortunately, result in unintended and negative consequences ranging from ambivalence and fatigue to resistance and even anger.[1,2,3] 

In this article, I have highlighted three aspects to be aware of when planning your next initiative as they can inadvertently undermine efforts in this space. 

Don’t lump diversity and inclusion together

It’s increasingly recognised that diverse working environments are not automatically inclusive.

And just because a culture is inclusive, doesn’t mean it’s diverse.

However, new initiatives still tend to lump these two concepts together, assuming that by making improvements in one area, the other will naturally also improve.

An example of this is when organisations adopt a strategy of hiring people from underrepresented groups in an attempt to improve the diversity of their workforce. However, they do not also invest time and energy in ensuring that those hires feel like they belong (aka the inclusion part of the puzzle). These sorts of efforts can quickly backfire, and are frequently criticised as being “tokenistic”.[3]

Instead, it’s important to acknowledge, understand, and address each concept as distinct but interrelated in order to successfully make progress. 

Command and control does not work

An article by the Harvard Business Review highlighted that many firms have made diversity and inclusion training mandatory, with leaders in management positions taking the hard line that if you don’t take part, then you are not taking the subject seriously and should leave. The same article, which examined 830 mandatory diversity training programs, highlighted that “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.”[3]

Making training compulsory is a command and control approach; however, research in the field of social science shows that imposing rules to encourage specific behaviours or working practices is not a successful strategy.[3,4] The reason for this is not so much about people’s attitudes towards race or gender, but instead about their  sense of autonomy and the choices they make about being challenged.[5,6]

At best, adopting a compulsory or mandatory stance to training will only achieve a surface-level compliance and, at worst, can lead to active resistance as it threatens people’s sense of autonomy. Instead, offering training where attendance is voluntary leads to people to choose to be there and therefore are more likely to voluntarily adopt different behaviours moving forwards. 

"People often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance —and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward."

Blame and shame won’t help

People don’t get on board with agendas that they have been blamed and shamed into.[4] Instead, you’re much more likely to create defensiveness and resentment.

In the book Inclusion Uncomplicated, author Dr. Nika White encourages being okay with mistakes, saying ‘We’re all going to make mistakes. This is part of the mindset of someone who really cares deeply about seeing everyone brought into agreement and community around this work—our goals should not be to guilt, shame, or blame but to teach, to add clarity, and to bring people along. We can’t do that if we’re attacking people.’[4]

"Our goals should not be to guilt, shame, or blame but to teach, to add clarity, and to bring people along. We can’t do that if we’re attacking people."

References

  1. Leslie, L. Diversity initiative effectiveness: a typological theory of unintended consequences. Academy of Management Review, 2019, Vol. 44, No. 3.
  2. Washington, E. & Patrick, C. 3 Requirements for a Diverse and Inclusive Culture. Gallup, September 17, 2018
  3. Waldon, V. Diversity fatigue: What it is and why it matters. Employers Council , 2023
  4. White, N, 2022. Inclusion Uncomplicated. Charleston, South Carolina: Forbes Books.
  5. Dobbin, F. & Kalev, K. Why diversity programs fail. HBR July-August 2016
  6. Rock, D., Ph.D. (2017) Is Your Company’s Diversity Training Making You More Biased? https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/your-brain-at-work/201706/is-your-companys-diversity-training-making-you-more-biased.
  7. Jacob, K., Unerman, S., & Edwards, M. 2020. Belonging: the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

About the author

Rebecca Bridger
Rebecca Bridger

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