By: Neil Markee
Editor in Chief-Purchasing Link
Remember when diversity was a simple word without a valence that referred to variety within a group? During the past decade or two, diversity has developed a much more inclusive working definition, become a core institutional goal on campus, and the word has gained a valence. We have judged diversity to be an important and valuable asset for any college or university. When I picked up the July/August issue of the Harvard Business Review, I noted that the lead articles dealt with the problems associated with diversity efforts in the business world and promised solutions. “Most programs don’t work. Here’s what to do about it.” Actually there were three articles,” Why Diversity Programs Fail,” “Designing a Bias-Free Organization, and ”We Just Can’t Handle Diversity.” I focused on the first to see what might be gleaned from what had been learned in the big-time, commercial world that might be useful on campus. The article has two authors. Frank Dobbins is a professor of sociology at Harvard University. Alexandra Kalev is an associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University. All three articles are worth your time to read and your boss might find them thought-provoking as well. More than likely, your library can provide access.
As with many subjects discussed in the pages of this publication, the importance of an issue and what to do about it is tied to a cost-benefit determination and the dollar signs have been huge by higher education standards. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s Morgan Stanley shelled out $54 million—and Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch more than $100 million each—to settle sex discrimination claims. In 2007, Morgan was back at the table, facing a new class action, which cost the company $46 million. In 2013, Bank of America Merrill Lynch settled a race discrimination suit for $160 million. Cases like these brought Merrill’s total 15-year payout to nearly half a billion dollars.” More than likely, that is a big enough hit to the bottom line to guarantee the continued attention of those in the corner offices.
In the national media, when diversity on campus is on the table, the mix of students enrolled is usually the focus, although employees are not ignored. Whereas in the situations discusses in the HBR article, the people are usually all employees, that is not the case in higher education. They probably see our students as our customers, and that seems to be increasingly the case on campus. There was no mention of corporate customers in the article. However, more than likely, business leaders realize that their reputation for diversity and fairness in general can have an effect on their relationship with customers. Although the environments and decision-making processes vary a great deal, in the end both corporate America and academic institutions report to the same sovereign and there is a good bit of commonality here. In corporate America, the success or failure of a diversity effort is dependent on an employee-to-employee process. Both report through a common chain of command up through the board room and eventually to the judicial system. Whereas on campus diversity within the student body is largely the result an employee-to-student, or perspective-student, relationship, the success or failure of the program is frequently publicly judged by the students themselves and there is no formal common senior. Diversity in administrative staff is probably much more closely related to practices in the commercial world. Faculty diversity is a more complex issue. Many of the diversity headlines related to higher education concern the hiring of high-profile faculty. Lately, the lack of political diversity within the faculty has become an issue covered in the national media. I doubt anyone knows where that may go, especially if government gets involved via legislative or judicial action.
Considering the dollars involved, I think it is reasonable to assume that corporate efforts in diversity areas is given a high priority and may well be diligently pursued by sincere managers, but given their experiences with the legal system, it’s probably safe to say that in the recent past, few viewed the results as successful. Progress was spotty, at best. Good results in one area would be offset by a decline in another. The article measures success by the percentages of Hispanics, white women, and black men in management positions at commercial banks, and concludes that most diversity programs had not increase overall diversity. Mandated training programs that may have been designed to reduce legal exposure have proven to be counterproductive in reducing bias and in many cases. “. . . laboratory studies show that this kind of force feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out.” The authors argue that a less heavy-handed voluntary approach that increases personal contact and promotes “social accountability” and is more effective. “That’s why interventions such as targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams and task forces have boosted diversity in business.” Hard-nosed, top-down attempts that provide simple, seemingly clear, guidelines may only help subordinates know what to say if asked. Threats have proven to be ineffective when it comes to getting managers on board with increasing diversity in the work place. Low-pressure, voluntary training, they say, is likely to be more effective—because the people on hand are there because they want to be. I wondered a bit at that assertion, as I suspect many managers would like to be where their boss would like them to be. But whatever the motivation, the process seems to work if at least the appearance of choice is present.
The article suggests that uniform hiring tests designed to screen candidates for employment have proven to be ineffective, apparently because managers who will be held responsible for the performance of their employees want to hire the applicants they feel are most likely to succeed. Although annual performance reviews may help defend against charges of unfairness, they are not effective in promoting diversity, say the authors, as biased managers will find ways around them. The article suggests that grievance procedures that allow employees to contest what they see as biased treatment don’t work very well either and actually may be counterproductive. Many discrimination complaints are met with retaliation that discourages people from raising the issue and managers, seeing the drop-off in claims; tend to view it as evidence of reduced bias.
If none of the above frequently employed approaches seem to work, then what does work? The authors asked, “If these popular solutions backfire, then what can employers do instead to promote diversity?” The authors provided options. “A number of companies have gotten consistently positive results with tactics that don’t focus on control. They apply three basic principles: engage managers in solving the problem, expose them to people from different groups, and encourage social accountability for change.” Engagement here means enlisting managers in the effort to achieve organizational goals. As they become involved in solving the problem, they are likely to become more invested in its success. The sort of contact envisioned here has to do with people working directly together on a routine basis. Teams made up of a diverse group of people are more likely to develop attitudes supporting a diverse workplace down the road. Social Accountability in this case has to do with transparency. Publishing performance ratings and salary increases of disparate groups exposed bias and is likely to lead to reduction in discrimination, they say.
Although measuring performance wasn’t discussed in depth in this article, it was clear that the numbers matter. How many of which disadvantaged group have achieved the level of success defined by the title “manager” seems to be the benchmark. Maybe salary level would serve as well. In any case, it was clear that for diversity to work, program performance must be measured, just as about every other important effort within the organization. Higher education frequently measures racial, ethnic and geographic diversity similarly—by head count. Measuring financial diversity among students, and especially among candidates for staff positions, must require a more sophisticated system. There was no mention of financial diversity in the article, although there has been some serious discussion on campus.
Clearly, the sort of program envisioned by the authors would have direct application among college or university employees and probably some relevance within the student body. But it’s hard to imagine an institution with consistently high marks for student body diversity without a strong commitment to diversity within the administration and faculty. NAEP Members, as business leaders, are among the people on campus who hire staff, evaluate performance, and help make decisions on compensation and promotions. As such, they are part of the institution’s diversity program, just as are managers in the commercial world, and probably would benefit from the same sort of training.
A stated commitment to diversity, the article notes, can have at least one downside for some—most notable its effect on white men—if it appears to mean that the organization is prepared to discriminate against one group in favor of another. Discrimination against one group to make up for past discrimination against another isn’t justice, it’s just more discrimination.
How is diversity training handled on your campus?