A Review of
Why Diversity Programs Fail
Traditional corporate diversity programs are largely ineffective. Are there more successful tools to enhance workplace diversity?
Traditional corporate programs such as diversity training, hiring tests, and performance ratings are largely ineffective while strategies such as engagement, on-the-job contact, social accountability, and mentorship are successful in enhancing diversity in the workplace.
Corporations around the world have recognized the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workforce. A diverse workforce not only strengthens productivity, creativity, employee engagement, and profits, but also helps maintain company reputation. In this article, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev examine why traditional diversity programs are not successful in increasing equality and diversity in the workplace. Most organizations use archaic strategies to enhance diversity that instead increase bias and stifle diversity. Diversity training, though usually mandatory, rarely leads to longstanding improvements in workplace culture, and is instead met with resistance from employees. Hiring tests and performance ratings, other popular tools, often contrarily escalate bias in hiring and assessment practices. Similarly, grievance-reporting systems not only are rarely used by employees to report discrimination, but underreporting is not an indicator of an inclusive work environment.
Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev are professors of sociology at Harvard University and Tel Aviv University, respectively. Dobbin studies topics including organizations, inequality, economic behavior, and public policy. Kalev’s work focuses on gender, racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace, as well as organizational restructuring. Dobbin and Kalev collaborated on developing an evidence-based approach to diversity management that has been published in The New York Times, CNN, and National Public Radio, among other platforms.
Methods and Findings
The authors investigated data across three decades from over 800 organizations in the United States and conducted interviews with line managers and executives. Dobbin and Kalev found that control-and-command policies (e.g., regulations) to prevent lawsuits and enhance diversity are largely ineffective and activate bias. Instead of policing employee and manager behavior, institutions should empower employees and managers to participate in building company culture through increasing contact among diverse groups (e.g., targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs), positive messaging around inclusiveness (e.g., seeking employees help in identifying promising employees), and encouraging social accountability in making the workplace more diverse and inclusive (e.g., corporate diversity task forces).
Tactics that aim to control behavior rarely, if ever, enhance diversity. Institutions should instead focus on efforts that engage employees and managers through participation in college recruitment programs or mentoring programs. Involvement in these types of initiatives allow managers to see themselves as diversity champions and participate in being accountable to define workplace culture. Interaction and collaboration with individuals from different groups through cross-training or self-managed teams also yields positive results in reducing stereotypes or microaggressions. Finally, social accountability strategies such as participation on diversity task forces and hiring diversity managers ensure employees are committed to building an inclusive environment, while appealing to people who otherwise would not be interested in diversity projects.
The authors report that traditional diversity practices have failed to ameliorate inequities in the workplace. Implementation of outdated strategies have made little to no progress for Black men and white women in leadership, despite both groups making gains in educational attainment. An emphasis on building workplace diversity is pivotal to modify the larger society. Building a workplace that allows different groups to interact and collaborate normalizes diversity in the workplace, and enables institutions to move beyond equality and focus on building equity.
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