Strategically Increasing Diversity vs. “We’re Too White”

One of the many positive effects of #BlackLivesMatter and the broader visibility of police violence against black people in the U.S. is an increased motivation among white people and their organizations to do something.

I recently had yet another conversation with an organizational leader about “doing something,” specifically “increasing our diversity,” which is code for “bringing in more black and brown people.” As usual, when I got curious about why they wanted to increase diversity, there was little clarity around reasons or goals other than a sense that this was a good or right thing to do, especially in light of nationwide racial tension.

I say stop right there.  Any attempt to “do diversity” should always be directly tied to one of two organizational scenarios: (1) solving a pressing problem or (2) taking you from good to great. “Doing diversity” should alleviate existing pain points in meaningful ways that can be measured easily, or using existing metrics.  In this organization’s case, the leadership had no quantitative or anecdotal data to show the mostly White pool of volunteers they wanted to diversify was ineffective with the communities of color they were deployed in.   Attempts to “increase diversity” without organizationally relevant motivation or clear goals runs the following risks:

  1. Not being transparent about efforts to “diversify”. This not only displays a lack of integrity, it can lead to internal confusion, diluted external messaging, and ineffectiveness in reaching the goal.
  2. Harmful disconnect with clients or customers when the organization is Without providing clear information about how “increasing diversity” is helping solve a problem or taking the organization from good to great, the effort will feel like a weak gesture, tokenism, or trendy “flavor of the month” – especially to underrepresented groups.
  3. A chilling effect on the target candidate pool: few quality candidates want to be included in a pool simply because they are “diverse”. Few quality candidates want to be valued primarily for their demographics, nor want to deal with colleagues’ perceptions they’re there only because they occupy the right-looking body, or to check off a box.
  4. Getting cut when resources become scarce. Initiatives that fail to provide valuable results for an organization receive neither long term support nor organizational priority, and rightfully so.

In truth, sometimes “increasing diversity” isn’t a value add; sometimes it’s not even feasible.  In the case of the organization I was speaking with, they wanted to increase the number of people of color in their volunteer pool in a city that’s 75% White, and in a target market that’s overwhelmingly White and of economic means.  By definition, volunteers are typically people who have time on their hands and don’t need to work much for pay: older middle-to upper-class White folks.  Trying to “increase diversity” of the volunteer pool in any significant way seems improbable, even if it were supported by clear organizational priorities.

Lack of diversity isn’t necessarily a death sentence.  It’s true that teams with at least one member of a target market can be up to 158% more successful in innovating for that market than teams without.  Representation does matter; humans have evolved to be much more aware of the needs, thoughts, values, and feelings of our own group than others’.   However, not having representation doesn’t always spell doom, depending on the goal.  Awareness can be built, knowledge attained, and communication skills developed.  If an organization wants to “increase diversity” due to  complaints from customers or clients of color about White employees’ inappropriate behaviors, or the organization is losing dollars or valuable market share because they aren’t connecting with underrepresented communities, “increasing diversity” will likely yield meaningful results.  Building awareness, knowledge and skills in existing personnel without “increasing diversity” will take more time and effort, but may also yield meaningful results.  Increasing diversity and developing the skills of existing personnel not only increases the likelihood of success using diverse strategies, it doubles the possible return on investment!

The point is that “increasing diversity” is a strategy.  Ideally it‘s one means to an end goal critical to an organization’s success.  Without clarity about the end goal, not only is your diversity effort going to be minimally effective (or even a resource drain), lack of success in that one strategy will halt all movement and creative thought towards realizing a meaningful goal, since the means (strategy) was confused with the end (goal).  Also, we now know that “increasing diversity” gets minimal results – even causes more problems – if your organization doesn’t have an inclusive environment where differences are leveraged and managed well through effective communication and leadership.

Ultimately, the leader I was speaking to recognized that the organization’s impetus for “increasing diversity” was driven by a belief that “we’re too White.”   Discomfort with one’s Whiteness can be an important catalyst to getting curious about diversity, equity and inclusiveness, but increasing demographic diversity to alleviate that discomfort won’t lead to meaningful change.  It’s a valuable starting point, but unless the questions that follow are “why?” and “what will we gain if we do, or lose if we don’t?”, the only thing that “increasing diversity” will fix is White guilt, until the next time it pops up again.

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