Getting Diversity Right: The Missing Ingredient

–Co-Authored with Joe Kwon

“He said, she said”

Today, diversity is a required dish on the menu of any self-respecting global company. But there’s a problem. While diversity initiatives may look beautiful to shareholders, clients, and the press, it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many employees and that’s a real problem for companies. Joe Kwon wondered how the ways our brains are wired could impact different responses to diversity.  Joe and I had recently met at the No Longer Virtual Conference and caught up with each other a few weeks later. What follows is a conversation where we explore this diversity dilemma and look for the missing ingredient that will bring the full benefits of diversity to all employees.

Joe Kwon: 

Melissa, diversity is a hot topic for companies, but I get the sense that some people feel that it is just another flavor of the day. I’ve also heard various criticisms of diversity initiatives as unfair, ineffective, or a waste of time and money. It feels like there are two diametrically opposed camps here. Allow me to embarrass myself for a moment – it’s like the Twilight series. You’re either Team Edward or Team Jacob. Why do you think people see diversity so differently?

Melissa Hughes:

What an interesting paradox, Joe! I guess we should start with a definition of diversity that everyone agrees upon. There was a time that diversity meant leveling the number of non-white men in a company. It’s evolved to include more than race and gender. Ethnicity, talent, age, even global mindsets are part of the conversation now. So, let me start with a question back to you: Who is criticizing diversity initiatives and what is the basis for the criticism? Do you think the criticisms are based upon the idea that discrimination isn’t really a problem or that diversity programs just tip the scales in the opposite direction rather than leveling them?

Joe Kwon: 

There are so many dynamics going on it’s probably all of what you said and more. I recently had an illuminating conversation with an acquaintance who is a white male. He shared that he felt diversity networks were excluding people like him. As a minority and an active supporter of such networks, I’m not in the best position to see his perspective so I asked for details. He had experienced this feeling at various companies, so this was not a company-specific problem. He felt that he was not treated in a way that encouraged him to be involved and viewed the corporate support as a check-the-box exercise. I asked what could be done differently to make him feel more included. He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t have any suggestions and that the whole thing was just broken. This was a wake-up call for me. If people feel this way, we can’t expect them to help. Why might this be someone’s reaction?

Melissa Hughes:

I think you’ve stumbled across something that is far more common than many realize. I did a little digging and found some research that surprised me. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that members of high-status groups are, in fact, threatened by pro-diversity messages. They set up a hiring simulation for an entry-level job at a fictional technology firm. The “applicants” were all white males. Half of them received recruitment materials that mentioned pro-diversity values. The other half received materials that did not mention diversity. In all other ways, the firm was described identically. All of the applicants then underwent a standardized job interview while the researchers measured their cardiovascular stress responses.

The findings were fascinating. The white men interviewing for the “pro-diversity company” expected more unfair treatment than minorities and were more stressed during the interview than those interviewing for the company that did not mention diversity.

These white men perceived the pro-diversity values as such a threat, they demonstrated physiological stress responses.  Not only did the men interviewing at the pro-diversity company believe that women and minorities are being treated fairly — whether that’s true or not — they also believed they themselves are being treated unfairly.

It’s important to note that they experienced these effects regardless of political ideology, attitudes toward minorities, or beliefs about discrimination in general. It feels like a case of “diversity is good as long as it doesn’t affect me.” Given that, how do we address these negative responses to diversity with those who actually endorse the tenets of inclusion?