5 Things You Need (and Don’t Need) to Improve Workplace Diversity

Mar. 19, 2017

DRG staff


In their article, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” sociology professors Frank Dobbin of Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University, suggest that programs aimed at forcing leaders to change their behaviors may actually “activate” bias, rather than reduce it.

They argue that companies get better results of increasing diversity when they abandon the scare tactics and posit the need for diversity in more positive regard.  According to Dobbins and Kalev, effective diversity programs encourage engagement, increase contact with different groups, and promote social accountability for change.

But what lessons can nonprofit leaders learn from these findings?

When it comes to community engagement, making connections, and inspiring others to do good work, mission-driven organizations have an advantage.  However, there are 5 key things that leaders need and don’t need to make diversity programs work.  Here are some of them:

What you don’t need:

  1. Permission. Too often nonprofit leaders are afraid to discuss issues related to diversity and inclusion because they fear that someone may say the wrong thing in the process. But there is no EEOC statute or National Labor Review Board ruling that says an employer cannot elicit constructive conversation about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Avoiding candid conversations and discouraging facilitated dialogue can lead to more difficulty and even harassment claims.  Not simply because a staff person said or did something that could be deemed offensive, but because the organization was not on record of having training or other required workplace harassment prevention policies and procedures in place and well communicated to all staff.
  1. A special “kick-off” training event, an all staff retreat, or an e-mail announcement. Announcing something that ideally should not be an isolated event is counterproductive. It’s almost as if you’re saying, “Now, we will focus on diversity.” This suggests that diversity was never important before. It also suggests that it is something that can be instantly jumpstarted and will need a boost again in another month.
  1. A chief diversity officer who is connected to senior leadership by title only. Having someone with the knowledge, experience and competencies to own the organization’s initiatives can be critical, but if the person is not in a position to help drive change, it may do more harm than good. You may be sending the message that diversity is only as important as the optics.  You don’t need to wait until such a leadership position is either budgeted or recruited to initiate best practices.
  1. A complete performance management system overhaul. Forty percent of respondents in the 2017 Nonprofit Talent Management Priorities Surveyselected restructuring existing performance management systems as a top priority under performance management category.  The researchers in the Harvard Business Review article also point to outdated performance management processes that block progress with increasing diversity because of unconscious bias in performance ratings. Still, you don’t need to wait for a brand new process and performance management tool to give feedback, conduct stay interviews, and find out what motivates your people to give their best. If you take too long to address issues that are undermining your aspiration to build a diverse and inclusive workforce, it can lead to an even bigger problem in the long run.
  1.  Money.  While you may consider needing resources to support your efforts, little things like providing lunch and honoraria for guest speakers go a long way in demonstrating commitment. And you don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars to hire a consultant or contract with an outside resource to get started either. While funding might be a common obstacle for nonprofits of all sizes, it’s best to do what nonprofits always do: be resourceful.

What you need:

  1.  Creativity.  Ensure that all staff training on preventing and reporting workplace harassment or discrimination are engaging and welcoming for constructive dialogue. Leadership should participate and written policies must be well documented and easily communicated. This may counter the above findings about compliance training in corporations inadvertently leading to more bias—but nonprofits have an advantage. Because nonprofits aim to make a difference in the world, leaders can link the organization’s values and mission to diversity and inclusion training. In other words, if organizations connect the required legal training with a purpose far greater than compliance, it can have an impact on their organizational culture.
  1.  Data. Build practices and business operations that help you evaluate the level of staff engagement and appreciation for the organization’s work culture. Do employees report micro-aggressions–small, often unconscious actions that may make another employee feel like they don’t belong? Is turnover a problem in one department more than another? What are the demographic trends in promotions and staff in leadership positions? How is supplier and vendor diversity tracked to ensure community connections are being made? Fold recommendations from the data analysis into existing policies and procedures to create a workplace culture that aligns with the same values that are listed prominently on your web site.
  1. Employee resource groups (ERGs). Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors, reminds us that nonprofits can easily tap the idealistic passions of people seeking the rewards of service. One way to do this is through employee-led groups or ERGs. ERGs provide an internal wellspring of dedicated people who can offer valuable intelligence for organizational development and growth. They can serve as a great recruitment resource and they can enhance new team member onboarding so that new hires are welcomed and affirmed on day one.  ERGs also provide professional development opportunities for staff as they may take on leadership and project management roles.
  1. Coaching. Leaders can support employee development through coaching. Regular “check-ins” shows all employees, especially those in the minority, that they matter. Start by asking key questions and encouraging team members to give regular feedback, not just once a year for the often-dreaded performance review.  Michael Bungay Stanier offers a wonderful antidote with his book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. With practical tools and a coaching structure that includes core questions such as, “What’s on your mind?”, “What do you want?” and “What’s the real challenge here for you?” leaders can effectively make coaching their people a regular practice.
  1. Relationships. Connections can strengthen diversity initiatives. Contact local social justice organizations for regularly scheduled, “lunch-n-learn” events, inquire about their speaker’s bureau, attend public lectures or forums on topics of race, immigration, lesbian, gay, pansexual health and transgender health.  Visit Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and local community colleges. Contact civic associations, veterans groups, chambers of commerce and other associations that serve multiracial, multiethnic communities. Building and sustaining these relationships may help organizations with recruitment and long-term partnerships in the future.

I believe that understanding the things that are necessary and unnecessary to effectively increase diversity can provide nonprofits with a constructive model for implementing what social psychologists recommend as best practices for diversity programs. This can ultimately help leaders create a welcoming and supportive environment for all employees.