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Want a diverse workplace? Rethink the entire system, including the C-suite

Real change happens when top big decision-makers are targeted, say experts


June 22, 2020
By Cassandra Szklarski/The Canadian Press

Topics
Diversity and inclusion training is more often enlisted to help reform middle-management, even though the company's tone is established higher up. (Mitch/Adobe Stock)

TORONTO — The race-based failings of many of the companies seeking help from diversity and inclusion expert Hamlin Grange are not new.

Neither are the solutions, he notes wryly — many organizations who’ve reached out already have diversity plans, or they’ve completed cultural awareness courses in the past.

So, what’s going wrong?

It’s tempting to say anti-bias training doesn’t work — and many people have, with scrutiny in recent years focusing on the various ways well-meaning programs can miss the mark.

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There certainly have been issues, Grange allows, but he says no program can succeed without its participants acknowledging and addressing deep systemic issues that require sustained effort to change, at all levels of an organization.

“It’s not good enough to bring in unconscious bias training and think you have checked a box and it’s all done,” says Grange, president of the Toronto-based consulting agency DiversiPro.

“Too many organizations do that.”

Questions from leaders

Grange says he’s been flooded with calls for help in recent days as many companies struggle to acknowledge widespread protests over anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and police violence. Questions range from how to craft a message of solidarity to how to fix their own diversity and inclusion problems.

University of Toronto behavioural expert Sonia Kang says recent trends focus on undoing implicit bias, essentially an attempt to teach people how to stop unconscious racist or sexist behaviour. But she says it doesn’t work.

“Companies have invested billions of dollars into implicit bias or unconscious bias training and basically it has zero effect on actual behaviour,” says Kang, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and HR management.

“If anything, it’s a nice conversation-starter because it gets people thinking about this issue but in terms of actual change it doesn’t really get us anywhere.”

One theory is that such training can foster a false sense that your bias has been reduced, says Marie-Helene Budworth, an associate professor in human resource management at York University.

“So, you actually make your decisions more firmly towards your bias and it gives you a bit of moral licensing,” she says, agreeing that some people may even double down on their bias.

“Not always, but it is a possible outcome, and it can happen for two reasons: one is backlash, like a sense of … ‘I’m not biased, I don’t want to be told how to do this, I can do this,’ and there’s a bit of doubling down. And the other one is this false sense of security in your ability to make these decisions.”

Then there is the “lean-in” approach, in which programs teach minorities or women how to navigate the system by speaking up for themselves.

That, too, doesn’t work, because it places the onus of solving oppression on the people being oppressed.

“They might be able to get past one step, or one hurdle, but there’s always one more step, there’s always one more hurdle and you can’t really beat the system if the system’s not changing,” says Kang.

“What we need to do more of is system-level change, thinking about the processes and structures that exist that are biased, and then removing those altogether.”

System-level changes

There are several ways to do this, especially in hiring practices, says Budworth: Anonymize resumes to avoid bias against a name commonly associated with a racialized group. Advertise job openings across a range of channels that target a range of demographics. Use inclusive job criteria, or be aware that certain criteria — such as an MBA — might skew applicants towards a specific group, in this case, white men.

“In every piece within your organization think about the different things that are in place that limit who gets access,” says Budworth.

To a certain degree, many workplaces have actually made big strides in bringing a more diverse staff into the fold, says Kang.

Where they seem to fail is the inclusion part, and this reckoning has played out very publicly on social media as countless workers call out companies, bosses and colleagues for cultural offences.

This is why it’s important for organizations to regularly touch base with employees to know what is and isn’t working, and to remain open to hearing what people need to feel valued, says Kang.

A toxic work environment can’t be fixed by a daylong workshop, nor can it suddenly transform with an influx of diverse hires.

“What happens a lot of times is that it gets brushed off as ‘a few bad apples’ or a series of one-off mistakes, like, ‘Oh, that’s just a problem with hiring,”’ Kang notes.

“But systemic racism is really built on these kinds of one-off mistakes and that’s why when you’re thinking about solutions, you have to think about them at every level.”

Budworth cites the work of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman who helped bring to light a multitude of cognitive faults including the “halo effect,” in which people tend to extend their approval of someone based on one trait or experience with them.

While she thinks training courses can help build bias awareness, Budworth suggests it’s unrealistic to believe someone can be taught to consistently make fair decisions.

“There’s too much potential for all kinds of bias, whether it’s towards diversity or anything else,” says Budworth, echoing Kang’s call to emphasize structural remedies.

Programs also fail when they don’t address unique circumstances of the organization, she adds. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and any strategy should be tailored to the particular needs of the staff involved.

“It’s either run by a consultant who has very little insight into what’s happening within that particular organization, or it’s something put together by a group within the organization who doesn’t necessarily have insight into diversity. So, it’s a hard nut to crack.”

Change from the top down

Budworth says evidence has shown that organizations with leaders who espouse the importance of equity, fairness, inclusivity and diversity enjoy a better culture within their organization.

Yet diversity and inclusion training is more often enlisted to help reform middle-management, even though the company’s tone is established higher up.

She suggests it may be worthwhile for more programs to target the big decision-makers.

“I don’t know that many programs that actually deal with the C-suite, or that are brought in specifically for that group. Which I think, could be a very helpful thing to think about.”

Grange says his approach always aims to enlist all levels of an organization in a co-ordinated mission towards change. His question for clients who ask for help is: “How broad and deep do you want to go?”

“You need to have buy-in from the very top of the organization. And what’s different this time around is that we’re getting buy-in — at least in initial stages — at a very high level,” he says.

“There’s a certain urgency to this. And we’ve seen that urgency in the degree of phone calls and requests that we’ve been getting. And this is good, but will that urgency be the same six months from now? That’s the question.”

In the meantime, many marginalized workers are fed up with longstanding injustices that not only stunt their careers but also devastate them physically, emotionally and psychologically.

Grange says his agency has been inundated with stories from people impacted by racism and intolerance.

“This is exhausting, I’ll tell you that right now. It is exhausting on me personally, it’s exhausting on my associates that are doing this work,” says Grange.

“Organizational leaders need to understand this. This is simply not going to go away. And if they really want to make change, they really need to look deep within their organization and admit that the system — the design of the system, the structure, the policy, the programs we have in place — simply have not worked for a whole lot of people within their organization.”