“Stop playing diversity.”
That’s been Monica Cox’s refrain all along: before the murder of George Floyd, during the racial justice protests that followed, and right now, as employers contend with layoffs, global uncertainty, and a looming recession.
Too often, organizations rest on the optics of diverse hiring without “recognizing that I require nurturing, support, and resources to be my best self,” Cox, a professor of engineering at Ohio State University, wrote in 2019.
“Hiring diverse people in organizations that previously were not diverse,” she added, “means that someone is going to be uncomfortable.”
It’s been an uncomfortable few years. In the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s murder, companies scrambled to create or better resource departments devoted to fixing internal injustices, turbo-charging a trend already in the works. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of people with the title “head of diversity” more than doubled, while “director of diversity” titles soared 75%, and “chief diversity officer” rose 68% worldwide, according to LinkedIn. Employee resource groups grew and gathered via Zoom and hosted book clubs, offered salsa lessons, and catered Thai and Indian lunches for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Then the tune started to change. A headline in Essence magazine last month declared: “Tech companies are quietly defunding diversity pledges and industry layoffs are hitting black and brown workers hardest—experts say the message is clear.” Indeed, a Harvard Business Review study of more than 800 companies found organizations can lose as much as 22 percent of Black, Hispanic, and Asian men on their management teams when they cut positions, while other research has found that among tech companies, the last-in, first-out method has an outsized effect on white women and Asian men in management.
In light of recent developments, I caught up with Cox last week to ask if she felt Corporate America was still “playing” diversity.
“Everybody I know who is Black got a lot of invitations to apply for positions. But the people in power already had their minds made up about what they wanted and approached diversity with a certain degree of rigidity. They dictated how you are going to do the work,” she says. “I feel like you can tell the efforts were performative. They were promising too much.”
How to make sure gains, even the cosmetic, perfunctory ones, are not lost now? My startup, URL-Media, hosted a luncheon discussing this topic last month. Below, I’ve gathered some of the most important points to emerge from that event, along with ideas from other experts on how to ensure that diversity remains a priority.
Your values are on display in 2023.
Why are diversity gains suddenly falling flat? Daniel Oppong, founder of diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy The Courage Collective, blames “unfulfilled promises, shortsighted strategies and fears of an impending recession.”
“‘Whiplash’ is exactly what happens when organizations espouse DEI values on the outside, but fail to operationalize and prioritize said values on the inside,” he says. “At its best, the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion can yield transformative organizational outcomes, but at its worst, DEI work can devolve into a series of performative platitudes that erode trust and disappear once public pressure subsides.”
So the best way to not lose gains is also the simplest: Don’t deprioritize DEI progress. These efforts still matter even when your fortunes no longer look as strong or there’s less public scrutiny.
MassMutual’s head of DEI, Jackson Davis, says anything less is an admission of diversity as an “ancillary strategy” versus a core business practice. “It is difficult, if not impossible, to build and sustain a diverse workforce without making it a business imperative from the top,” he says. DEI “is a true part of our company’s business imperatives today and looking into the future.”
The best way to show allyship.
One woman at our lunch told the story of a boss who once said to her: “Not only do you have a seat at the table, you have the seat right next to me.”
Think of the difference in what’s being offered. Oftentimes, a proverbial seat at the table comes with the baggage of guesswork: What do I say? What do I do? Do I belong? What if I sound silly? But implicit in that figurative proximity is an invitation to ask for guidance or advice. It’s a way to defuse doubts and impostor syndrome, and also to help someone else feel less alone or tokenized in leadership.
External pressure is sometimes the only thing that works.
One woman at our lunch recounted a company where after decades of fighting for more diversity in hiring, employees of color grew fed up and contacted the Congressional Black Caucus to alert them of transgressions. In so many ways, external pressure is what prompted companies to implement change in the wake of Floyd’s death. Now is no different. Other institutions to approach besides lawmakers: influencers on social media, watchdog organizations, funders who will gauge the diversity of a board or leadership team as a condition of giving money.
To be sure, diversity is just a PR exercise for some companies. They might more overtly shape up if there is increased scrutiny on that front, too.
Just because you are not hiring in 2023 does not mean diversity has no place.
Chances are, if you spent the last few years focused on DEI, then your team looks more diverse than before. Congratulations. The work has just begun.
During an economic downturn, employers often feel their main tool to show commitment to DEI—hiring—has been hindered. They are wrong. Instead, spend the next year training managers, especially mid-level managers, on how to hold inclusive meetings, give thoughtful feedback and reviews, and weave inclusion into every aspect of your business goals.
“Tying DEI to performance incentives is so effective because it creates shared accountability among every person and at every level,” says MassMutual’s Davis. “Much like earnings, sales or other traditional performance levers, we find that DEI needs to be treated as a metric of an individual and company’s success.”
Put another way: Even in an era of scarcity and shrinking budgets—perhaps especially in these times—what is measured is what is valued.