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Antiracism and the Future of Diversity Programs

Antiracism and the Future of Diversity Programs

In the midst of ongoing protests across the US, it will come as no surprise to many that forwarding diversity in the workplace has not seen great success. In some sectors, things have slipped from where they were at the turn of the millennium.

With calls for racial justice growing and evidence of progress lacking, what might the future hold?

[Related: Be the Change: A Multi-Part Framework]

Where we stand: The good, the bad, and the non-existent.

The reasons for diversity program failure are multitude. The first and foremost of these is the lack of any program or initiative at all. I recently interviewed folks at several small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs), the sort that Deloitte points out make up 99.7% of U.S. businesses, and almost half of private sector employment.

What I heard in my interviews was, “We don’t have any diversity program here.” The best organizations make concerted efforts around recruiting diverse talent and fully engaging all of their employees. The worst said point-blank, “I can’t be bothered with that,” or “I can’t see where there is a problem with that here.”

Somewhere in the middle was, “We don’t have resources to spare.” How business leaders decide that they cannot spare any resources to invest in something repeatedly tied to innovation and financial success is a mystery to me.

Clearly there is a future in finding an effective budget-friendly solution to this for SMBs (more on this below), as well as a need for more education about the business case for diversity, if nothing else. As consumers make more decisions conscious of a company’s policies and politics, that case may strengthen.

Beyond non-existent, Harvard Business Review and others have called out approaches rooted in practices of the 1960s that simply do not work, and in fact can make things worse. These include required or “remedial” training for employees often embedded in practices that aim to prevent lawsuits more than promote diversity or inclusion, reactionary training when a big incident blows up, and show-off events that gain a lot of attention but have low overall impact.

Lack of resources to do the work (e.g. depending on volunteers to run affinity groups), lack of executive and managerial buy-in (which hampers any kind of organizational change), and choosing diversity leaders who are not prepared to take on the role have also been frequently cited.

Good diversity initiatives - ones with demonstrable gains in diversity - share several traits, according to Dobbins and Kalev. These include making involvement in any “diversity” program voluntary, thereby increasing engagement, encouraging people who are different to pursue a shared goal, and greater transparency in things like performance reviews, promotions, and career progress. In addition, not calling them “diversity programs” created greater buy-in from white males.

[Related: Don't Think Race is an Issue at Your Company? Think Again.]

Where do we go from here?

For all of the money spent on diversity efforts and the rapid growth in a “Diversity and Inclusion” industry, many sectors have proven resistant to any substantial shifts in diversity. So how can organizations do more, especially when they don’t have the budgets to invest in in-house teams?

Here are some future-forward ideas:

1) Consider that maybe you DO have the resources to hire someone to work in-house.

For technical positions, it can cost a company 100-150% of salary to replace just one employee, easily worth a DEI specialist to work in-house, reporting to the C-suite, to create inclusion and engagement strategies that go beyond recruitment.

2) Shift to what I like to call a “Series of Fortunate Events” instead of big, single events.

All-hands meetings with amazing speakers can inspire, for sure, but the impact of learning is lost if it is not engaged and re-engaged. Working with a great local trainer and facilitator to tailor monthly events for your employees can multiply the effect at a better cost.

3) Work on spreading effective, consistent allyship.

Many programs leave it up to the underrepresented and underestimated to band together as ERGs and create change, placing a lot of burden on BIPOC to educate, organize, and advocate. Allyship at work programs can shift that burden and make changing the policies that create inequality everybody’s responsibility.

4) Create contexts for deeper connections.

Studies based in the work of Arthur Aron show that when people develop personal connections with people, their biases start to shift. So, regularly setting aside time to intentionally have deeper conversations (though not necessarily about race or other differences) can have positive impact.

5) Train people in human skills.

At a recent conference put on by Hire Wisdom, a social impact think tank, experts returned several times to the idea of strengthening our humanity in order to strengthen our organizations and help them flourish. Sighted skills included abundance thinking, empathy, mindfulness, play, and partnerism.

Cultivating these skills across the board makes building true inclusion and belonging easier.

[Related: No Matter What You Call Them, Allies Are Important]


Jo Burkholder is a leader for positive change in communities, organizations, and industry. She is experienced in developing and leading programs and projects that span administrative units, diverse social groups, and international borders. She has engaged community partners and promoted creative, sustainable, research-based solutions to problems of diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can find more ideas like these on cultivating diversity and planting change on solid ground at or by contacting the author at

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