Why diversity initiatives fail

Businessman - loser shooting arrow
Share this content

Many laudable attempts to make our workplaces more inclusive end up having the opposite effect – and it’s worth understanding why and how they fail.

Diversity is a reality; it’s not just groups of people as the census might have us believe. It’s also infinite; no two people are the same.

But inclusion is a choice. And it’s a choice that many people consciously and unconsciously reject.

It’s a failure to understand this simple framing that lies at the heart of the problem. It’s a failure to fully appreciate the extent and patterns of tribal human nature that leads us to proceed with initiatives and programmes that plaster over the real divides that hold us back.

The failure of Diversity 101 and 2.0 programmes

Many organisations embark on Diversity 101 initiatives that are essentially compliance driven. An organisation focuses on representation because it has to. This is not necessarily a bad thing – role models and visibility are incredibly important – but too many executives believe this is an end in itself.

Look at immigration. Without integration and education for immigrants and existing citizens, it can become a source of tension, even though immigration is, economically and in other ways too, a positive phenomenon. Men often feel threatened by a focus on female promotions as they believe they are going to lose out in a zero sum game.

Further focus on 101 programmes, whilst intended to benefit a minority group, can often end up harming them because the dominant group feels threatened and rejects the initiative.

Many more organisations embark on Diversity 2.0 initiatives that are essentially marketing driven. Designed to make an organisation look good, they can be worthwhile. But they are often a false representation of reality.

The rabbit hole of minority programmes and schemes is distracting us from the real majority cultural problem.

Look at annual reports. They are full of diverse images. Listen to the CEO’s speech. It’s full of diversity references. But too often the images are stock footage and the CEO is reading a pre-prepared script.

The problem with Diversity 101 and 2.0 programmes is that they are about somebody else. It’s about helping some other group because you want to, or you have to. It’s absolutely not about changing your own behaviour to include people who happen to be different from you.

In other words, we are focusing too much on the wrong thing. We are obsessed about organ transplants when the body keeps rejecting them. We are focusing on foreign aid when the terms of trade are stacked against the recipient country.

Most initiatives fail because we treat the symptom, not the underlying cause

Brilliant people instinctively try to ‘fix’ problems. To address senior female under-representation, for example, executives often focus on ‘getting’ more women. The fix is often designed by men, or by women operating in male-dominated environments, and often concerns training women to succeed within that male-dominated environment. So their idea of leadership is often male – and this doesn’t do much for diversity.

The fix involves courses, programmes, initiatives, events, panel discussions, coaching, mentoring. These can all be helpful, and have a place. But the real problem isn’t so much the women (if they are allowed to be their unique diverse selves), it’s the male-dominated system. The rabbit hole of minority programmes and schemes is distracting us from the real majority cultural problem.

In other words, it’s inclusion that drives diversity, not the other way round. It’s culture that determines the diversity numbers. You can’t fix culture, you have to build it.

Most companies make the mistake of over reliance on the talent supply side. Yes, the supply of talent is critical for a business and, yes, there are minority shortages in STEM subjects.  But it’s the demand side that can make or break how the supply of talent is included.

At London 2012, one breakthrough moment came when changing the interview location from the corporate Canary Wharf office to Mile End Community Centre. By changing the system, not the candidate, we had a far better effect on the demand side and the behaviour and self-awareness of our recruiters. We achieved a step change in diverse recruitment.

Are you really trying to improve diversity?

Companies can say they want diversity, but the real test is in whether this is a fix or a strategic cultural priority. Do they walk the talk? If they say they do, but their business model is still resistant to flexible working, do they really? If they say they do, but all the female promotions are extroverted characters that better fit in with the men, then do they really?

At Investec, Astra Zeneca and BAE Systems, all male-dominated organisations, we have recently conducted inclusive leadership programmes with largely male teams. The purpose of this is to hold up the mirror (to the men in particular) and re-frame diversity as a leadership issue (for them personally).

By taking them on a journey over a period of weeks we can avoid the usual failing of ‘diversity training’ and instead focus on repeated behaviours that sink in over the course of the programme. People internalise diversity as a good thing in their own self-interest and are far more receptive to seeking it out as a result.

If you really want inclusion to succeed focus on yourself before you try and fix anyone else.

But training alone doesn’t work. Up to 97% of our behaviour is unconscious – to tackle the majority of our actual behaviour, we need nudges.

We deploy nudges throughout HR processes and systems. We analyse a system (let’s say recruitment) and we identify the gaps and biases in it. Then we prioritise which ones to intervene in, and de-bias them by implementing process changes (nudges).

Recent examples include presenting anonymised CVs side by side, implementing mixed panels, and recruiting and assessing groups of individuals at the same time, not individuals one by one.

As Bob Diamond said, “culture is what happens when no one thinks they are being watched”. You can’t apply a technical fix to a cultural problem and expect to solve the problem. If you really want inclusion to succeed focus on yourself before you try and fix anyone else.


About Stephen Frost

Stephen Frost - Diversity and Inclusion Expert

Stephen Frost specialises in working with organisations to embed inclusive leadership into their decision-making. His roles have included working as Head of Diversity and Inclusion for KPMG and the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, as well as serving as an advisor to the British Government and The White House.

Between 2004 and 2007, Stephen established and led the workplace team at Stonewall; growing the Diversity Champions programme to the largest of its kind in the world and launching the UK’s first LGBT recruitment guide. The Workplace Equality Index from this project has now become a standard across most leading employers.

Today, as well as leading Frost Included, Stephen teaches inclusive leadership at Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University and Sciences Po in France.


Please login or register to join the discussion.

24th Oct 2017 20:32

Great analogies in this, Stephen! Thanks for sharing. It's one thing to tout diversity and inclusion in a public speech, but it's another to have express tactics and programs in place to back up these claims. No one is truly objective. Implicit biases are infiltrating our brains (and hiring decisions) all the time, whether we like it or not! The best way to take action is to collaborate and use HR tech (source: http://recruit.ee/bl-gender-bias-eb-bh), reducing the probability that these biases will sneak in and influence your hires. And, yes, this can mean that you are biased toward diverse candidates, even - in order to fill some sort of "quota". Hire the best fit! Thanks for starting this conversation AND backing it up :)

Thanks (0)