A diverse workforce is desirable for many reasons: it can promote innovation and creativity, help companies stay competitive, attract and retain talent, and even improve their financial performance. Many companies want to increase their diversity, and to facilitate these efforts, a common first step is to form a diversity committee. These committees are tasked with designing and implementing initiatives aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion within the company, including training, events, and so on.
However well-intentioned these committees are, they aren’t always effective at actually making companies more diverse. According to results from a Mercer survey, 85 percent of respondents in executive leadership roles self-identified as white, identifying a promotion gap. This is just one indication that many corporate diversity efforts come up short.
A company’s lack of diversity is usually due to several factors—some of them huge, society-wide issues like poverty and systemic racism. In most cases, it’s not just the diversity committee’s fault. However, these groups can become dysfunctional and ineffective if you aren’t careful.
Here are a few problems you should avoid, to ensure your diversity committee is empowered to make a real difference within your organization.
Lack of Diversity
It should be obvious that a committee tasked with improving diversity should be diverse itself. The group should include members with different ethnicities, backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences.
When creating your committee, remember that diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity. Diversity also includes age, gender, LGBTQ status, socioeconomic background, country of birth, disability, education, and other aspects of a person’s identity. It’s also a good idea to include people from a variety of different departments or job functions—a diversity committee shouldn’t only include HR staff. Different levels of seniority, from junior employees to upper management, should also be represented.
On the flipside, it’s quite common for companies to automatically assume that their non-white employees always want to serve on diversity committees, or that a diversity committee should only include people from diverse groups. This is a big mistake. A BBC report last summer documented how many companies disproportionately place the burden of new diversity initiatives on their non-white employees. While management may believe they are being inclusive, in reality, they’re expecting these employees to shoulder an additional workload they may have no interest in taking on, especially when they’re not being compensated for the extra time and stress.
That’s why it’s so important for companies to avoid assuming that diversity is only the responsibility or concern of non-white employees. All employees, no matter their race or ethnic background, have a stake in diversity, because everyone benefits from a diverse workplace.
Lack of Buy-In from Leadership
A diversity committee can create all the recommendations and new policies it wants, but if there’s no buy-in from the CEO or C-Suite, the committee’s work will stall. Executive leaders have the power to actually implement and give power to a diversity committee’s recommendations. They set the cultural tone for the entire organization as well.
Most studies show that diverse companies have CEOs who are at the forefront of championing diversity. Companies whose top leadership shows little or no concern for inclusivity will have a difficult time making the changes needed to become truly diverse and inclusive. They tend to stall out at superficial initiatives.
Metrics are important to diversity committees and broader corporate diversity initiatives, because you can’t improve what you don’t measure. If you don’t have a way to quantify the diversity of your organization, how will you know if your diversity initiatives succeed at making your organization more diverse? Everyone in the business world is comfortable with using metrics and KPIs to track performance, and this same mindset must be applied to diversity and inclusion efforts.
Of course, diversity is a broader concept than discrete figures like EBITDA, net profit margin, and so on. There are several metrics organizations can use to quantify and monitor their progress on diversity, depending on exactly what they what to measure. For example, you might monitor the percentage of women or people of color in management positions, or the percentage of employees who report in surveys that they feel respected, valued, and included in the workplace.
Overly Narrow Focus
Diversity committees often design and implement diversity awareness trainings. These trainings can be great starting points to spark a conversation around diversity and inclusion within your organization. In addition, they can get people on the same page and promote a basic level of common understanding about the importance of diversity.
However, diversity trainings have limited impact on their own. They should be seen as a first step to lay the groundwork prior to more significant efforts.
Similarly, diversity efforts often focus on hiring and intake, while forgetting about employee retention, professional development, and advancement—in other words, culture. However, these are equally important in creating a truly inclusive workplace. It’s not just about getting bodies in the door; ideally, all employees should feel valued and respected, and able to advance in the company if they choose.