What Does 40 Years of DEI Have to Show for Itself?

ViewHR Team
October 01, 2021
people in the office

Although interest in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives has never been stronger in the corporate world, what evidence is there that it's having the impact we all want? Not much, suggests Prof. Jonathan Haidt, NYU social psychologist and co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind. (The following comments by Haidt have been adapted from a recent roundtable conversation.)

“Decade after decade, the problem doesn't get better and the solution gets more costly. Vast amounts of time and money are wasted on solutions that do not work. Speaking as a social psychologist, a field where issues of diversity, prejudice and stereotyping have been among the largest topics of research in the field since the 1980s, 40 years later we have very little to show for it,” said Haidt.

Whenever people from different backgrounds interact, they don't all use the same words or start with the same shared values––so, of course, workplaces must grapple with issues of fairness, offense, and misunderstanding. We all want to minimize these problems. Most importantly, we want everyone to feel they belong. The question is: What is the best way to accomplish that?

Although DEI initiatives have been the go-to solution for forty years, Haidt raises concern that they are not working as intended.

"Here we are 40 years later and [diversity training] has essentially nothing to show for it... If you’re spending money on training, you’re wasting not just money but a lot of people’s time. Try something different," said Haidt.

Why diversity programs fail

In their article in the Harvard Business Review called “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev explain why so many diversity programs fail:

"It shouldn’t be surprising that most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity. Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s—which often make things worse, not better. Firms have long relied on diversity training to reduce bias on the job, hiring tests and performance ratings to limit it in recruitment and promotions, and grievance systems to give employees a way to challenge managers. Those tools are designed to preempt lawsuits by policing managers’ thoughts and actions. Yet laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out. As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person."

Businesses should take an evidence-based approach

Businesses are often very effective when it comes to testing new ideas and collecting feedback. Data is collected on solutions that work and those that do not. Those that do not produce positive results are rightly discarded.

Yet, when it comes to DEI, businesses have often thrown money away aimlessly without any demonstrated ROI on improved team morale or productivity. That needs to change.

Running a business is tough. From competitive pressure to legal compliance to earning enough revenue to stay afloat, businesses face a myriad of challenges. Understandably, many business leaders go to great lengths to avoid lawsuits and bad publicity. That may include embracing DEI initiatives—even if they are rightly doubtful of efficacy—to preempt discrimination lawsuits and bad publicity. Perhaps this is why many companies spend 2-3% of their overall budgets on diversity programs, despite evidence they are not working.

Polarization can lead to echo chambers and reduces diversity of thought

Since the late 1990s, American society has become more polarized. As people on the Left and the Right have grown further apart, institutions have been pulled in opposite directions, often favoring one side over the other. While a perfect balance isn’t required, building a culture that welcomes a diversity of perspectives helps to ensure that there are people around to criticize a wide range of ideas. The absence of this criticism can lead to lazy and conformist thinking.

Advice for companies

The most important thing is to put things on an empirical basis, according to Haidt at a recent roundtable event.

Do not hire consultants that can't show evidence they are taking a different approach, with principles work.

Likewise, make sure that DEI initiatives are empirical, not ideological. Ideological approaches don't look for results or feedback. That lack of feedback can lead to a pattern of implementing trainings that don't work, decade after decade.

Emphasize procedural fairness. It's important in any organization that people feel processes are fair. These procedures include:

  • An opportunity for a fair hearing
  • An opportunity to state their case
  • Assurance that the processes that decide things are not biased

Leading researchers on this topic, such as Professor Tom Tyler of Yale Law School, have shown that when people perceive procedural fairness, they're much more willing to go along even if the policy goes against them.

Companies should really focus on the perception of procedural fairness. Don't sacrifice that for anything. If you break that in pursuit of what you think is equity, you're going to have a lot of people thinking it's unfair and not just whites or blacks, but everyone.

Whatever diversity training your company provides should be voluntary, because mandatory training often evokes hostility, according to Dobbin and Kalev. This is especially true if a mandatory training takes a lot of time, with some even requiring ten or more hours from employees over multiple sessions.

Consider a positive alternative like ViewHR

Where other training often creates more hostility by focusing heavily on traits people can't change, like race, ViewHR instead brings a constructive approach that focuses on the habits of treating individuals with respect and charity, as well as common humanity.

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