the 5 stages of diversity program defensiveness

The 5 Stages of Diversity Program Defensiveness

We’ve seen this go down a few times now – at organizations where we’ve worked and in our clients’ organizations. When a company takes that first D&I step to establish hiring goals….things can get complicated pretty fast.

Here’s how it typically goes down: Company X conducts internal research that gives data to the hunch they’ve always had – namely, that they are predominately White and male. Armed with this data, Company X takes the necessary first step – deciding to do better and committing to diversity goals within their workforce.

How those goals are decided can vary, and it is almost always imperfect. But this is truly a huge step for Company X, and deserves recognition – the important thing is that someone within the organization decided to draw a line in the sand and start somewhere. Far too many companies wait for their workforces to diversify “organically”, and that’s like waiting for the Kardashian family to not be a problem – never gonna happen.

So now that Company X has created this initiative, it is time to get key leadership and hiring managers on board.  This is where things can start to break down.  Without the right framing, education and context there can be hackles raised right from the beginning.  In our experience, many folks on the front lines of these conversations think that they are being accused of heretofore being “non-diverse”.  Naturally, when these managers hear this hidden accusation they get defensive.

And that, my friends, is how we come to the 5 Stages of Diversity Program Defensiveness. They don’t always play out in this order, but they play out every time – often all in the same meeting. (seriously, take this list to your next “new diversity initiative meeting” and keep score).

1. What are we supposed to do, fire everyone???

Almost inevitably this is the first thing said. And we get it. You are talking to managers who have had to beg, borrow and steal for every personnel budget scrap they could all year long but now they are being told they need to bring on xx% more people? Into what jobs? Where will they sit? When a company doesn’t frame these goals properly and instead issues a mandate – most managers go directly to the logistics. And the logistics don’t always make sense on the surface. But why do we immediately jump to firing people? No one said anything about firing people. This is often the product of deep seated issues with the idea of ownership and who owns what in the US (think: “our” jobs are being taken by Mexico, etc).
For managers, we invite you to resist this immediate reaction and consider embracing the flip side, how can you create more jobs? If corporate is invested in this initiative, does it mean they will allow for more net new hires? Think of those growth initiatives you’ve wanted to tackle and what you could do to further your own career with additional team members, especially ones that come to the table with new and different perspectives.
For organizations, we ask you to reframe these goals and consider the context in which you share them. Rolling them out at a general leadership meeting that is ROI, numbers and strategy focused might not be the right tactic – consider a meeting dedicated to this discussion.

2. I’ve TRIED, no women/LGBT/people of color applied!

Often, managers in a company have been aware and considering diversity long before the company issues this “official plan”. And they deserve credit for trying new recruitment strategies,especially when they’ve been trying things on their own without the support of the overall organization. To commit to diverse hiring takes a lot of effort, on many different fronts -there is no single strategy that will achieve the company’s goals. Which is to say, as managers we can’t throw our hands up when one job posting in a Black publication doesn’t yield the perfect candidate. Our organizations need to come to the table with a diversified (right??) approach to diversity. Understanding how some communities, cultures or identities approach job hunting is a good place to start (and remember, not everyone who shares an identity does things one way). Evaluate your recruitment materials for implicit biases. Evaluate your processes – consider the value of new perspectives to your company and whether they outweigh your strict “no telecommuting” policy (for example). When you lose out on diverse candidates ask them why they opted to go elsewhere, and take that information and use it. And, maybe most importantly, be mindful of tokenism. No one wants to be the one “diversity hire” in an organization. If your organization isn’t as committed to inclusion as it is to diversity, bigger problems await.

3. Well, someone should define “diversity” – Ted is left handed, doesn’t that count as diverse?

No. No it does not. Diversity literally means “a point of difference”, so maybe left-handedness does count by the letter of the law. But we have to be willing to be candid in these conversations and draw hard lines. A D&I practitioner once commented on her company and how they were approaching their diversity goals, saying that they had an “explicit but not exclusive” focus on race, gender & sexual orientation. Because we have to start somewhere and we have to declare something. We find that there is power in naming these goals and being specific – too often we see conversations unfold where the word “diverse” is used in place of someone’s marginalized identity (Black, female, gay, etc).
It is our hope that organizations will work to define what the generic term “diversity” means to the company, and invite the leadership teams to connect that to what it means for them. We have to be invested in these goals, which means we have to be specific and clear in what we are talking about when we talk about diversity.

4. No matter what, we need to hire the best people for the job

Okay this one makes us cringe every time. It probably gets said the most often of anything on this list and it could be the most problematic.
In our experience, this phrase ONLY comes up when we are talking about diverse hiring. We don’t often hear hiring managers and recruiters say this before any old job search. It’s not a mantra they look into the mirror and repeat to get themselves pumped up before each interview. This phrase is used specifically when talking about the priority hiring employees who are Black/Brown, women & LGBT+ identities. And the insinuation is that the individuals who hold these identities will not be qualified for the job. That there will be some unnamed compromise of quality made that is unacceptable. And that we are preemptively excusing ourselves when we ultimately end up hiring a White person.
I have twice had a recruiter say to me (when asked about how they source candidates of color) that they don’t care if people are Black, blue or purple, they want to find the best person for the job. There are no blue or purple people (another blog post on that later), so we are left with “I don’t care if the candidates are Black, I want to find the best person for the job”. This type of “colorblind” hiring only ensures that we make no progress in our diversity efforts and we have no cause for discomfort.

Managers – challenge yourselves to reconsider what “best for the job” means. Challenge yourselves to rethink your roles and qualifications. And companies – offer the resources to shift this type of thinking. Find ways to rewrite what these narratives are for your company. Reward your managers when they lean into the discomfort… remember that if you are White and comfortable with this conversation, you are probably having the wrong conversation.

5. Well what do you want ME to do???

Typically, this one falls towards the end of the conversation or meeting. After feeling accused of being a racist, told to figure it out when it comes to new recruiting avenues and left with hard numbers to hit, most managers throw their hands up. At least this is the most honest and authentic reaction, even if it comes across as defensive. They. Don’t. Know. What. To. Do.
Once again, organizations must bring their managers into the diversity conversation earlier, empower them to come up with solutions and give them tools to educate themselves and feel successful.

In fact, I challenge every organization to come to these conversations with an answer to this question, for whoever is represented in the room: What do you want ME to do?

Be specific, be candid, be inspiring, and then help me help you.

Have you heard these common reactions, or even said some of these things yourself? Nova can help frame your diversity initiative, provide education and context to your leadership and work with your managers to set them up for success.

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