Fairness in diversity programs: Know how to avoid a backlash

February 14, 2016 - by: Tammy Binford 0 COMMENTS

Employers and academics alike have long touted the value of diversity in the workplace. But diversity efforts also have detractorsa fact born out in December when criticism was heaped on the CEO of Sam’s Club after she spoke out about her commitment to building her own diverse leadership team and encouraging the same from her company’s suppliers.  Team Diversity

Diversity backlash

Rosalind Brewer is the first African American and the first woman to hold the top post in a division of Wal-Mart. The controversy stemming from her comments during an interview with CNN brought out an often overlooked fact: When it comes to workplace diversity efforts not everyone is on board, and the critics are eager to speak loudly on social media and elsewhere.

During the interview Brewer pointed to the diversity of her top team, which includes men and women of different races. She also noted her wider commitment to diversity. “Every now and then you have to nudge your partners,” she said. “You have to speak up and speak out. And I try to use my platform for that. I try to set an example.”

Her comments triggered accusations of discrimination against non-minorities and calls on social media to boycott Sam’s Club. A few days after the interview, Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., released a statement supporting Brewer.

“For years, we’ve asked our suppliers to prioritize the talent and diversity of their sales teams calling on our company,” McMillon said. “Roz was simply trying to reiterate that we believe diverse and inclusive teams make for a stronger business. That’s all there is to it and I support that important ideal.”

Sometimes it’s not just outsiders reacting to an employer’s diversity efforts. Sometimes a company’s employees will voice displeasure, too. If the employees on the inside see an employer’s policies as discriminatory, the backlash can chip away at the benefits a diversity program is designed to create.

Defending diversity

So how should employers respond to complaints that diversity programs are unfair to non-minority employees and applicants?

“Employers must stand firm in their conviction that diversity programs are appropriate and actually help to create an equal playing field for everyone involved,” Richard Greggory Johnson III, an associate professor in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco, says.

Johnson, who also is an author and an advocate for workplace diversity, says a diverse workforce “will always help a company’s bottom line.”

As to what factors lead to a successful diversity program, Johnson said employers must realize that no specific program will fit all companies. “However, a good program will include a point person that is considered part of the leadership team. This person must also have a budget and sufficient oversight of diversity policies and evaluation. Finally, the ‘diversity officer’ must be skilled in addressing this ongoing matter as it relates to diversity.”

Johnson also stresses the importance of employers understanding the business justifications for increasing diversity in their workforces. “Diversity is important to all companies because it helps them to remain competitive, maintain a leading edge and, not to mention, it’s just the right thing to do in the 21st century,” he says.

The problem of certain people inside an organization having doubts about the fairness and effectiveness of diversity efforts was addressed in a study published in the August 2014 issue of Academy of Management Journal. Management professors from New York University, the University of Michigan, and George Mason University focused on how people hired as a result of an organization’s affirmative action program sometimes suffer the effects of stigmatization.

The researchers reported that diversity efforts have led to increased numbers of women and minorities attaining managerial positions, but sometimes those efforts “can stimulate backlash among non-beneficiaries who may feel unfairly disadvantaged by these policies,” the report states.

Although the study focused on affirmative action plans (AAPs), it points out that an employer’s voluntary diversity program (rather than a legally required AAP) can prompt the same kind of backlash. “The parallels between AAPs and other diversity policies suggest that strategies similar to those needed to prevent AAPs from having negative effects may be needed to maximize the effectiveness of other aspects of diversity initiatives,” the report states.

How can employers prevent such backlash? The study authors advise employers to emphasize the qualifications of the people they hire and promote. In addition, the researchers recommend taking steps to allow staff to know them as people – their interests, hobbies, etc. Also, employers should communicate to staff that hiring to meet a quota, rather than because of someone’s qualifications, is illegal.

The researchers also urge employers to point out how diversity benefits an organization. “None of the drawbacks make us conclude we should get rid of affirmative action programs,” David Mayer, a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, said following publication of the study. “It makes us conclude we should implement them in a more effective manner and also study positive outcomes of such programs such as having high-level minority role models in business organizations.”

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