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September 29, 2016

Current diversity programs aren’t working, lecturer says

Frank Dobbin

Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin’s lecture, “Why Diversity Programs Don’t Work,” packed the room for the Center for Race and Social Problems’ first talk of the fall. While Dobbin said the news about current diversity efforts in business is indeed grim, there also are different methods, less widely deployed, that actually work to increase diversity among corporate managers.

“We had until recently no evidence on whether existing practices … do anything to promote diversity,” especially anti-bias training and creating tests for applicants and those who wish to advance, said Dobbin. He labeled these types of efforts “not only ineffective, they are counterproductive,” leading to a backlash from white managers who do most of the hiring. White managers respond negatively to diversity programs, he said: Their attitudes toward minorities improve slightly, but their behavior worsens, as measured by subsequent hiring.

“Force-feeding managers … is not a way to change their attitude,” he said. “Especially when training is mandatory, we see only negative effects.”

Dobbin, an organizational sociologist who studies corporate responses to equal opportunity laws, pointed to extensive data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to prove his point. Statistics collected from U.S. corporations with at least 100 employees from 1966 to the present show that, in 1985, black men held 6 percent of management-level jobs at U.S. companies. In 2011, that number was still 6 percent. Similar lack of movement for Hispanics and women also was reported.

“No matter how you look at it, there has been very little change,” Dobbin said.
It’s not as if white women and black men lack the education to qualify for managerial jobs, he added, displaying the results of another study that showed greater progress for women and minorities in the professions than in the business world.

“If there’s a glass ceiling, it’s in management,” he said.


Why don’t anti-bias training and new hiring regulations work to increase diversity among managers?
Re-education — informing someone of how they may be unconsciously biased and simply forbidding them to act on these prejudices — is an effort to control behavior, and it runs smack into psychology’s self-determination theory, Dobbin said. People’s behavior is more positive if they feel their lives, including their work lives, provide a greater measure of self-determination, he noted. If you try to control people’s thoughts and behaviors, they rebel instead. “Often you will reinforce what you are trying to stop,” he said.

He also cited the job autonomy theory: “People who are in jobs without much autonomy are depressed” — and try to sabotage the organization’s mission, Dobbin said. “The effort to control managerial bias is liable to backfire.”

Other methods used in the business world to create greater diversity fail for the same reasons, he added. For instance, companies have tried to impose numerical metrics on hiring, such as job qualification tests that put people above or below a line for entry. Metrics also have been used in job evaluations that are supposed to govern promotions and pay decisions.

Managers who make decisions are not using the information from tests and assessments objectively, Dobbin said. “The tests turn out to be used to reinforce their biases.” A white man who did poorly on the tests was having a bad day, the managers think, while there must be something deficient about a woman or minority candidate with a bad test score.

After five years of using metrics, companies see a 4 percent reduction in white women managers on average and larger reductions across minority groups.

The same reductions follow when companies establish civil rights grievance procedures.

Once employees complain to superiors and seem ready to use the grievance process, Dobbin said, “your boss will likely say, ‘Let’s resolve this between ourselves; you don’t want to be the angry Hispanic woman in this situation.’”

In fact, he added, company grievance processes are underused because companies discourage people from using them. “Then they are complacent” because they see few grievances, he said.
The availability of grievances certainly hasn’t stopped discrimination, he added: In 2014, for instance, 45 percent of the more than 90,000 discrimination complaints to the EEOC stemmed in part from alleged retaliations after someone filed a grievance within a company.


Despite all of this evidence, Dobbin said, businesses, government agencies and higher education institutions “have doubled down” on regulating the hiring, promotion and pay decision process and re-educating management through diversity programs.

“But there are other types of interventions that have proven quite effective,” he said. “They treat the problem as the problem to be solved by those managers, rather than treating the managers as the problem to be solved.”

Giving managers responsibility for changing the problem works, he noted. That’s the principle of engagement: If you assign people to solve a problem and say they are the experts most capable of solving it, those people will take ownership of the task.

Only 15 percent of companies try one successful engagement strategy, Dobbin reported: recruitment at specialized colleges.

When managers are added to new-employee recruitment teams visiting Hispanic-serving institutions, for instance, Dobbin said this prompts managers to take up the cause of diversity themselves. At the very least, it creates the desire to show success by beating other recruiting teams in finding the best minority candidates for open positions.

Referral programs work for the same reason. When current managers are asked for recommendations of the best minorities or women to promote to the management track, they take personal responsibility for the selected individuals.

“Mentoring is one of the things that works best,” Dobbin said — especially in industries where workers are generally college educated. Mentoring programs result in as much as 20 percent increases in white women and black men hired among companies Dobbin has studied. “But only 20 percent of companies have formed mentoring programs,” he noted.

The same principle of personal accountability can help diversity task forces succeed at companies. Once asked to serve on such a task force, he said, workers may look at their company’s monthly hiring data for the first time and discover hiring inequities for themselves. “All the people on this task force become champions,” Dobbin said.

Simple personal contacts also have an educational effect that beats formal educational programs, he said. Put diverse workers together to work toward a common goal and “each group’s stereotypes about the other go away quite quickly,” he explained. “If you want to change people’s attitudes, change their experiences.”

Sometimes all it takes to increase diversity are simple signs that company leadership favors the idea. Promoting better work-life integration, helping workers with childcare, instituting new company rules that merely comply with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act regulations — each can result in small but measurable increases in hiring women, Dobbin said. “Almost any kind of intervention that sends a message, ‘OK, we get it, it’s okay if you have a family’ — they suggest that the employer understands that work and family go together,” he said. “None of these things would have big effects on their own but they definitely change the story in what [companies] are looking for in workers.”


If a company insists on retaining its diversity training — perhaps fearing that its removal will show up in an employee lawsuit later as evidence of discrimination — “there are other ways of managing diversity training so it doesn’t have such negative effects,” Dobbin said. Companies should offer voluntary training and make it available to everyone, not just managers. And, he suggested, “do not mention the law. If you so much as mention the law, managers think you are trying to control them.

“One of the most effective things you can do is talk about race,” he added. “Whites tend to think everything is fine until somebody brings it up. When there is a colorblind message, minorities tend to feel alienated.”

Given the failure of anti-bias programs in business, longtime local politician Sala Udin asked Dobbin, what could the public expect from such programs currently underway for the Pittsburgh Police and other departments around the country?

“If you generalize from these findings,” Dobbin said, “you’d have to conclude that mandatory anti-bias training is not going to work.

“The solution in the case of police departments is special recruitment” of women and minorities.

Fifty-two years after passage of the 1964 civil rights legislation, “We’re still trying stuff out,” Dobbin marveled. “You look at what firms do. If this were medicine, you’d say there was a lot of malpractice out there.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 3

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