The Slippery Slope of Diversity Numbers

I understand the business case for building a diverse workforce…have for a long time. I also understand that ‘diversity’ goes far beyond race, or color, or ethnicity, or age, or gender. I’m a white male over 40 and I can tell you I’ve met very few white males over 40 that have the same kinds of experiences, have been raised by the same kind of family, and have done the same things as I. That makes me diverse. If you’re tempted to argue that point with me, just don’t. Because I’m right and you’re wrong.

I also understand the need for the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) and all of its reporting requirements. Unfortunately, the commission is case-in-point that the world of employment law is based on the premise that the crimes of few result in the punishment of many. I honestly believe that most companies – and most individuals – really try to do the right thing when it comes to their employees. And most have very little deliberate intent in their souls to wrong another human being – on whatever basis. But I’m also naïve in many things of this world.

I am a strong believer that nothing about an Organization’s diversity efforts  - beyond educating our leaders and employees and heightening their awareness to and appreciation for the numerous (indisputable) merits of building a diverse workforce – should be deliberate. Just last week I was on the phone with some HR peeps who were talking HR metrics and analytics. One of them said, “our diversity numbers certainly aren’t where they need to be.” The operative word here is ‘need.’ Where exactly does an organization’s diversity numbers “need to be”? What does that mean? If we get to a gender split of 50/50 do we all pop the Champaign and go home? If we finally get that one Native American or Pacific Islander we’ve been looking for, do we all feel better about ourselves? I don’t. I feel better when I know we’ve developed and rely upon a sourcing strategy that’s diversified and thoughtful and thorough; that we’ve hired the right people for the right roles; that we give everyone the same access to the same kinds of opportunities based on their skills, capabilities, and interests. Those things happen when behaviors are aligned with intent and intent is aligned with what’s good for the business. Not because someone gave us a number to shoot for. Right?

Well, it really doesn’t matter what any of us think about this. In eight days (March 29, 2011), the U.S. Supreme Court will have a lot to say about whether there really is such a thing as “structural discrimination.” They will hear a class action which has really been in the making since 1994 contending Walmart has repeatedly discriminated on the basis of gender. And while the class action’s attorney admits they “cannot prove that the female plaintiffs suffered true discrimination…he nonetheless hopes to win back pay for a million women by claiming that Wal-Mart’s ‘corporate culture’ fostered companywide discrimination.” And he plans on doing this by relying primarily on statistics – numbers that he claims demonstrate women are treated as “second-class employees.”

I love numbers. They are really important and they help us understand a lot about a business. But if you give me a database, even I’m smart enough to produce any variety of graphs, charts, and statistics that can prove or disprove just about any theory you might have. If we start giving more credence to numbers and what they say about complex human behaviors, dynamic workplace matters, and the unruly beast that are humans, then we have started down a very slippery slope. And in that case, we will all be right back to paying very close attention to those numbers. And likely we will all start making bad business decisions because we are forced to allow some meaningless statistic dictate the kind of workforce ‘we need.’  There is only one group of people on this planet who can determine the kind of workforce your organization needs: those who lead it, manage it, and have a vested interest in its success day-in-day-out. And that group, my HR cohorts, includes you.

Image Credit: Sirlin

6 Responses to The Slippery Slope of Diversity Numbers
  1. Leanne Chase - @LeanneCLC
    March 21, 2011 | 10:27 am

    Charlie –

    I truly hope this does not come down to numbers. I think it’s what goes on along with the numbers that tells the story more. Because I absolutely agree, managing your recruiting based on diversity numbers is a loser for all – workers, employers, the people enforcing it and trying to do the right thing.

    But I’m also not sure what to do about the fact that I have opted out of corporate life to work for myself. Why? I’m tired. I’ve had to over prove myself, keep my mouth shut and turn a blind eye to things much of my career as a female. Of course I wrote about it:

    And normally I don’t write about women & the workplace but recently being brushed off because a salesman on the phone didn’t take me for the “head of the household” and this article about the Walmart suit set me off a bit:

    I’m not sure what we do here…but discrimination goes way beyond numbers and is more about society and culture. I have never had the pleasure to work in a gender-blind corporate culture in 20 years. Here’s hoping someday my daughter will.


  2. John Jorgensen
    March 21, 2011 | 10:32 am

    Excellent points Charlie. You have eloquently put a point I was trying to make in a class a couple of weeks ago. I must remember this.

  3. Robin Schooling
    March 21, 2011 | 12:33 pm

    One of the lingering effects of this “numbers” game is that it has led a whole big-bunch of HR professionals to view Diversity as checking off boxes on their annual EEO-1 report or working to only fill open requisitions in accordance with their AAP goals. And this thinking, in turn, continues to infiltrate continuing HR education. Quite often, when an HR conference is held and a “Diversity” track is highlighted, it contains such scintillating sessions as “How to Write an AAP” or “The New EEO-1 Categories.” It’s difficult, sometimes, to move HR folks into the thinking that diversity goes beyond race and gender… and we’ve been trying to have that discussion for DECADES now.

    I believe the key is ACCESS to the process. Opening the doors for candidates and providing opportunities will allow you to find the best people/the right people for the business.

  4. Charlie
    March 21, 2011 | 8:15 pm

    @Leanne – it sucks that your experiences with corporate america have left you more jaded about its intentions and motivations, but it certainly is easy to understand how you got there. and if you think about the negative experiences you had, none of them had to do with numbers…they had to do with behaviors. the right behaviors drive the right outcomes. the numbers are nothing but an outcome, not a starting point. thanks

    @jkj – glad i could help.

    @Robin – you and i, once again, see eye-to-eye. thanks
    Charlie´s last blog ..The Slippery Slope of Diversity NumbersMy ComLuv Profile

  5. Jada
    March 24, 2011 | 8:32 pm

    Hey Charlie! I had to pop out and check in on you…since I’m now “doing Diversity” I was naturally drawn to this post. The numbers are data points along with all the other inputs that measure a culture. While I don’t think you fix “bad numbers” (=gap between AAP and company demographics) by adding one of “these” and 3 of “those” and 2 of ‘that” – I also don’t think you can deny numbers that show trends of systematic exclusion of women and/or underrepresented ethnic groups. The fix, my friend, is all too complicated to hash out on line. The numbers are simply an indicator that there’s opportunity. The numbers indicate behavior that may need to be changed to allow inclusion. Until we do this in our corporations – the EEO will play a role in mandating equal access in companies with federal contracts.

    Leanne – I totally get you. Congratulations for finding an alternative path. I pray your daughter lives in a gender neutral work world along my children’s race neutral work world.

  6. [...] I posted a piece just a couple of weeks ago on the dangers of drawing too many conclusions from stat…. I understand wholeheartedly that the disparity I’ve just highlighted can’t be taken at face value. One could argue, as an example, that a) the world of work is litigious, will always be litigious, and litigation will remain on its sky-rocketing trajectory as long as lawyers are allowed to roam the Earth untethered, 2) employees are getting smarter around what constitutes fair and unfair treatment and they are less and less patient with the crap heaped upon them, c) organizations inherently have assholes working for them and assholes can’t be tamed…no matter how hard you try, and 4) as a result of these and other environmental factors (including increased involuntary terminations, economy, etc.) this ten year 25% increase in claims would be much higher if it weren’t for HR’s exemplary efforts. But is all of that just a cop out? [...]

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