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Why Your D&I Program Is Failing—And How To Fix It

Recently, I received a call from a Fortune 250 CEO who said, “Johnny, I’m tired, and I’m frustrated. We have spent more money, I’ve spent more of my own time, and we’ve worked on this diversity issue for longer than just about any other program we have, but we’re just not making any progress. What am I doing wrong?”

Like those of so many other well-intentioned leaders, this CEO’s efforts to increase diversity ultimately failed to move the needle on the company’s ability to recruit and retain diverse employees. He is hardly the only CEO who has come to me with that problem. From our work here at the SHRM—the Society for Human Resource Management—and my own experience, I advise CEOs that, if their D&I investments aren’t getting a return, it’s typically due to one of these three errors:


In many companies, when a D&I program first gets going, the CEO chooses someone internally to head it up. It’s typically an individual who happens to be a member of the diverse community the company is trying to reach and someone who seems to feel passionately about the issue. That individual is taken off of whatever team they were on and put in charge of D&I. (Or worse, they’re given a D&I assignment in addition to their day job.)

I would argue that if one of your people is heading up, say, an IT group, and you’re willing to give them up to go run D&I, they’re probably not the star performer you thought they were. Even those companies that go outside the organization for a D&I lead often don’t give the search process the same level of scrutiny and rigor they would demand from any other critical role. They find someone who checks all the boxes, give that person a budget and hope for the best.

That’s a recipe for failure. I’m a CEO, and, while I think I’m pretty smart, I wouldn’t know a good technology infrastructure if it hit me in the face. That’s why I go through an exhaustive and thorough process to hire a chief technology officer who can tell me what a good security infrastructure looks like and ensure that someone doesn’t take our system down. The same is needed for CEOs who know little about building diversity. Diversity is hard, and inclusion is harder. The fastest way to screw up a D&I initiative—or any business initiative, for that matter—is to choose the wrong person to design your strategy and operationalize it.


Another CEO I worked with found the right person for the job but starved the initiative. Remember Y2K? As early as January 1998, when we saw that impending threat of a potential shutdown of our systems, we were willing to put whatever resources we needed to ensure our businesses were operating at 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2000. A czar was brought in to head up the effort, and we gave them free access and whatever budget they asked for—because we knew how much was at stake.

So, the question is, how important is D&I to you, to your workforce, to your company’s future? In the weeks following George Floyd’s brutal murder, I heard a lot of concern and interest from company leaders. But will they still be as interested in six months? Statements of support for equality are fine, and they’re needed, but—and this may sound cynical—we’ve been here before. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. The level of investment a company makes in solving a problem is how I judge how seriously they take the problem. It’s where the rubber meets the road.

To be fair, we’re battling a global pandemic, coping with recession, and some of us are worried about keeping the lights on. So, spending is understandably reined way in. But if you truly believe that a lack of diversity in your organization is an existential threat to your business, and if you are as fed up with inequality as you say you are, then, platitudes and statements aside, you need to put the resources into it that you would for any existential threat to the business.

It’s not just money. Organizations need to invest time and effort to learn all they can about racism and bias in their own organizations. In short, they need to courageously commit to change. But they don’t need to do it alone. At SHRM, we have created a new initiative, Together Forward@Work (shrm. org/tfaw), that provides a multi-faceted platform designed to help the business community drive racism and social injustice from their workplaces by adopting specific actions and measurable outcomes. This is an open platform—anyone can access the data and tools—so all it requires is a commitment to learn.

When Covid-19 hit, not one company that was an essential business and needed people to come to work every day said they could not afford to invest in PPE—it was critical. So, the question is fairly simple: Are you as committed to D&I as you are to your other business problems and the necessary investment to fix them?

Of course, a key question CEOs sometimes fail to ask is, “Why are we doing this?” If you’re investing in diversity simply because “it’s the right thing to do,” it will likely fail. As a CEO, you can’t afford to invest heavily in anything that’s “the right thing to do” but isn’t aligned with your business goals. Do it because you need access to top talent (which means having your share of access to underrepresented groups), because you need to mirror your customer base, because your company’s future success requires it—or don’t do it at all.


At many companies, the CEO believes in D&I, but you don’t have to look very deeply into the organization before you realize that not a whole lot of the folks lower down in the organization get it or have the same passion about it—and so it fails. In those cases, even if the company manages to recruit some diverse employees, they can’t retain them because they haven’t created a culture of inclusion, one that not only tolerates diversity but embraces and celebrates it.

Consider the twin cultural values of honesty and integrity. As CEO, if I conclude through any number of data inputs that an employee is not trustworthy—that he would cheat if given the opportunity, I wouldn’t care if he was the most talented guy in the world—he can’t work here. Are you willing to part with talented executives who don’t share your passion for creating a diverse organization? Are you prepared to say D&I is one of our Cultural Truths and, if you’re not on board, go elsewhere? Because that’s how you get true inclusion. Without that commitment, it’s just an empty statement.

Some have tried to incentivize the right behavior through compensation. It won’t be enough—and, in some cases, we’ve seen it backfire badly. Wells Fargo showed us how poorly misplaced incentives can play out; they ultimately incentivized their people to open fake accounts—and the bank’s brand still hasn’t recovered fully. You can tell your direct reports that, over the next year, you want a 5 percent increase in hires of diverse employees, but you’ll likely have a manager who hires 8 percent to go above and beyond, and he won’t necessarily screen for the technical competency or the right cultural alignment. He’ll do it because that’s what you’re rewarding him on.

Thinking you can bonus your way to the right results is, frankly, naïve. D&I works when it is literally a part of the way business operates, when it’s a Cultural Truth and everyone who comes through understands it and buys into it, or they don’t work for you.


Here are a few more key points for CEOs looking to improve their program:

• Diversity means all diversity, even if you don’t agree. It’s understandable to focus on the underrepresented, which often means race and gender, but for diversity to really become a part of your culture, it can’t be limited to those groups. If you say diversity, you have to mean real diversity—race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity, age, political affiliation.

You have to be very intentional about that because oftentimes, when people say they value diversity, they mean, “I value diversity as long as I agree with it.” But if one of your Cultural Truths is to respect diverse perspectives, then we have to follow that whether we agree or disagree. Obviously, we don’t tolerate hate or violence, but excepting that, we have to respect diversity and inclusion broadly.

I’m not saying ignore the current situation, and my intention is not to water down the very real need for racial justice in this country. If my doctor calls and says, “You have lung cancer,” I don’t want him to start treating other parts of my body. I’d like him to focus first on my lungs. We are at a reckoning point with race, and we do need to deal with this very pressing issue in front of us—but we can’t neglect other areas of inclusion. If we really are going to have sustainable change, we should tackle the issue of race while building an infrastructure to make the entire organization better at respecting diverse groups and perspectives.

• This has to come from a place of empathy. If you have diversity training and you bring people into a room and beat up on them for their biases, you’ll get nowhere. But if you ask them to imagine walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, that moves the needle. When I’m talking to people about what it’s like to be Black in America right now, I try to explain the fear that a young Black man experiences when a police car approaches them. I say, “Imagine, just for a moment, if your 12-year-old son had that same fear every time they heard a siren.” They get that.

The empathy muscle has atrophied over time in this country. We have to exercise it, rebuild it, challenge ourselves to walk a mile in each other’s shoes—that’s when we will understand each other’s pain. To the extent CEOs can build up that atrophied muscle within their organizations, that’s when we will start seeing the kind of cultural change we’re after. It’s also when you’ll be able to spend fewer resources over time because you will have solved for this problem. We don’t spend any more money on Y2K because we solved for that immediate crisis and now are in maintenance mode to protect the systems we have.

• This is a journey—for all of us. For those who think White males are the only people suffering from implicit bias, I have news for you: we’re all susceptible. We all have biases. We can’t assume that someone is open-minded and embracing diversity and inclusion because it’s a Black guy with a Harvard degree. It would be easy to turn this is into, “White people have to do better,” but everyone in the workplace has work to do when it comes to D&I.

All of us are evolving because societal norms are evolving. That’s why we have to think of this as a journey that has no absolute end point. We (all of us) are evolving as a society together, and, as long as we stay open to it, we can move the needle.

But we can’t leave it to government to fix this problem. Having Barack Obama as president didn’t save Freddie Gray. Corporate leaders have to play a role, along with government and civil rights advocates. And the human resources profession, teaming up with America’s CEOs, can lead the way. Putting aside the Covid-related unemployment, nearly 160 million Americans go to work every day— that means we’ve got our people captive for eight to 12 hours a day (even if they are working remotely). Imagine how we could influence the mood and actions of this country if we really stepped up. Imagine the influence on the narrative and on our collective actions if we created better workplaces that led to a better world. As the Chinese proverb goes, every journey begins with a single step. We just have to be willing to take it.


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