Why diversity and inclusion programs are failing

There’s a difference between promoting diversity theoretically and being truly welcoming. Here’s how communicators can help build stronger teams and take the lead on inclusion.

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) efforts are staples at many U.S.-based organizations so they can compete for talent and stay innovative. 

However, many programs are failing. Harvard Business Review published research stating that three-fourths of underrepresented groups (women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+ employees, for example) report feeling no personal benefit from diversity and inclusion programs. 

Plus, employee turnover costs and the exodus of women from mid-level careers are astounding. Communicators have to stop the bleeding, and they can start by taking action on these common mistakes:

1. Lack of intent in D&I strategy

Simon Sinek taught us the value of “why” and to focus on people, not products, but we’ve forgotten that lesson in the design of our D&I strategies. 

In the hustle to keep up with the Joneses in the war over talent, especially in tech, having dedicated staff, employee groups and published diversity reports have become the norm—and  get the nod from leadership that it’s “enough.” 

We cannot have programs that are about people and people’s experience so we can check the box that we have them. This is a breakdown in authenticity. 

Action: Take your D&I strategy as seriously as any other transformation strategy.

  • Start with a deliberate vision of an authentic and truly human environment. Look at why the organization needs and wants a D&I program. What is the strategic purpose? 
  • Look at the organization’s mission, vision and values. Why do they exist? Whom do they benefit—and whom do they not help enough? 
  • Look at your organization’s HR policies, benefits and hiring practices. Look at the performance management process. Who does or doesn’t benefit? Look at learning programs: Are they accessible to all employees and include content that meets them where they are, because one size does not fit all. 
  • Look at the recognition programs and who is getting what kind of kudos from whom—and who is missing. Where does appreciation need to be amped up beyond recognition?

2. Meaningless metrics 

Incentives for executives to hit a hiring quota don’t work. Practices need to be widespread and common across the teams, the people managers and processes of how work gets done. 

We must broaden our perspectives by focusing on not just quantitative metrics, but also on qualitative sentiment and engagement data measuring employees’ feeling included and valued, and their sense of belonging. I love the term “social science,” since the words seem like an odd couple, but that’s the reality of D&I work and what will help us evolve and get better at tracking progress. 

Action: It takes everybody.

  • Publish a diversity report that is truly telling the story of your whole organization, not just repeating data you have to report to the government. Does the data reflect everyone: distributed workforce, age, nonbinary, the “two or more races” option, parents, functional diversity and abilities? What kinds of questions—both open and closed formats—need to be added to the engagement/eNPS surveys such as, “Do you feel comfortable being your whole self at work?”
  • Train and support people managers and leaders to include diverse perspectives from teams and provide psychological safety. If folks won’t lean in, get curious and learn about other cultures and points of view, then they may not be a good fit for your organization. 
  • Recognize and reward where diverse perspectives led to innovative ideas and made a positive impact on the business and engagement.

3. Focusing on diversity, but neglecting inclusion/belonging

HR programs cannot survive on their own. You have to be careful not to force relationships through programs and compliance. Instead, relationships are based on respectful communications. 

The vice president of inclusion and diversity at Netflix, Vernā Myers, is famous for saying, “Diversity is being invited to the dance; inclusion is being asked to dance.” I’d add that belonging is the inevitable conga line at the dance. 

When employees feel seen, heard and valued and feel true belonging—which author Brené Brown says is not about changing who we are, but being who we are—well, that’s when the party really begins. Communications and community both come from “commune,” so we need to recognize the responsibility to commune in areas under our control. 

Action: Design communications for inclusion and belonging.

  • Language is the medium through which attitudes and behavior are influenced. The emphasis on language in cultural diversity is not for the purpose of political correctness, but for stimulating new ideas and new approaches. Internal communicators set the standard for the culture’s tone, voice, personality and language. Words can hurt or heal, unite or divide, keep or dismantle the status quo. 
  • Eliminate jargon, gender-based terms, U.S-centric sports or military analogies (unless you’re working at Adidas or Veterans Affairs, of course), U.S-centric jokes or vernacular. 
  • Provide intentional support, visibility and definition to employee resource groups around their mission of community, advocacy and philanthropy. 
  • Use intranets as a reflection and co-creator of an inclusive culture and being the headquarters for belonging. Have a place, as Wikipedia does, for written and audible pronunciations for names: 

This awkwardness between colleagues where names are mispronounced or, worse, not said at all, is counter to someone feeling like they belong. 

  • Add your pronouns to email signatures and profiles. 

In “Dare to Lead,” Brené Brown talks about people opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusion because they fear looking, saying something or being wrong. She goes on to say, “Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.” 

Trust is built in small, meaningful ways. We don’t have to spend a ton of money on huge campaigns with fleets of people. It’s the desire, the willingness, the training, the awareness, the intent that matter the most. Tweaking a few things here and there in our communications can make a positive impact if we just pause to look for those moments of meaning and do something with them.

Kim Clark is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group and specializes in diversity and inclusion communications, culture, and internal communications.

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