Ask the White Guy: Diversity Is Not in Your DNA

In this edition of "Ask the White Guy," DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti addresses a reader's inquiry about how to foster successful diversity management.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

I attended DiversityInc’s most recent ERG webinar and recently reviewed the September/October 2009 ERG issue of the magazine … I provide college seminars on diversity and have decided to feature ERGs in my next series of presentations … and would greatly appreciate your help with the following:

 1. If a company has no diversity program or a poorly conceived/managed one, it would seem that informed employees could/should approach management with an ERG proposal designed to make a strong business case and maybe lay the groundwork for a committed/meaningful diversity program or meaningful improvement on an existing one.  Essentially, can/should an ERG be attempted if there is no diversity program? As a way to lay the groundwork?

2. And, if a company sells business-to-business/is mainly industrial and is not global, it would seem an unlikely candidate for a diversity program. Is that correct?

Thank you in advance for your assistance…

The answer to your first question is no. CEO commitment is essential to diversity-management programs. In more than 10 years of publishing DiversityInc, we have not seen a single example of sustainable diversity efforts driven from employees up. We have also seen companies fall off the DiversityInc Top 50 list due to a change in CEOs. I don’t think this is exclusive to diversity; different CEOs will emphasize different things about a wide range of subjects. However, there are several companies that used to be on our list that descended in rank and eventually dropped off over a period of years.

Once in awhile a company spokesperson will tell us that diversity “is in our DNA.” We usually hear that as they disassemble diversity efforts.

The only thing in human DNA is to discriminate. It’s a part of normal human tribal behavior. That’s why you have to manage diversity if you want to extract the best talent, performance, market share and suppliers from a diverse country—and world. Constant management is necessary in a wide range of corporate functions; you would never hear “accounting is in our DNA” or “compliance with the law is in our DNA.” Every company has accountants and lawyers, even though they’ve followed accounting and law practices successfully for decades.

The answer to your second question is also no. Diversity management is essential for all companies because it builds equitable employee engagement. Considering that 70 percent of the U.S. work force will be women and/or Black and Latino by 2016, not having equitable engagement creates a slew of problems, from unequal retention, regrettable loss, sub-optimized productivity and low innovation. Not having diversity management is a sure way to be beaten by a competitor that does. Further, B-2-B companies must have diversity efforts in place if they wish to sell to progressive companies. Ninety-eight percent of DiversityInc Top 50 companies include questions about diversity and supplier diversity on their RFPs, up from 2 percent five years ago. Finally, and this is the least important point, a lack of diversity efforts exposes companies to potential liabilities from lawsuits. I think this is the least important point because a lawsuit is often a symptom of a much wider-ranging problem with financial impact far greater than paying a bunch of attorneys and perhaps a settlement or court-imposed penalty.

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  • Luke;
    You’re very right about the need for committed leadership to promote diversity in an organization.. I’ve worked in a number of corporations whose diversity efforts lacked the ACTIVE commitment of their senior leader. S/he was willing to say the right things on the right occasions. However, in terms of having a vision, being involved in goal setting, holding him/herself and others accountable for diversity …. not so much. In a number of corporations I’m familiar with, it’s possible to take a ten year old diversity plan – change the date – and present it as new because nothing much has changed.

    One frustration I’ve experienced is working in a company that talked – very sincerely, I believe – about it’s commitment to diversity. They invited diverse (i.e. Black) speakers (in February), made contributions to various national organizations devoted to diversity and had the usual “…we value diversity in our people, our customers and the communities where we work and do business…” line in their brochures and annual report. Still the board of directors, senior leaders and the vast majority of management remained White and male. Frankly I would have preferred that they just drop the pretense and move on.

    In the end the tribalism imprint on our DNA requires that we recognize our limitations and work on those things, like democracy and diversity, which do not come “naturally”. To do otherwise is little more than intellectual, philosophical and spiritual laziness.

  • “The only thing in human DNA is to discriminate” so pathetically correct. My company has DBE, WBE, minority contractors that we must hire due to our affirmative action policy. Many of the white employees fight against the policy by implement it incorrectly, or just try to avoid it at every cost, it’s just not in there DNA. I was against discriminated by a white female in my first year working for a fortune 500 company. I didn’t sue the company but I asked that they implement a program to change the way minor’s are treated, or I would sue, so they form a diversity program at our headquarter and integrated at every location they owned. It is true the CEO must buy into and support any diversity program. The result was curing; it became the best place to work, after long some years of diversity training. The company stopped tolerating discrimination and getting sued.

  • There does seem to be little logic in the capitalization argument, and in some of the commentary. On 2-21-10 Guest writes, “The very word America is a code word for white people.” Wow. That sounds a little…..well, nuts. Guest writes: “You don’t call Asian Americans that are citizens of America just Asians. You don’t call Japanese Americans that are citizens of America just Japanese, and you don’t call Mexican Americans that are citizens of America just Mexicans…” You’re right: I don’t call them Asians, Japanese, or Mexicans; I call them “Americans.” My husband, who was born and grew up in Iraq, calls himself—you guessed it, “American.” Guest further writes, “A terrorist is a person that commits bodily harm or injury to another human being.” Actually, Guest, that definition could mean a dentist, doctor, policeman, soldier, or your little brother who just tripped you is a “terrorist.” Geez.

  • I honestly have difficulty understanding why you group “women, and/or Black and latino together. Are you implying some sort of exclusive harmony? I don’t see it.

  • Louis Mauriello

    The reason “women” are bundled with “Black and Latinos” is becuase they are Non White Males! That IS their “exclusive harmony”.

  • Louis,
    Did you mean they are “not” white males. If so how does that make them harmonious?

  • I am an enthusiastic about diversity. In an orquestra there are diverse talents but they have the same spirit and also, we can have people in diverse roles and have one boss. The human being heart is bad since youth. There is no doubt that diversity, even placed as antonym of discrimination, needs to be managed. Education at home and from school, and at all levels of management and also, as governmental educational programs, advocating Jesus teachings (“the umbrella of overcoming the bad”), shall be more important for all of us either to manage others or being managed by others (think of recritment), and that way we can optimize the performance of the orquestra.

  • Darlene Matthews

    The comments by “guest” show the feigned? ignorance about the problems
    and solutions.

    Those who very often don’t have equal access to the playing field are grouped.
    For us who are disabled we often cant even get on the playing field.

  • Jonscott Williams

    Diversity is not in our DNA nor is it in the DNA of our culture or our business enterprises. I have worked in a number of Fortune 100 companies that all had functions with variations on the theme: diversity. Each had an executive supposedly empowered by senior leadership to lead the function. Over the years “quotas” became “goals”; “actions” became “initiatives”; “race” added “…gender, age, national origin and sexual orientation”. Thus, there have been Diversity Initiatives, Diversity Committees, Diversity Teams, Diversity Affinity Groups, Diversity Plans, Diversity Days and etc. Yet there continues to be very little actual diversity.

    The “Admin” job category continues to be a female ghetto. Senior leadership teams continue to be largely White and male. The glass ceiling, with occasional exceptions, still manages to filter by race, gender and orientation. Whatever gets through is loudly trumpeted as “progress”… which at times leads to a relaxation of any real effort. Read many of the diversity plans from twenty or thirty years ago, change the date and some of the language, and you’ve got a plan that will easily pass muster, and still be largely ineffectual, today.

    The most recent indices of how foreign diversity is to who and what we are rests in much of the politics of the last decade. We have become a nation of tribes seemingly at war with each other … the Religious Fundamentalists vs. the Secular humanists; the Pro-Lifers vs. the Pro-Choicers; the Xenophobes vs. the Immigrant’s Rights tribe; the Right vs. the Left; the Democrats vs. the Republicans; the States Rights tribe vs. the Federalists; the NRA vs. the Gun Controllers; the Birthers/Baggers/Deathers/Birchers vs. Obama; the Free Marketers vs. the Consumer Advocates, and on and on.

    If diversity is about accepting, valuing and respecting the “other”, there is little to indicate that we are naturally capable of doing so. Put another way, diversity – like democracy – requires effort, commitment and intent.

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