Engaging Middle Management in Diversity and Inclusion

By Michael Nam


Middle managers in any organization are vital to executing a diversity strategy. Companies seeking to improve diversity and inclusion can engage middle management by creating programs they can engage in, instituting goals and consequences, and ensuring that managers feel like part of the process.

When discussing the role of middle managers in a business, it is important to remember that they too are members of a company’s leadership. “We also use the definition of people who are leading leaders versus leading individual contributors, so they also have the responsibility to inspire other leaders to lead their teams,” said Caroline Wanga, Director, Diversity and Inclusion for Target, No. 25 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity List.

Middle management should be made aware of their responsibilities to the business on the issue of diversity prior to getting them involved. In order to accomplish this, avenues of participation need to be provided, such as business or employee resource groups.

“Certainly getting them involved in our resource groups, so that’s another level from a participation perspective that we give them an opportunity to do,” said Rita Mitjans, Chief Diversity and Corporate Social Responsibility Officer for ADP, No. 20 on the DiversityInc Top 50. “We also tie it to corporate responsibility, so what are they doing to engage and develop in their communities, and by virtue of that, also be involved in organizations of support for people from backgrounds not more represented in leadership.”

Entering these employees into resource groups, however, could use a little incentivizing. Middle managers should be able to measure the impact they have on a company’s diversity goals, as well as be rewarded for exceeding expectations.

“Well, we just started looking at ways we can measure involvement, and so it’s been a learning curve for us. About two years ago we added diversity questions to our employee engagement survey,” said Donna Johnson, Chief Diversity Officer for MasterCard, No. 6 on the DiversityInc Top 50. “And that really raised the bar amongst our middle managers that MasterCard was tracking and they were looking at it and it was important, not from a diversity perspective per se, but for the way we gauged their involvement with employees.”

Other than rewards, however, expectations should also be set for company tolerance.

“In order to continue to be innovative, we have to continue to diversify, and middle managers, again, have that as their obligation. And just in case they’re not committed, most of our company, most, not all, has a metric tied to their performance on diversity and inclusion,” Caroline Wanga says. “So if you choose not to be committed, at the very least you will do it so your bonus will look the way you want it to at the very end of the year.”

The three experts also explained the importance of senior leadership in promoting diversity and inclusion strategies. They noted that middle managers respond to a CEO that sets the tone from the top, or as Rita Mitjans described it, “walks the talk.” CEOs can set an example through the makeup of their leadership teams, by attending and engaging in diversity events, and collaborating middle management leads in the various resource groups.

“One thing we found to be very effective is to give those managers opportunities to talk about diversity and inclusion and how their BRG members within their teams are participating in the initiative in front of the CEO and the executive committee,” said Donna Johnson. “Middle managers want that exposure.”

Creating competition through measured goals can also help. Ranking aspects of the business quarterly, awakening the “natural competitive spirit,” encourages middle managers to work even harder at supporting the company’s approach to diversity and inclusion.

“It motivates people to improve because nobody wants to be on the report to the CEO that has them last,” said Wanga.

But if the consequences of not living up to diversity standards may be the stick, there should be carrots as well.

“We do have other mechanisms, including bringing people to things like this,” Wanga said, referring to the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity event panel moderatedby DiversityInc COO Carolynn Johnson. “We usually try to fill up a couple of tables with middle managers and other people so they can come and learn, get a development experience, engage, meet other people.”

The final takeaway is to make sure middle managers are involved and driving the process. Donna Johnson described creating titles, like strategic advisors, to identify a high potential to lead business resource groups. Involvement and measurable goals go a long way toward strengthening the middle management efforts in diversity.

But all of these strategies only prove effective if an educated team strives for those diversity goals to be achieved.

“Inclusion only works by educating people on understanding the things getting in the way of an inclusive environment. Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work,” Wanga said. “My 9-year-old nephew would say it’s the box of crayons and the pretty picture, and the box of crayons by itself doesn’t make the pretty picture. Somebody has to apply some skill.”

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