Why Most Diversity Programs Are Doomed to Fail

Political and cultural commentator David Brooks wrote a column in The New York Times that ran during the holidays while most people were not working. He cited a column in Anthropology Now, which was published in 2018, and asserted that diversity training doesn’t work. 

I agree. 

Since starting DiversityInc 23 years ago, I have not seen diversity training, by itself, change anything. In fact, I think most diversity training increases “minority” turnover by raising expectations that are not met. 

Brooks unintentionally provided the reason diversity management in most companies fails when he concluded that “these programs are obviously well-intended.”

No. They aren’t. 

We have to live in the world of reality. It’s obvious that the overwhelming majority of senior management are white and male and accepting of the discrimination that results in disparate outcomes for everyone who is not a white man. If leadership in most companies wasn’t happy with the results, “senior management” (as described by the EEO) wouldn’t be 31% women and Fortune 500 boards wouldn’t be 22.5% women. Figures for both groups would actually be over 50% women as women have been earning more 4-year college degrees than men since the late 1980s. By this same logic, flag officers (both admirals and generals) wouldn’t be 4% non-white when 43% of enlisted people are non-white. And America’s police force wouldn’t exist in wildly different demographics than the people they “serve.”

There are a lot of excuses why this happens, but the reality is encapsulated in a conversation Carolynn Johnson (DiversityInc CEO) and I recently had with one of the most senior executives at a well-known company. This executive also happens to be a white woman. I asked her how many women in her Harvard Business School classes were in corporate executive management. She said “I’m the only one. The rest couldn’t put up with the bullshit anymore.”

Over the summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent publicity of numerous other Black Americans being murdered by police created a great deal of white angst, especially in big business. There was an incredible rush to create new positions for diversity and dozens of non-white men were hired to “do something” about diversity, with no demonstrable intention of remediation or improvement in sight. If there were good intentions, it would start with accountability. The CEO would make a few things clear — and boards would be clear with CEOs:

“Can’t recruit, develop or retain women and/or non-white people? No problem. You’re fired.” 

“Can’t find ‘them?’ I believe you. You’re fired.” 

“Didn’t have enough mentors for your ‘high potential’ mentees and turnover of underrepresented people increased? That’s too bad. You’re fired.” 

Why “fired?” 


New entrants to the labor force are less than 50% white. Women earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees and PhDs than men. 

This is not about being nice to Black people or kind to women. It’s about business survival. Mathematically, you can’t have the most effective executive team with mostly white men. And you can’t expect people to hang around for a chance at a promotion when the evidence in front of them shows these promotions have never been done. 

If the consequences were as clear and stark as they are for other forms of corporate malfeasance, you can believe the next white man in the endless line of obliviously privileged characters would pay close attention during their next diversity training session and figure it out. 

Nobody’s still using a Blackberry, right? We’ve all moved on from cherished but ineffective or counterproductive habits. Good intentions alone will only deliver more of what you’ve already done.

Think about just one statistic: 59% of white people voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election since Gerald Ford, including 2020 when the candidate was a proud racist, homophobe, xenophobe and misogynist. Trump won 61% of white men, down only 1% from 2016. Good intentions? Nobody really thinks it’s a good idea to risk your life on them. Every small town has a jail.

Brooks doesn’t understand why diversity programs fail because he’s never worked for anyone who has practiced accountability for diversity failure. Most people haven’t. 

I’ll leave you with a ray of hope and some practical advice. Almost one year ago (before COVID-19), I had lunch with a white male DiversityInc Top 50 CEO who told me a story. At a corporate event, one of his customer service people shared with the group that she felt she had to serve someone, even though they’d called her the n-word. This CEO grew visibly angry recounting the incident and his inability to reach everyone working for him so that they knew they never had to put up with that kind of abuse. 

Then, serendipitously, I had an appointment with another Top 50 CEO of a huge consumer-facing corporation a few weeks after a racist incident in one of his stores was in the press. I asked him how he handled it. He said, “Oh, that was easy. I got everyone involved together on the phone and told them the situation was very unfortunate — and none of them had a job anymore.”

So, here’s the advice: Find a boss like that. 

If you’re considering a job, look at the corporate website closely. Search for the executive team. Most companies have a webpage with pictures. Read the bios. Believe what you’re reading. Don’t impute values that aren’t there. Look for any statements of diversity. What do they say? Where are these statements located? Impressed by a grand statement about hiring more Black people? Find out how the companies expect the new hires to survive in an environment that has been extremely effective at excluding them to date (I can’t find it). 

Expect people to be no better than who they have already demonstrated themselves to be. Sure, some people learn new things and take on new challenges. Some companies improve. But you only have one life to live. Be careful with it.




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