I wasn’t expecting to get a lesson in diversity, equity and inclusion when I started reading Meltdown: What Plane Crashes, Oil Spills, and Dumb Business Decisions Can Teach Us About How to Succeed at Work and at Home, by Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcsik, but that’s exactly what I got.

About three-quarters of the way through the book, the authors offered this rather stunning take on corporate DEI programs: More business are implementing these types of programs today than ever before, and most of these programs fail. “In fact,” Clearfield and Tilcsik wrote, “they (make) firms less diverse.”

Why? Because most of these organizations make their DEI training mandatory.

“These programs fail to work because they focus on policing managers’ actions — they try to strong-arm managers and limit their discretion in hiring and promotion decisions,” the authors wrote. “But managers resist this approach.”

It turns out corporate managers push back hard when told how to run their departments. “As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy,” Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin writes. “Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.”

So what does work? Three things, according to Meltdown:

  • Voluntary diversity training. “Though people grumble about mandatory programs, they are often happy to participate in voluntary ones,” the authors write. “And they are much more receptive to new ideas if they see the training as an optional learning opportunity rather than a forced ritual.”
  • Targeted recruitment. “The idea is to seek out candidates from underrepresented groups, either within the organization or through existing recruitment programs at universities or minority professional organizations,” the authors write. “As with diversity training, it should be up to managers to decide if they want to participate. That way, they will see the program as a way to access a larger talent pool rather than a heavy-handed mandate that limits their authority.”
  • Formal mentoring programs for junior employees. “These measures don’t impose rules about diversity,” the authors write. “Instead, they expose managers to different groups, and that alone reduces bias.”

The bottom line? “These things work because they’re soft tools,” the authors write. “They don’t try to strong-arm people into giving up control. Instead of enforcing a list of dos and don’ts, they engage managers. They expose them to a wider variety of people. And they appeal to their desire to look good in the eyes of others.”

It’s a good lesson for all of us. Moving the DEI needle doesn’t have to be hard or require wholesale changes. It can start with the smallest of steps.

With Pride Month winding down, I attended a terrific panel discussion during the AICPA’s Engage Conference in Las Vegas that offered tips on how to put LGBTQ+ inclusion into action in the workplace. Most of them were surprisingly simple:

  • Say your pronouns. Actually speak them, out loud, to others. Put them in your e-mail signature. It’s one small step toward real inclusivity. And if you aren’t sure of someone else’s pronouns, avoid them altogether and simply use that person’s name. Don’t assume anything.
  • Watch your language. Here’s an example: Stop using “husband” or “wife” and use “spouse” or “partner” instead.
  • Consider adding some LGBTQ+-friendly benefits adoption benefits for same-sex couples, for instance, or making sure your health insurance plans are transgender-inclusive.

There’s a lot more that needs to be done, but these are great first steps actionable steps that will help us all make a difference.

Being an ally is great, but it should only be the first step. Allyship is about empathizing with the cause. Advocacy is about acting on behalf of the cause.

It’s time to put some action behind our DEI efforts.

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