HBR McKinsey Award winners: Why diversity programs fail, and what World War II can teach us about success

We’re excited to announce the winner of the HBR McKinsey Award for the best Harvard Business Review article of the year: “Why diversity programs fail,” by sociology professors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev. Corporate diversity—and lack thereof—has made headlines this year. The ultimate finding of Frank and Sandra’s work has been that, for decades, workplace programs designed to foster diversity have been ineffective. The authors, who are based in the United States and Israel, respectively, also pinpoint the interventions that have shown the most promise in bringing about long-term change.

We sat down with the authors to learn more:

Why is workplace diversity important to you?

Frank: I think it’s important for reasons of social justice, generally. My parents were active in the civil rights movement when I was growing up. We lived in the South for a while, so when I was very little, I got dragged to demonstrations pretty often. It’s interesting to look at the world now – how much it has changed on some dimensions, and how little on others. It’s been something that has always interested me and frustrated me.

Sandra: I believe that businesses have the capacity to transform the wider society. In the case of diversity, when previously excluded groups get to keep good jobs, they earn more income and can support their families and communities. Moreover, in light of endemic residential and school segregation, the workplace is in many respects the main place where different groups in society interact. So if there is diversity in the workplace, it can normalize diversity in society. On a personal level, I grew up in a predominantly non-white town where I, as a white girl, was on the receiving end of a lot of reverse discrimination and harassment. It made me aware of what it feels like to be a member of a minority group and sparked a lifelong interest in trying to make society a better place for minorities.

Would you say that the issue of workplace diversity has gained in prominence over the years?

Frank: Sandra and I started publishing things about 10 years ago from this line of research, shortly before the economic crisis. In the business world in general, there has been a waxing and waning of interest in the issues of equality of opportunity and diversity. After the crisis, firms lost interest in the issue for a while. It seems that we go through phases of intense interest. We are in one of those phases now: a lot of tech companies are trying new things, a lot of finance companies are trying new things; so a lot of the most visible firms show renewed commitment.

Why has it taken so long for people to see that these programs weren’t effective?

Sandra: For a long time, there was no research. Companies put programs in place in the belief that that was the solution. Either they really believed in the program, or they didn’t really care about the outcomes; they just wanted to show they had a program in place.

In the 1970s and the ’80s, just changing structures and putting new efforts in place was already a huge improvement from the period before the civil rights movement. People didn’t even think about whether the innovations actually worked.

There’s been more research in the last 20 years, but it’s mainly focused on short-term effects. Much of that research is problematic, because it’s not rigorous or long-term enough to actually pinpoint effective programs.

It’s noteworthy how people created these original diversity programs to get rid of bias, but in the end the best intentions were ultimately undermined by even deeper biases. We seem to think we can out-engineer our own psychology, but it does us in. Is that an overly pessimistic takeaway?

Frank: The good news is that in the last 40 years, the level of explicit in-your-face discrimination and bias in the economy and in employment has gone down dramatically. When people are asked on questionnaires about groups that they hold animosity toward, the results are much less troubling than they used to be.

What hasn’t changed is the subconscious stereotypes that people hold. And the bad news is we think we can train people to be less biased, but we haven’t seen much evidence of that.

Sandra: I think this is exactly why diversity training doesn’t work. Even the best type of diversity training, where participation is voluntary and the focus is on culture and the business case, has a relatively small effect on underlying prejudice.

Diversity training is a one-time commitment. In the best training programs, trainers talk about unconscious bias, cultural differences, and the business case for diversity. It’s an in-and-out, off-the-shelf kind of solution.

What works better is a diversity committee or task force, made up of people from the organization from different departments and different ranks. They come together, examine their own department or function or team, and learn of specific barriers to diversity. Then they develop tailored solutions, follow the implementation and, ideally, report on progress. It’s a sustained effort.

You cite a study from World War II where integrated forces were shown to have improved relationships.

Frank: People’s stereotypes go away as they get to know people from other groups, especially if they work side by side with them. If you are white and have not been exposed to African-Americans very much, we know from that natural experiment during World War II and subsequent studies that intense exposure through working side by side helps you to individualize people from a group that you are not familiar with and stop stereotyping them.

So if you want to change stereotyping at work, the best way to do it is not to try to train it away, but to expose people to people from other groups in their work lives. In effect, you have to start by integrating the workplace. That’s what’s going to diminish stereotypes.

If you could have magical powers and institute any program that you wanted for the largest companies in America and even small ones, what would you have them do?

Sandra: Diversity committees. Having a VP for diversity and diversity committees throughout the organization, that report to the CEO every six months—I think this is the mother of all programs.

Frank: One of the most effective solutions for promoting women and minorities into management is formal mentoring programs. The key is that they connect people who didn’t know each other before, who are from different departments and a couple of levels in the hierarchy apart. Mentoring programs work, we believe, because they connect minority men and women, and white women, with white-men mentors, because in most companies, the people further up the chain of command are more likely to be white men.

How optimistic are you of things improving? What is your definition of success?

Frank: My metric is: How much change has there been in actual workforce diversity? How much do the numbers move, particularly in management, professional, technical jobs—the jobs at the top? We’ve seen a period of stagnation and I’m optimistic but only because I feel like there is this new enthusiasm at all kinds of companies to actually try to do something now.

More and more companies are taking an evidence-based view of this: “Let’s find out what actually works. Let’s not do the same thing we’ve done before, but with a few tweaks, and see if it works this time. Let’s try to consider what the social science says, let's try to find companies that have succeeded.”

Why do you think sociology and anthropology are the right disciplines to look at these issues? What do they bring to this research that other disciplines can’t?

Sandra: Most diversity consultants have a background in psychology. Maybe it’s because the flipside of diversity is discrimination and inequality and yes, stereotypes and biases have psychological components. There is this belief that if we just put people in a room and train away their stereotypes, everything will be good, but stereotypes and biases are sociological as well as psychological phenomena. They are dependent on context.

Organizations are complex social, cultural, political, and economic systems. Looking at the problem only from the psychological angle misses a lot of the sources of inequality and a lot of the dynamics and processes that stand in the way of solving the problem of inequality.

What’s next on the horizon?

Frank: One of the main things we are working on now is a longitudinal study of how changes in diversity lead to changes in corporate performance. Most studies so far have been cross-sectional, showing that more diverse companies have better profitability or share-price performance.

Very successful companies tend to be expanding quickly, and if you expand right now, it’s easier to hire more African-American managers than it was 40 years ago because there are more African-American MBAs today, for instance. So those snapshots of diversity and performance at one point in time don’t tell us much.

It can be hard to figure out cause versus effect. We have very cool data on all publicly traded companies since 1971 and have been working for a while with some doctoral students on merging this data. In fact, we have a phone call in half an hour with the programmers to talk about how this is going. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about.

Read about the winning articles from 2015 and 2014.

Read about McKinsey’s research on diversity in the workplace.

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