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Why Most Diversity Initiatives Fail

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Over the past 20 years, it has become painfully obvious that the majority of diversity initiatives fail to achieve their stated goals and objectives. The reason for this failure can be made obvious by reviewing a recent job description for a diversity consultant at a major law firm. The company wanted a high-level person who was capable of working with powerful attorneys to attract a greater diversity of staff into the company, reduce turnover of minority attorneys, increase involvement of affinity groups throughout the organization, develop and deliver multicultural-sensitivity training to offices throughout the world, and help each office with its own unique diversity challenges.

This position had no support staff, was described as "a 16-hour-a-day job" and had gone unfilled for longer than a year. Is it any wonder? In addition, this "director-level" position reported to the head of human resources. Any company serious about diversity has the director of diversity reporting directly to the CEO.

Most diversity initiatives fail because they are overly ambitious and underfunded. While seeking to make major structural changes within an organization, they tend to lack support for the very top. It shouldn't be a surprise that no one wants to take on such a job. When some unsuspecting soul does accept the challenge, s/he is usually frustrated and ineffective.

One of the major reasons diversity initiatives fail is that they aren't "SMART." That is, they aren't:

S = Specific. For example, exactly how much do you want to increase the diversity of your work force? Most companies are afraid to set targets because they're afraid they won't reach them. To accomplish such a goal would require a total change in the way prospective employees are hired and trained. The standard interview process screens out people from other cultures who tend not to be as verbal as white Americans, such as Hispanics and Asians.

M = Measurable. Most companies don't track or make available employee retention numbers by race. The problem with most diversity initiatives is that management feels they are working or not working. Diversity initiatives can be measured if you have solid and consistent data from inception to completion. Given the right information, you can show positive or negative change and return on investment to four decimal points. However, you must be clear on what outcomes you are trying to measure so you can track the proper inputs.

A = Achievable. A diversity initiative must be supported by attitudes, abilities, skills, and the financial capacity to reach them. Without support from the top, these resources will just be another "nice to have" rather than a "need to have." Remember that planning an initiative is strategic, while implementing it is operational. How could any one person be both strategic and operational without being schizophrenic? A director of diversity is in a strategic position, while implementation is operational, which means that in order to develop and carry out effective diversity initiatives, you will need at least two people, plus support staff for both. Tackling a major diversity-education initiative requires another full-time person, plus support staff, and on it goes, depending on what you want to accomplish. You can see why most diversity initiatives are overly ambitious and underfunded. It requires a major commitment, not just a token effort.

R = Realistic. A diversity initiative must include an objective the company is willing and able to achieve. The goal can be both ambitious and realistic but should be consistent with the mission of the company. The leader of the initiative and others must truly believe that it can be accomplished. If the company has never accomplished anything similar in the past, what conditions have changed to make it possible to achieve this goal now? You can't expect a 90-minute seminar to fix a diversity challenge that took years to develop. The rough rule of thumb is that it takes about half as long to resolve a problem as it took to develop, if you have the full support of management. So if an issue has been festering for six years, expect it to take three years to fix. Unfortunately, most initiatives are rarely given this long to work.

T = Timely. There must be a deadline for accomplishment of the initiative and every step leading up to its completion. A deadline is the soonest anything will ever be accomplished, so they are crucial. Every step needed to implement the initiative must have a specific deadline. In addition, diversity initiatives must be tracked against known benchmarks. The easiest way to develop a timeline is to plan backwards. What is the specific outcome you are trying to achieve and by when? Next, ask, "What is the step that must be accomplished just before that, and when must it be done to reach the outcome by the deadline?" Then, consider the step before that and just keep going until you get to the very first step, and you will clearly see when you must start the program to reach your goal by the due date. What most companies discover after going through this exercise is that they must start diversity initiatives much earlier than originally thought.

So start small and be specific with your diversity initiatives. Make sure they have the staffing and resources needed to accomplish their goals. You would never open a director-level position without proper support staff, because such a person should be planning and coordinating, not doing paperwork or reports. If you remove the word "diversity" from the position title, does it have resources equivalent to those of comparable jobs?

About the Author:

Michael Soon Lee, MBA, is President of EthnoConnect, a multicultural consulting company that helps organizations realize the promise of diversity. He is the author of four books on marketing and selling to multicultural customers and speaks around the world on the subject. His website is, and he can be reached by phone at 800-417-7325.
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