Can Diversity and Inclusion Work in an America THIS Divided?

A new study by the Pew Research Center revealed that there is not only a growing division between Americans of both parties since the acrimonious 2016 election, but that levels of animosity are on the rise as well.   By David R. Morse, CEO & President of New American Dimensions

Pew found that the share of Republicans giving Democrats a “cold” rating on a 0-100 thermometer rose to 83%, up 14 points since 2016; Democrats’ views of Republicans followed a similar trajectory: 79% gave Republicans a cold rating, up 18 points since three years ago.

On Tuesday, a CBS News poll found that while a majority of Americans approve of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s Ukraine involvement, 85% of Republicans disapprove, compared to only 12% of Democrats.

These studies, and many others, reveal the difficulty that company’s face in pursuing diversity and inclusion initiatives in a country where Americans on different sides of the political spectrum can’t even seem to talk to each other.   Indeed, there are indications that attitudes toward race and white privilege may be at the very crux of what is dividing us.

This past May, Pew Research found that while a majority of Americans value workplace diversity, few endorse the idea of taking race or ethnicity into consideration in hiring and promotion.  According to the study, while most Americans say it’s at least somewhat important for companies and organizations to promote racial and ethnic diversity, only about one-in-four (24%) say that, in addition to their qualifications, a person’s race and ethnicity should be considered in decisions about hiring and promotions in order to increase diversity.

Not surprisingly, the results were polarized.  Blacks were particularly likely to say promoting racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace is very important: 67% say this, compared with 52% of Hispanics and 43% of whites.   In terms of party, Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say it’s very important (64% of Democrats vs. 29% of Republicans).

Last year, a study by Randstad USA showed the extent that the current polarized political climate can lead to feelings of alienation and deteriorating relationships in the workplace.  Among the findings:

•    38% of employees believe they have experienced negative bias at work because of their political beliefs.
•    60% are careful of posting things reflecting their political views on social media networks because they’re afraid of colleagues seeing them.
•    46% have unfollowed colleagues on social media because of political posts.
•    47% feel the need to hide their political beliefs in order to fit in with senior leaders.

Randstad USA’s chief diversity and inclusion officer concluded:   “It seems there’s no escaping politics, even on supposedly neutral ground, and unfortunately this can contribute to feelings of alienation as well as deteriorating relationships in the workplace.”

Clearly, in such a polarized environment as the one in which we live and work, diversity and inclusion can be tricky.  So many diversity programs fall flat.  And as a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review, points out, “force-feeding” diversity can activate feelings of racial resentment, rather than alleviating them.  Write the authors, sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev:

“Firms have long relied on diversity training to reduce bias on the job, hiring tests and performance ratings to limit it in recruitment and promotions, and grievance systems to give employees a way to challenge managers. Those tools are designed to preempt lawsuits by policing managers’ thoughts and actions. Yet laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out.”
According to the piece, those companies that get better results – those that are successful in increasing diversity – are the ones that forgo the control tactics and position diversity more positively.  The most effective programs are those that create engagement, increase contact between different groups, and draw on people’s desire to look good to others.

Coming together anytime soon as a nation is unlikely.  In the last couple years we’ve seen everything from Charlottesville white nationalists chanting “you will not replace us” to Rep. Steve King (R-IA) wondering why the term white supremacist is offensive; we’ve heard our president’s vilification of Mexican immigrants and the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter’s conspiracy theories about Jews and refugee resettlements.

Yet come together we must.  As Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  And I believe that D&I initiatives, if done right, by helping us to understand what drives others, and enabling us to discover the hidden biases that blind our very selves, can help.  Perhaps D&I can not only improve corporate profitability, but bring us closer together as a nation.  Never has the imperative been greater for fixing what’s broke.


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