D&I: Dark Ages or Renaissance?

When I started out in diversity in 1991 it was a new construct. Diversity was built on a foundation of AA/EEO, social justice, and civil rights.   It was aimed at the shifting demographics depicted in a best selling business book, “Workforce 2000.” In the beginning of this work the strategies we tried were much like throwing spaghetti at the wall, we tried lots of different approaches, and continued with those ideas that stuck. As long as were not giving the employment attorneys apoplexy, back then we had pretty free reign to be creative. By the time Y2K became a non-event, both from an IT and workforce perspective, we had begun to establish best practices, proliferate diversity conferences research and publications, and offer content through various D&I professional organizations.

We also began to add the word “inclusion” to the work we were doing. It became increasingly in vogue for companies to have a Chief Diversity Officer or CDO, and many of us in the field were filling out surveys to get our firms on lists, standing up Employee Resource Groups, and integrating D&I into HR policies and practices. We began to make measurable progress with women (primarily white women), and with the LGBT community becoming more out and proud and receiving equality with regards to benefits.   We also came to realize that for many companies the Pan-Asian community was masking our intractable under-representation of African and Hispanic Americans, and we started to get more serious, as well as better at leveraging detailed scorecards.

Where D&I is in 2014?

In a post 9/11 globally interdependent recession weary world – we find ourselves continuously “transforming” with the organizations we work for. This euphemism for constant downsizing, increasing demands to accomplish more with less, and quarterly focus on deliverables – all due to complex and unpredictable business dynamics – have us all hyperventilating. This circumstance has resulted in many D&I leaders moving out of these roles, not only due to the stress, but because many of these jobs have been both downgraded and combined with other positions in talent management, corporate social responsibility and employee relations. HR has been the one constant over the past 25 years: reliably ambivalent about D&I. This has resulted in HR colleagues celebrating some of the D&I accomplishments, while also periodically aiming friendly fire at those occupying the diversity role. Another constant: ERG’s continue to grow and proliferate despite all this change.

In organizations where the D&I work has been sustained, we see strong business alignment which has begun to yield compelling evidence of an emerging competitive advantage that has kept it relevant in spite of all of the turmoil. The current state of D&I in any organization depends largely on whether the CEO/CHRO value what is being delivered. When the value of D&I is perceived as low – we see companies reverting to the dark ages of employee engagement and inclusion. Where the value of D&I is perceived as high, we see an emerging renaissance.

As Mary O’Hara Devereaux has documented in her book, “Navigating the Badlands,” the human race is experiencing a period of phenomenal change not experienced since the 10th and 11th centuries. It is up to contemporary business leaders to decide during these tumultuous times whether they will succumb to the current chaos, or, like the Medici Family, chart a path forward by embracing diverse thought leaders who see exciting possibilities where others may only see risks.

As the artist Phil Hansen illustrates so eloquently in his video, instead of seizing the day, perhaps we should seize the limitations. Link to video.


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