It’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination on the basis of race. This increased racial diversity in the workplace. But myriad black employees still struggle to get hired, retained, promoted and included at work.

To reap the fruits of diversity — studies link it to increased team performance, innovation, productivity and revenues — many companies, like Goldman Sachs and EY, have made eye-catching pledges to improve diversity at all levels of the organization. This often involves “managing diversity” so that its well-documented benefits are maximized. This is reflected in the growth in number of diversity and inclusion (D&I) officers — nearly half of S&P 500 firms have appointed one.

Pledges to improve diversity are one thing, but what about the other half of the D&I equation? Inclusion can be defined as the extent to which black employees gain access to social capital and networks, influence decision-making and feel they belong. But how easy is it to have a sense of belonging when it is legally possible to rescind a black woman’s job offer on the basis that she has dreadlocks?

Failures of Diversity Practices

Challenge: Identity Regulation

D&I officers have largely failed to improve the lot of black people in the workplace.

They often encourage black employees to “fit” into existing work cultures instead of eradicating systemic inequality in organizations. This is not through lack of effort — many are minorities themselves — rather, they are constrained by hierarchies and limited resources.

This approach to managing diversity is no substitute for dismantling the underlying power dynamics that privilege particular leaders and groups. Rather than see diversity as an issue to be managed, D&I officers might examine how black employees are affected by structures and institutions — including firms’ histories, routines, processes and networks — that lead to low inclusion.

Challenge: The Business Case

Another problem: motivation. When companies value diversity for its impact on profitability, it commodifies blackness and objectifies black people, making them valuable to the extent that they can boost organizational performance. Diversity initiatives’ success is measured by increased market share, rather than their impact on black people’s satisfaction and well-being.

Challenge: Broad Definitions

A further challenge is that organizations define diversity in broad terms that can encompass all aspects of identities and experiences, rather than those rooted in historical patterns of exclusion, marginality and disadvantage. This makes it difficult for organizations to acknowledge and address institutional norms and practices that disproportionately discriminate against black employees. It also contributes to the notion that social groups are homogenous — that all black people share the same values, beliefs and goals. This may inhibit their career opportunities and development.

Combating Myth and Ceremony

There are plenty of broad and fuzzy definitions of diversity in academia — many universities reference diversity in mission statements. Yet one study found that diversity often functions “as myth and ceremony rather than having a substantive impact on organizational work or outcomes.”1

This may also explain why high ranking black employees tend to be D&I officers, suggesting their knowledge is only considered valuable within specific aspects of an organization. Having black D&I officers may also alleviate responsibility and accountability for deeper institutional change, as if just “saying so” is enough.

Strategy: Don’t Just Say So, Talk About It

D&I officers need to facilitate space for employees to hold difficult conversations, whether those discussing experiences of inclusion or ostracism, to address tensions among employees. And initiating dialogue about an organization’s past, as well as its employees’ contemporary experiences, can help educate individuals about how historical context can shape groups’ access to resources and opportunities. While these can be challenging conversations, it’s not until organizations confront their racist pasts that they’ll be able to truly move forward.

Strategy: Undo Undermining Practices

It’s also important to avoid modifying black people’s identities and expressions, instead focusing on changing the status quo — undoing practices that undermine their inclusion and performance. D&I officers should ensure they value black people for their ideas and talent, not their access to certain markets or ability to “fit in.” The workplace should neither ask black colleagues to conform to white norms nor ask them to serve as representatives of an entire race.

Strategy: Focus on Fair

A further way to improve the effectiveness of D&I efforts is to have them focus on fairness, equity and justice — including restorative justice. Years of inequality have led to lasting and disproportionate challenges faced by minorities in securing employment or opportunities for advancement. As an example of efforts toward restorative justice, Starbucks’ hiring programs target refugees and youths of color. This approach shifts the attention away from managing diversity and toward eradicating racism in organizations.

Diversity is not a problem to be managed. Injustice is.

Darden Postdoctoral Researcher Courtney McCluney co-authored with Verónica Caridad Rabelo the chapter “Managing Diversity, Managing Blackness? An Intersectional Critique of Diversity Management Practices” in Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, edited by Darden Professor Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo and David A. Thomas.

 

  • 1. L.L. Rowley, S. Hurtado and L. Panjuan, “Organizational Rhetoric or Reality? The Disparities Between Avowed Commitment to Diversity and Formal Programs and Initiatives in Higher Education Institutions,” presented at the 83rd Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, 2002.
About the Expert

Courtney McCluney

Postdoctoral Researcher

McCluney serves as a postdoctoral fellow at both UVA’s Darden School of Business and Center for Interprofessional Education at the School of Nursing. Her research considers how marginalized employees — those lacking access, resources, status and power — successfully navigate organizational contexts so that they are not merely surviving, but thriving at work. It also investigates factors that enable marginalized employees to construct positive work identities and experience well-being. She has published in the Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings, the Journal of Vocational Behavior and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal.

Prior to coming to Darden, she worked as a research associate at Catalyst Inc. and served as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

B.A., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; M.S., Ph.D., University of Michigan

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