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The Charge Of The White Brigade

The recently concluded US presidential election was unprecedented in the polarization of voters by race and gender. Racial minorities and women voted for Hillary Clinton in significantly higher numbers, just as whites, and men voted more frequently for the Republican president-elect Donald Trump. If this profile of the electorate were to be confirmed in subsequent quadrennial elections, core demographics would appear to favor the Democratic Party. The reason is that the millennial generation (those born between 1982 and 2004), which has just overtaken the baby boomers as the largest US demographic cohort, is the most diverse in history.

A striking visual demonstration of this fact is shown in the accompanying map published by the Brookings Institution that shows “minorities comprise more than half of the millennial populations in ten states, including Texas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey (Figure 1). In ten additional states, including New York, Illinois, Virginia, North and South Carolina, minorities comprise more than 40 per cent of millennial residents. Other states have whiter millennial populations, but only nine states are home to largely (over 80 per cent) white millennial populations (e.g. Wyoming, Iowa, West Virginia, and Maine)” (Frey, 2016). In the post-millennial generation, these trends are even more marked.

Only time will determine the political landscape that will emerge as this trend develops, but it will, presumably, be made clear in the voting booth, person by person, vote by vote. What is less clear is whether this same diversity will be reflected inside the corporation where, after many years of explicit commitment to diversity of opportunity, the monochrome nature of leadership remains surprisingly unchanged. From mid-management up through board committee leadership, the same lack of movement and in some cases reversal of gains can be observed. This immobility is not exclusive to the USA.

A 2015 study by the Green Park executive recruitment firm cited in The Guardian reported that “the proportion of non-white managers in 7,700 positions below the boardroom level of FTSE 100 companies has fallen to 5.7 per cent from 6.2 per cent a year ago” (Treanor, 2015). The same study reported that while there had been some increases in the representation of women in main and operating boards, it had increased only very slightly.

While diversity in the workplace is not seen as uniformly positive in every situation, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that it is highly correlative to business success and enhanced shareholder returns. A much-disseminated McKinsey study suggests that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have returns above their respective national industry medians (Hunt et al., 2015).

The continued struggle to improve diversity across a wide variety of industries suggests, however, that it may be necessary to go beyond well-intentioned efforts to enhance minority recruitment and promotion to truly create the kind of diverse cultures that corporations will need to thrive as the demographic make-up of the USA continues to shift in the direction of diversity. Indeed, companies will need to dig much deeper into what it means to be inclusive if they genuinely want to reap the benefits that diversity brings.

The struggle to move the needle on diversity can be observed everywhere, and lack of equity and diversity persists in some surprising and not so surprising ways. A recent study on race and gender equality in the boardroom by professors at the University of Missouri cited by the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation demonstrates how much of the devil is in the details (Souther and Yore, 2016). The authors examined the board compensation of 1,500 directors of S&P 500 companies and found that “women and minorities were systematically less well compensated compared to their peers, despite having higher qualifications on average”.

The reason? They are much less likely to serve as committee chairs or serve on the more well-compensated power committees – audit and compensation, for which director fees are often more substantial. Thus, even within the rarified world of corporate board membership, deep inequities are remarkably tenacious.

An intriguing study by Chicago United, a corporate membership organization that promotes diversity in leadership, suggests that it is not exactly crude racial prejudice that is at work (Unrau, 2016). Gloria Castillo, president and CEO of Chicago United points out that it is the lack of “cultural connection” that makes the difference. “When we think about unconscious bias, most people think it’s a negative thing, but in fact it’s most often doing something positive for someone else”, said Castillo. “If I feel comfortable with you, I’m more likely to take you to another meeting and give you a stretch opportunity. It’s not that I don’t like “Andres”, it’s that I like “Bill” better”. This study of the top 50 Chicago companies also found that Asians, African Americans and Hispanics made up 9 per cent of executive positions, down from 10 per cent in 2014.

Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Silicon Valley, Asian recruitment aside. In July 2015, Yahoo disclosed that African Americans made up just 2 per cent of its workers, whereas Hispanics stood at 4 per cent. Those revelations came days after Facebook reported that in 2014, it had employed just 81 blacks among its 5,500 US workers, according to an article in the Washington Post (Kang and Frankel, 2015). While these and other companies ramp up their efforts, it will be important that they not only enrich their pipeline but also ensure that racially diverse employees have a positive experience once they are hired.

Positive workplace experiences naturally have many dimensions, but I believe there is a clear set of practices that align most powerfully not only with demonstrable benefits from diversity but also with workplace retention. Some of these have become well established in the most successful companies over the last decade. Encouraging affinity groups for different minorities, for example, helps build networks for those involved and provides forums for the discussion and resolution of shared issues.

Giving these groups and their activities high visibility within the larger organization also helps demonstrate a commitment to diversity from the top down. These efforts, along with enhanced mentoring and individual recognition all go a long way to helping to build a culture of diversity and inclusion. However, I believe there are some more subtle ways in which inclusion and inclusiveness can be practiced in the conference rooms and cubicles of current business environment. If practiced consistently, they can contribute immeasurably to a more innovative and creative workplace community.

Inherited and acquired diversity

The focus in most diversity efforts is quite rightly on inherited aspects of diversity, whether of race, gender or ethnic background. However, it is also important to look for acquired diversity (Hewlett et al., 2013). That might include international work experience or unusual academic credentials, even tastes in entertainment or preferences in leisure activities.

Probing for these diversities is not always comfortable in the workplace, but it is a critical tool for uncovering fresh ideas and different approaches. Giving a voice to all these diversities, of course, requires insights and understanding that can only be derived from managers actually knowing something about the individual lives of their direct or indirect reports. This is not universally the case nor is it always entirely comfortable for some managers concerned about invading employees’ privacy. However, making the necessary effort usually produces positive results. In fact, it often reveals that acquired diversity tracks inherited diversity quite well in the form of differing life experiences. To probe for these differences is a highly effective way to give voice to people with inherited diversity at the same time.

Air time awareness

Contemporary business culture is highly intolerant of what it thinks of as formalities, preferring the imagined creativity of a meeting’s spontaneous ebb and flow to anything resembling Robert’s rules of order. In an age when many team updates now exist via conference call, video conference or webcast, the weaknesses of low structure engagements are greatly magnified. I believe that it is critical for the pendulum to swing back to a more consciously structured model for one very straightforward reason: the free form “hack session” privileges the confident voices of those accustomed to being heard and discourages minority and female voices less certain of their right to the talking stick.

Research demonstrating that women are interrupted vastly more often than men goes back to the 1970s, but more recent studies suggest that not much has changed. In a study reported in The New York Times last year, “men not only interrupted twice as often as women, but were nearly three times as likely to interrupt women as they were to interrupt other men (Robb, 2015). And women also seemed far more reluctant to interrupt men. Eighty-seven per cent of the times women interrupted, they were interrupting another woman”.

While these behaviors probably spring from unconscious bias that is hard to eradicate, I believe that training could have a significant impact on this problem. When people are made aware of this tendency, they will be more competent as meeting leaders to correct for the bias.

As the meeting culture adapts, it will rapidly seem less artificial to call on a diverse group of speakers deliberately to ensure that diverse viewpoints can be heard. As this habit becomes engrained it will also help deal with the problem faced by non-native English speakers in multinational corporations whose official language is English, frustrated by the dominance of British, “Commonwealth” and American voices.

This is excerpted from the full article. Click on the link to the journal below.

“The charge of the white brigade appeared in The Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 38 Issue: 1, 2017 pp.47 -50, and is reprinted with permission from Emerald Publishing Group Ltd.

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