The Frightening Reality of Workplace Diversity

The frustration was palpable.

Gathered as panelists at the April 2016 PUSHTech2020 Summit were Diversity Leaders from Yelp, Dropbox, Pinterest, Airbnb, Twitter, and Intuit. All in the early stages of launching diversity and inclusion programs at their respective companies, they came together for the first time to share challenges and successes with conference attendees.

Perceived commitment from the top was the common shared success. Letting go of the notion of lack of diverse candidates, or a “pipeline” problem was another success. Challenges abound, not so much in getting recruiters to identify diverse candidate slates, but more in getting hiring managers to consider these candidates worthy of hire. Other challenges lie in creating workplace environments that welcome different people. Listening to the panelists discuss the variations on these particular problems; I thought the struggle could be summed up in a single question, “Why are so many people so resistant to diversity?”

In pure business terms, the case for workforce diversity is substantial. Among other prominent experts, the widely esteemed strategy consulting firm McKinsey & Company[1] has been analyzing data on workplace diversity for years. The conclusions are clear: companies with diverse, inclusive workforces, where differences in approach to work are championed, and values of belonging exist, consistently outperform more homogeneous firms. This superior performance shows both in financial outcomes and in employee satisfaction. In fact, the data is so compelling that it would be ridiculous for any forward-thinking leader to not develop a diverse workforce. And yet, the struggle remains. What’s going on? And what tools and approaches do Diversity Leaders need to navigate this tricky terrain?

It’s easy to say that the human preference for sameness — to be around people who are like us, and the societal messages we are all exposed to about the inequality of groups, and our cultural beliefs and experiences all contribute to explaining the problem of workforce diversity. There is some truth in all of these explanations. Overlooked, however, is the idea that logic alone — in the form of a profoundly compelling business case — is sufficient for change. What lies unrecognized is that the business case for workplace diversity requires two components: the logical and the emotional. Progressive company heads know that workforce diversity can boost the bottom line, but they often fear moving fast toward developing that environment. After all, what happens when diverse viewpoints lead to heightened conflicts? Leaders worry that managers may be unable to manage those conflicts well and turn them into innovations. And damage to team dynamics due to unresolved hostility is a real concern.

Diversity Leaders understand the importance of surfacing and managing unconscious negative biases. They connect with the need to examine and adjust for pay equity. They want to move toward or increase recruiting at HBCU’s and other nontraditional schools. They support standardized interview processes to promote fairness; they champion internal staff development; they value the creation of welcoming environments that people want to be a part, and stay a part of; and they work hard to create workplaces where differences among people are sought out and embraced. They know that their job is large-scale managed change. Change is not the problem, resistance to change is.

The fact-based, logical business case for diversity makes people think. But it is emotion that makes people act. Navigating the steep terrain that is inherent in diverse workforce development requires developing a craft to assist people in understanding belief systems. Being a different race, gender or ethnicity makes an individual different, not deficient. The reason progress is slow is due to the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that a diverse company cannot develop unless the people in the company have belief systems that work inclusively. Developing cultural curiosity is a powerful replacement for judgment and bias. But this is a learned behavior that people either possess or are willing to develop. It does not, and will never, just happen naturally. Skilled Diversity Leaders are the ideal people to champion this work. So ask yourself, “Do you want people to stop agreeing that diversity at work matters, and start acting in bold and powerful ways that help you drive this change?”

Case study

I was hired to prepare leaders and staff for the change inherent in implementing the largest non-governmental technology healthcare project in the United States. There was nothing easy about this — resistance abounded. I recall being firmly told by a group of physicians that hell would freeze over before they would chart on mobile computers at the patient bedside! Through a planned change process, involving transparency and dialogue about belief systems, expectation setting, education, and communication, this strategic technology project was successfully implemented and embraced by physicians and staff alike.

If this article resonates with challenges you are facing, please consider joining Dr. Barb Adams and Dr. Billy Vaughn on October 28, 2016 for a day of deep engagement about diversity change management. The link is here:

We would be delighted to hear from you! Barbara & Billy

Dr. Barb Adams specializes in the human behavioral change aspects of disruptive technology. She is an expert in and has a great passion for workforce diversity and inclusion. She works with technology, healthcare, financial services and government clients throughout the United States, Europe, and Australia. She is the Founder of GAR (Gender, Age & Race) Diversity Consulting. Learn more at

Her partner in this dialogue, Dr. Billy Vaughn is a workplace inclusion, engagement, & cultural competence expert, diversity and inclusion consultant, accomplished trainer, award winning teacher, and writer. Billy founded Diversity Training University International in 1998. The free-standing corporate university furthers his goals of applying his knowledge and skills in training cultural competence among those in the community and workplace. The Diversity Executive Leadership Academy, an executive level diversity leadership certification institute, is a subdivision. Learn more at