The Truth About Diversity

joe gerstandt
May 4, 2018 · 15 min read
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My name is Joe. I do diversity work.

More specifically, Organizational Diversity &Inclusion work, which I have been fortunate to do for nearly 15 years now and have been able to do with organizations of all shapes, sizes, and kinds. It is an exasperating and an exhilarating time to be a part of this work. I have never before witnessed the kinetic energy that is building up around this work right now. Fueled by increased attention, by new people, new perspectives and practices, new technology, and higher expectations, there is a great deal of experimentation and innovation taking place right now. This body of work is about to bloom brightly, out loud and in public.

I am excited.

First, a point of clarity. Not only are issues of diversity and inclusion themselves poorly understood, the work itself is poorly understood. There are lots of folks who roll their eyes at what I do, even though they do not actually know what I do. There are a lot of opinions (informed and otherwise) about this work, its content, form, and objectives. Additionally, for better or worse, there are a great many things done and said in the name of diversity and inclusion today, so I want to clarify the work that I am talking about here.

This work, that I will refer to as Organizational D&I work, is work done in the name of more fully recognizing, honoring, and inviting the full potential of humanity: creating spaces and places where human beings, who are naturally different from each other, can be true, tell the truth to each other, aggregate their gifts, and create their future together.

In the name of occasionally being both hired and paid by for-profit entities, I frequently try to capture that in a more capitalism-friendly narrative. This generally sounds something like: developing and delivering intentional approaches toward diversity and inclusion as opportunities to capture competitive advantage in the marketplace of customers, the marketplace of talent, and the marketplace of solutions. Because there has to be a hook! We will get to that in a bit.

Whether or not you agree with my definition of the work, or the specific language used, the point I am hoping to make is that the work I speak of here is toward human flourishing. Flourishing on all levels: flourishing as a species of beings sharing this rock, flourishing as teams and organizations in a variety of systems and cultures with a variety of objectives, flourishing as individual, absolutely magical, one-of-a-kind human beings.

The purpose of the work I am talking about, the product of this work is human flourishing.

And this work is in its infancy.

I read about “diversity fatigue.” I see that fatigue in the eyes of the V.P. of Human Resources distraught that “we have to talk about this stuff again,” and I want to say, “Buckle up, buttercup, we are just getting started.” Because we are.

We are just getting started.

We are just. Getting. Started.

There are a whole lot of people in the world of work who have comfortably — and lazily — confused talking about diversity and inclusion with doing diversity and inclusion.

And this time right now?

This is the doing time.

This work is actually still a small, though growing, portion of what is done and said in the name of diversity and inclusion today, and still very much in its infancy.

The work that came before.

For some historical context and to more clearly differentiate what I am talking about from related work, allow me a few paragraphs for a quick and incomplete summary of where we have come from.

(For a good read on the roots of this work, read A Retrospective View of Corporate Diversity Training From 1964 to the Present)

In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was an increased need for antidiscrimination trainings and providers as organizations failed or refused to comply with the law. The vast majority of this training, carried out through the 1960s and 1970s, had a heavy focus on compliance. “This is what the law says, this is what company policy says, this is why you should comply, here are some donuts, get back to work.”

While it is today not the monopoly that it was then, compliance work still represents a big chunk of what gets (incorrectly, I believe) lumped into diversity and inclusion work. You can still find organizations, and in fact nearly whole industries, where diversity and inclusion are seen solely as inconvenient issues of compliance.

More women and People of Color trickling into the workplace meant the advent of assimilation training — programs designed to help women and People of Color fit more neatly into the predominately white and male workplaces they were more frequently being allowed into. You can still find these programs in place today, being delivered in the name of diversity, which is, well, dishonest.

Toward the end of the 1980s came greater awareness of changing population demographics, and employee and customer demographic trend continues to be a central part of the “business case for diversity” today.

With the growing realization that workforce diversity would continue to increase, organizations started to become interested in sensitivity to differences in the workplace. A certain amount of training, carried out in the name of sensitivity, delivered in the ’80s and ’90s caused white men to feel that they were being singled out as “the problem,” which in some cases was certainly true. In a few cases those white men were even explicitly told they were the part of the problem, and nearly all white men still hold a grudge today.

Up until the late ’90s, nearly the entirety of what had been done and said in the name of diversity was done in the service of legal obligations and/or a deficit paradigm regarding diversity — approaching diversity as a problem to be fixed or overcome.

Nearing the year 2000, despite growing concern that the world was going to end because of our clocks, there was an important turn being made relative to this work. There was increasing realization that human differences, or diversity, can be a source of value. There was also awareness that the environment around said diversity mattered, and the idea of inclusion, or the word at least, began to gain popularity.

So, the Organizational D&I work that I am talking about, which is about flourishing rather than compliance, tolerating, or fixing people, is very much in its infancy. In fact, this work has still not found its way into most organizations today. This work is a couple of decades old, and while it is certainly a product of the work that came before it, it is distinctly different from that work.

I do want to distance this work from that work, but, I am, at the same time, respectful of and thankful for that work. There have been a lot of brave, pioneering men and women who took big steps on very different social terrain than that upon which we travel today.

Compliance work most certainly remains necessary. I do, however, think it is problematic to consider it diversity and inclusion work. It serves a different purpose, it’s rooted in a different expertise, and its effectiveness must be evaluated differently. Compliance has, I believe, a much more logical and more effective home in management.

There are also programs framed as diversity and inclusion efforts, but which actually run counter to this work. There are HR leaders who want us to focus on what we have in common rather than our differences, because they interpret difference as problem rather than opportunity. There are even thought-leader, consultant, and guru types who will dismiss issues related to race or gender as problematic or divisive, only to turn around and sell you their very own color-coded model of different personality types, replacing actual human diversity with their own version of the zodiac for profit. All done in the name of diversity.

It simply cannot be said that everything done in the name of diversity is pro-diversity, or even, for that matter, pro-truth.

There also remains in this space a tremendous amount of basic, fundamental awareness education being done. While there are certainly presentations, workshops, and events delivered in the name of Diversity 2.0 and 3.0 and 4.0, we remain in a largely 1.0 world. There are a whole bunch of us, still today, being paid to convince captains of industry that there is a “business case for diversity.” Because that is where we are.

When you lump it all together and say that there are “x billion dollars spent on diversity every year,” I have to say “bullshit.” At least in my head that is what I say — I am trying to not swear out loud as much anymore. When you lump it all together and tell me “diversity training does not work,” I say “bullshit.” You are lumping a whole bunch of stuff together that is not even pointing in the same direction.

I know that diversity efforts can drive valuable change — I know that real diversity training, done well, can drive valuable change. I have seen it, I have experienced it.

There are today people supporting, endorsing, and leading bold and innovative Organizational D&I initiatives, people who are going to help make this work bloom, organizational leaders who are real champions of this work, because of a presentation or workshop that impacted them.

But not all diversity training has an impact. Another part of the truth here is that some of it is garbage. There are, right now, a lot of newly minted experts on bias and gender issues in the workplace, many of whom had no time for diversity and inclusion stuff a few years ago. This is not all bad, for sure. We all start out as noobs, and there are going to be a lot more new people pulled into this body of work in the next decade. But it is not all good either. Some of the work done in this space is done poorly. Some of it is uninformed, poorly designed, poorly delivered. Hopefully we are starting to learn that grabbing someone from your HR department and putting them in charge of D&I efforts without giving that person any real support or resources is problematic.

Oh, and I know — you went to that really bad workshop that one time. I have heard all about it. But that bad workshop is not about diversity and inclusion, my fine friend. That is about a bad workshop.

And, I am sorry, but it is telling, I think, when you experience a bad presentation, a bad practice or practitioner in the diversity and inclusion space and want to dismiss the entire body of work. “It’s all bullshit!” That would be you swearing out loud, not me, by the way.

There are literally “thought-leaders” in the HR and Talent fields completely dismissive of D&I work because their employer 15 years ago had a flawed and problematic approach to D&I, because someone tried to talk to them about privilege without knowing how incredibly hard they have worked all their life, who cannot use the word diversity without the air quotes or tossing out some version of the “hey, I’m just a boring, straight, white guy, what do I know about this diversity stuff” jokey type thing that is not actually a joke.

Have mistakes been made? Of course there have. Are there poor products? Absolutely. Are there zealots, posers, and charlatans involved? For sure. You will find them in this space no more or less frequently than in the C-suite, on Wall Street, in the halls of congress, in the clergy, or on your nightly news.

Double standard much?

I wonder about all the people I have met, who cling to a particular story, experience, or data point to justify writing off this work. I wonder about when that same person encounters a bad safety presentation or an absurd leadership workshop, I wonder if they are so quick to dismiss that entire body of work? You can’t throw a book on leadership over your shoulder without hitting a leadership guru squarely in the face, and when we bump into one of those gurus who is spouting some nonsense, do we so quickly jump to the conclusion that the entire field is just some bogus get-rich scheme?

We do not.

We see it for what it is. One bad guru, one bad workshop. It’s popular right now to argue whether or not bias is a real thing, which I guess is entirely appropriate in post-truth times. But there is tremendous bias to be found in simply how we talk about and think about this work, especially among those with little or no direct experience.

But let’s talk for a minute about this body of work we refer to as leadership.

I will use the words “leadership” and “management” interchangeably here. I know we have lots of cute ways of delineating the two, but what I am talking about here is the practice of being in charge of other people in the workplace.

While there are some organizations (primarily larger companies) that have some actual dedicated resources to manage their D&I efforts, very, very close to 100% of organizations on this planet, for-profit and not, have professional management. In fact, in most organizations, professional management is one of the largest single investments they make. Regardless of how much we are actually spending on diversity and inclusion, it is a speck of dust compared to what we spend on management and management development.

To get a sense of this difference, the next time you roll into the bookstore, check out the business section. You will likely find not just dozens, but probably hundreds of books on management and leadership, and you will probably be able to count on one hand the books that are specifically about diversity and inclusion.

Management is also a body of work that has been around much, much longer than D&I work — for well over a century now we have been studying and practicing management. There have been, for many decades now, formal educational programs entirely focused on leadership. It is also frequently woven into formal education programs with other focuses. While you can find many professional spaces and places, organizations, and associations that have managed to avoid even using the words “diversity” and “inclusion,” you will not find professions that do not have messaging around, celebration of, and development programs relative to management and leadership. And how is that working out for us? What is the ROI here? What are we getting for our staggering investment in professional management?

Well, employee engagement scores suck.

Not only do they suck, they suck in spite of substantial spending on employee engagement in addition to the massive amount of money invested in leadership development.

Corporate lifespans are shrinking.

Our trust in institutions is plummeting.

And, wow, look at all the scandal! In. One. Year.

Organizations, large and small, continue to disappoint customers by failing or refusing to protect their privacy and/or their data and/or their dignity.

“Strong, successful leaders” in industry after industry have had to step aside recently because of their inability to simply not sexually harass other human beings.

We have built a practice of management, now in its second century of application, of scholarship, of development that needs training, technology, and external consultants to successfully recognize employee efforts — a practice that must be lobbied to care about employee wellness, that needs an entire external industry to make meager improvements on employee engagement, that needs an external movement to be convinced that diversity is a real thing and that it matters.

And what does it say about this thing called management, that in spite of these efforts and investments, so many outcomes for both employees and customers, remain so fantastically mediocre?

There has been for a few years now, a trendy trend building up around the idea of humanizing the workplace. Marinate on that for a moment. What does it tell you about management that, after more than a century of practice, it needs to must be convinced to humanize the workplace?

I am starting to wonder about the business case for management. This practice that is so well compensated and privileged in the workplace seems to solve little on its own. Are we getting our money’s worth, I wonder, from this massive investment? Let me pose this as a possible answer.

If we had built a model of management and leadership rooted inextricably in the reality of human beings, there would be no need today for a body of work focused on diversity and inclusion because it would be fundamental. It would be foundational. It would be the starting point of everything involving human beings. It would be the default. We would have a way of leadership incapable of denying the centrality and universality of difference to the human experience.

I would suggest that, properly understood, inclusion is the first principle, the first practice, the first product, the first proof of a real leadership — a reality-informed leadership, a leadership that is logical and sustainable.

We, unfortunately, have built something different from that. The kind of leadership mentioned above can be found, but it is hard to find, and when found it is without exception rooted in deep, deep personal conviction, because it is not the norm, and it is generally not rewarded.

We have built this other kind of thing that now teeters menacingly over top of us. We have built and trained and applauded and worshipped an ideal of leadership that is too easily self-serving, dishonest, manipulative; a way of leadership that too easily prioritizes charisma over character; a leadership that allows people to hide, that allows people to dismiss or deny truth in the name of power. This is a practice that did not stop discriminating against human beings until the law made it stop. This is a leadership that cleaves, that is at odds with the reality of the world.

If we had, with this massive, 100+ year-long investment in professional management, built a framework, an archetype, an ideal of leadership rooted in the truth and appreciation of humanity, there would not be a need for the work that I do today.

From the beginning, D&I work has been a response to injury, a response to trauma. It has been the response to an incredibly customized, personalized trauma inflicted by punishing humans for and separating them from their truth. This work is a survival response against what Aldous Huxley referred to as “organized lovelessness,” a way of managing people and workplaces which cannot validate that which it cannot quantify. This work is a simple advocacy for the truth inside of a flat and false reality, where the realest of things, things such as diversity, truth, love, honor, beauty, and community, have no real meaning.

This work shines light into workplaces with deep, dark voids where the truth has been carved out and cast aside — voids that make true engagement, honest conversation, and authentic connection extremely rare, and in fact very risky.

We have, today, leaders on full display who have accepted, advocated, and propagated the idea that diversity is nonsense, such nonsense that it requires the use of air quotes. Leaders advocating the idea that this work is “reverse-racism,” (a phrase which does actually warrant the use of quotes), advocating the idea that this work is manipulative political correctness, that it is without a solid business case. Leaders of humans. All of whom are different from each other.

The truth about diversity.

This is the truth about diversity. Diversity means difference. That is exactly and specifically what I mean every single time that I use the word. There are people who believe that it means more or less than that. I believe that they are wrong, and I believe that it matters.

Diversity means difference, and there is nothing more inherent and universal to the human condition than difference. Nothing. Diversity was here before you were here; it will be here, unfazed, after you have left this place. Human difference was a basic, fundamental truth of the human condition before your language was invented, before your profession, your religion, or your country was created. Diversity runs deeply into and throughout the story of the human being on earth — in fact, it is the story.

There does not exist a single human interaction that does not contain difference. There is no communication, no learning, no change, no creation without difference. The human race does not exist without difference.

We are different, therefore we are.

The very idea of personhood, of personal agency, of choice has no meaning without difference. And today, companies pay to be convinced it is real.

Not only is it true, ubiquitous, and fundamental to the human experience, difference is one of the most powerful forces available to us as human beings. Difference is to be found at the source of both the most awful and most amazing things that human beings have committed to and accomplished on this planet.

This is the truth about diversity. It runs deeper than any of this other nonsense that we spend our time on at work. Much like gravity, diversity does not ask for or need your validation. It requires no business case. Also, much like gravity, whether you work with it or against it makes all the difference in the world. Your conscious and/or unconscious choices of whether to engage with difference from a place of love or from a place of fear are nothing short of world-changing, world-creating choices, and this is something that every single one of us has access to.



This is the truth about diversity. It is fundamental to everything involving human beings. If you have built your world view, your politics, your leadership, or your business model on the denial or dismissal of this fundamental truth, then it has an expiration date. The truth always finds its way home. If you have crafted for yourself a comfortable, self-serving world view that denies the truth of humanity, then you have chosen to play small. You have divorced yourself from some or much of the potential that exists in the many and magical intersections to be found betwixt us and amongst us. Intersections brimming with the creative tensions of difference.

I am proud and humbled to be a part of this body of work, proud to be even a weak link in a long, long chain of warriors and poets and activists and allies, of askers-of-questions and tellers-of-truth.

This is the work that always brings us back to the truth, because it is rooted in the deepest of human truths.

If there is work that will save us from our own technology, it is this work, because it is true.

If there is work that will save us from our own politics, it is this work, because it is true.

This is the work.

These are the first things.

This is the truth about diversity.

Be good to each other.

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