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Do We Really Need “Diversity Consultants”?

I’m an organization development (OD) consultant (who has been published in this newsletter a half-dozen or so times). My clients have included organizations such as Mercedes-Benz, Chase, Merck, Hewlett-Packard, Coldwell Banker, American Press Institute, and over 300 others like them in the public and private sectors. My OD work has sometimes included an emphasis on diversity, such as focus groups, audits, interviews, executive coaching, and so forth. And it almost always includes some element of diversity and cultural sensitivity in terms of leadership, management, succession planning, feedback, hiring, retention, etc.

My question is: Do we really need a specialist who portrays himself or herself as a “diversity consultant”? I don’t think so. There are three major reasons.

First, the acceptance and success of diverse workplaces can’t be seen as a “separate” issue.

Too many organizations throw money at the diversity “problem” and assume it will disappear. They hire specialized diversity consultants, trainers, and/or speakers–sometimes at considerable expense–and assume they’ve done their part.

In truth, diversity must play as integral a role in the nature of business management as does finance, sales, production, recruitment, or any other key accountability. Managers wouldn’t sacrifice their financial accountability or surrender their sales responsibilities because they’ve hired a consultant or brought in a guest speaker. Nor should they relinquish (or be allowed to relinquish) their accountability for ensuring a diverse, heterogeneous, and productive workplace.

To separate out a diversity goal as a distinct element from the overall organizational setting and dynamics is silly and, worse, doomed to failure. As long as diversity is seen as an issue separate from mainstream organizational issues it will remain an exception and generate compliance but not commitment. The best organizations use diversity goals alongside all other management goals (sometimes reflected in what’s been called a “balanced scorecard”) and managers are evaluated on progress in diversity as they are in all other accountabilities.

Second, you can’t be an effective diversity trainer or consultant without understanding organizational dynamics and possessing those particular consulting skills.

To be able to deal with discrimination in the workplace, change attitudes and behaviors, promote the power of diverse teams and approaches, and enable all people to fulfill their potential requires a significant knowledge in the areas of coaching, reward, feedback, evaluation, group dynamics, conflict resolution, and so forth. These are the areas of expertise and are the attributes of true consultants, because these areas are all part of the organizational dynamic, affecting each other continually.

Specialists in diversity are looking at one small part of the picture, a few single tiles in the mosaic. Focusing solely on diversity is like focusing solely on accounts payable and expecting profit to increase, or concentrating exclusively on problem solving and expecting better strategy. The practitioner needs the ability to take a holistic view, and must have relevant change management skills and experiences.

Third, a great deal of diversity “training” and consulting is non-validated, “feel good,” and simply an attempt at politically correct language and behavior.

There are well documented instances (such as the external trainers assigned to deal with sexual harassment at the Federal Aviation Administration asking people to partially disrobe and smell each other’s clothes) which would be uproarious if they weren’t so pathetically amateurish, casting a horrible pall over the entire training profession. Consulting and training methodologies, however, do exist and are constantly being refined. There is a methodology to adult learning, for example, and everyone knows that decision making requires three main elements (objectives, alternatives, and risk), or that conflict resolution must examine both goals and means, just to give a few examples of structure within the consulting discipline.

However, there doesn’t seem to be a methodology to diversity work, excepting what’s in the trainer’s mind or on the workshop leader’s personal agenda. There is a dearth of clear, outcome-oriented objectives, of measures of success, and of longitudinal studies. Rarely does one see documentation of validated results, and when it does occur (e.g., heterogeneous teams are actually more productive and innovative than homogeneous teams), it comes from a comprehensive OD study, not a “diversity” study.

Before you send me or the editor your cards and letters, I only want to suggest this, by means of some constructive provocation: Diversity training to date has been largely reactionary, helping companies overcome the effects of law suits and bad press. In the best companies, diversity work is proactive, but it’s not based on a training program (although such a program may be a part of the larger intervention) but rather on an incorporation into, and embrace by, the organizational structure, culture, and fabric.

The longer we see “diversity” as a separate need and isolated objective, the more it will languish as a peripheral focus or, worse, a matter of compliance. We need to begin to view diversity as a normal aspect of healthy organizational life and development, and we need consultants and trainers who are competent and willing to deal with it in that context.

Here are my suggestions for evolving the current separate focus on diversity into mainstream organizational life:

  1. Create individual management accountability.
    Every manager down to front-line supervisors should have a diversity emphasis area among their key evaluation areas. This may include hiring, development, succession planning, retention, or whatever makes sense given the accountabilities at that position.
  2. Discuss diversity openly at management meetings.
    The agenda should include progress on diversity initiatives just as it does progress on financial goals or market expansion. Those running meetings must accept this as a normal part of their responsibilities.
  3. Stop isolating diversity issues.
    Human resources doesn’t need diversity specialists. They need all of their professionals completely competent in this area. Moreover, this can’t be outsourced. There must be in-house expertise available to help with diversity in the context of the overall work environment.
  4. Don’t emphasize diversity consultants and trainers.
    This isn’t like compensation, where an outside firm may be expert in sales bonuses or executive pay ranges. Diversity is about human interaction; about management; about conflict; about decision making. The resources brought in to assist in the area must be able to deal with that gamut of organizational life, not just a slice of it.
  5. Establish key exemplars.
    No one believes what they read or hear in organizations, they only believe what they see. I’ve had it with executives who espouse diversity but don’t have a single minority among their direct reports, confine women executives to human resources, legal, or accounting, (and won’t allow them in sales, marketing, or production, for example) and make it difficult for the physically challenged to gain job advancements. Organizations need visible, powerful exemplars who show the way. Consequently, consultants are needed who are unafraid to place that accountability where it belongs: at the doors of the top executives.

I think we need to be very careful about establishing a diversity “cult,” where a few self-proclaimed (for there isn’t any certifying board for diversity trainers or consultants–anyone can simply hang out that shingle) have all the answers and everyone else is expected to conform or be labeled “anti-diversity,” or worse. One of the reasons that the quality effort has been so relatively ineffective if that it did develop “cult-like” advocates who saw their jobs and their consulting as strictly limited to that universe, without any regard for the wider, pragmatic world of the organization. (After winning a major quality award, Florida Power & Light disassembled its vast quality apparatus when a new CEO discovered that it was geared exclusively to winning awards and not toward serving the customers.)

We cannot view quality, diversity, or any other worthy goal in isolation, or that goal becomes a narrow, insulated, and irrelevant department which receives money and lip service, but little else. We can’t afford, quite literally for the sake of organizational success, to allow diversity goals to be compartmentalized, isolated, and figuratively disassembled.

It’s time to move diversity work once and for all into the mainstream. That’s what excellent consultants, internal or external, ought to be striving to do. And that what the best organizations have already done, with or without those consultants.