The best diversity programs will survive GOP attacks

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The best diversity programs will survive GOP attacks

After the US Supreme Court banned affirmative action in college admissions, anti-diversity activists warned employers that their next target would be diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

In Texas and Florida, Republican governors banned public colleges from undertaking DEI initiatives. And a group of Republican attorneys general hailing from 13 states threatened the Fortune 100 companies with “serious legal consequences” and equated DEI’s programs with illegal quotas and racial discrimination. That’s quite a stretch—as civil rights attorney Alfonso David writes in Fortune, racial quotas have been illegal for nearly 50 years, as corporate lawyers well know.

GOP activists play on the public perception that corporate talent programs work like college admissions and that DEI programs give women and people of color an unfair headwind. Indeed, in most companies, talent management policies work much differently than university admissions, and the most effective DEI programs attempt to ensure that employees do not face unfair headwinds. The best initiatives create a more level playing field, moving organizations closer to the goal of being true meritocracies. And none of them should be affected by the recent court decision.

The challenge? Too few companies have paid much attention to what really works. This is one reason why progress on diversity has been extremely slow in the private sector. I don’t go around looking for silver linings in the dark polarization and backlash that has engulfed our country. But if the court’s decision shines a light on evidence-based DEI programs that do indeed reduce bias, that’s an outcome I would welcome.

There are basically two approaches to creating a more diverse team, explains Joan S. Williams, legal scholar and author of Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good. Less effective is to leave your core talent processes—recruiting, hiring, access to opportunities, performance reviews—essentially as they are, and try to factor in race or gender at the last minute. (Quick, let’s interview some diverse candidates before we hire that white guy.) A more effective approach is to review every talent management policy and process to combat bias and try to create fairer competition.

Too many companies are opting for the last-minute method, which Williams says will likely now come under additional legal scrutiny. But it’s important to remember that this hasn’t led to a significantly more diverse workforce. Multiple studies show that policies that mandate interviewing one woman or person of color for a role do not result in significantly more women or people of color being hired. And even when such candidates are hired, turnover among women and people of color is higher at companies that treat them as tokens.

Sometimes this approach also includes mandatory bias training, which researchers have found usually doesn’t work very well when not accompanied by more fundamental changes. In fact, some bias training can reinforce negative attitudes against women and minorities. And even great bias training can’t overcome a flawed system.

Changing talent management systems requires more upfront work, but is much more efficient—and results in a much more level playing field. The results are closer to a true meritocracy. It’s also less likely to backfire because people don’t feel like they’re being asked to change their way of thinking.

Let’s start from the beginning, with resume evaluation. The standard approach is for applications to be screened by the software, then by HR, and finally by the hiring managers. But decades of research have found that examiners unwittingly penalize applicants with black names, gays, women and mothers.

Such biases can harm white men as well. In one example, researchers sent identical resumes for white men to real companies; the only differences were minor changes that indicated the applicant’s socioeconomic status. For example, one candidate listed sailing, polo and classical music as his personal interests; the other song mentioned, football and country music. The polo player’s application resulted in an interview invitation 16% of the time; country music fans are only 1% of the time, despite having identical academic credentials and professional histories.

One solution: Remove personal information, including names, from resumes. Heretical? Maybe in some neighborhoods. Effective? Yes

Here’s a real-world example. For years, NASA struggled to figure out how to provide more gender balance in a scarce resource: time on the Hubble Space Telescope. Year after year, more and more male scientists were approved to use it. But when applications hid applicants’ names and other identifying details, the gender gap disappeared. There is nothing illegal about blinding resumes.

Then there is the interviewing of candidates. Structured interviews, where interviewers coordinate questions and job criteria, lead to more diversity among hires—and more qualified employees—than the free-flowing “Are we on the air?” interviews that most companies use. A recent meta-analysis—a review of studies—found that structured interviews were also a better predictor of workplace performance. Nothing illegal in a more rigorous interview process.

Likewise, we know that automatically selecting employees into leadership development programs — rather than requiring them to apply — results in those learning opportunities being distributed among a more diverse group, says University of Colorado professor Stephanie K. Johnson. , author of Inclusify, which worked with NASA to try to overturn the Hubble application process. Nothing illegal about giving everyone a chance to shine.

There may be one practice that goes out the window after the Supreme Court decision: Setting numerical goals for diversity efforts. But Williams said many companies already avoid using such targets — it sounds too much like an illegal quota. What they should do instead, she says, is measure the impact of talent management policies on different groups. In fact, collecting this data is one of the best ways to make sure you don’t accidentally (and illegally) discriminate.

Additionally, there are company policies that have little to do with anti-bias initiatives—such as offering flexible work hours—that have been shown to significantly increase the percentage of management roles held by women and people of color. Sometimes these policies are even more effective at increasing diversity than formal DEI initiatives.

Blinding resumes, using structured interviews, offering flextime – none of these practices constitute unlawful discrimination. Exactly the opposite. Managing with this level of rigor and respect isn’t “woke” — it’s good business. And the most successful companies will continue to do so.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Rooney rules do not increase diversity. Here’s what it does: Paola Cecchi-Dimelio

• Which Corporate Diversity Efforts Are Already Illegal?: Noah Feldman

• Betrayed for a black man? The Labor Market Disagrees: Catherine A. Edwards

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Greene Carmichael is the editor of Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the “HBR IdeaCast.”

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