Diversity and Inclusion Awards: Is Failure Dressed up as Success?

October 18, 2019

 

An award to be won every other day

The many accolades tempting practitioners within the diversity and inclusion space to build their perceived professional legitimacy in the corporations by which they are employed could be seen as excessive; are they driving practitioners down thought-deprived, short-term, incorrect pathways in terms of focus, activity and output? In reality, such pathways disconnect and disengage the marginalised further while potentially placing the authority of the profession at risk. In these processes, the actual impact of diversity and inclusion work - work that is thoughtfully crafted for real impact upon marginal organisational members on the ground - is not appropriately measured. This includes life-changing outcomes for organisational members at different layers of the corporate hierarchy, sub-groups, functions and departments. Unfortunately, the complexities and ambiguities of marginal organisational members and their daily working life experience are not observed accurately or closely enough to warrant the excessive praise given to diversity and inclusion practitioners. The cultural ambiguities and complexities of those who are marginal in workplaces cannot be unearthed so easily: yet, in most cases, awards are bestowed without due consideration for the authentic opinions of those whom the profession is supposedly representing – marginal workers.

 

Short-term self-serving drivers versus long-term professional suicide

 

It does not take long, scrolling through social media channels like LinkedIn to find a practitioner in this field who has won either a local or international diversity and inclusion award - usually based on superficial (and rather basic) work practices, such as writing policies and developing simple frameworks. The industry could be perceived as polluting itself with over-simplistic metrics and misleading outcomes. To the trained eye, this indicates that failure may often be dressed up as success in the corporations for which diversity and inclusion practitioners work. 

 

Diversity and inclusion cultural incongruence: what the organisation claim itself to be versus what it really is

 

As an organisational anthropologist, I have researched and also consulted in this field. I have no hesitation, though considerable regret, in stating, that a significant number of organisations are at odds with their own espoused diversity and inclusion values and policies. Some would argue that the profession is still in its infancy: in my view, that makes it critical now to course-correct the profession in order to make worthwhile progress in cementing its professionalism.

 

When organisational members at middle and lower levels of the corporate hierarchy are presented with diversity and inclusion policies and procedures, they seek to observe the everyday diversity and inclusive values of the organisation enacted by those who are morally and ethically charged with the responsibility of developing those policies. When such values and behaviours are not reflected in the daily realities of organisational life, there is a failure to execute what the corporation is claiming itself to be. This causes significant disengagement and, more problematically, disconnects the employee from trust in the values claimed by the corporation. When organisations can espouse a culturally diverse and inclusive workplace, primarily aiming to generate publicity through diversity and inclusion awards, yet, concurrently display incongruent realities on the ground, such disconnection foreshadows serious problems for the profession.

 

When the marginalised see themselves reflected in the demographic profiles of the upper echelons; when they are comfortable in providing unreserved commentary; when they are heard and understood in their workplace; when the espoused diversity and inclusive culture that is written in the policies, standards and procedures and values of the corporation are congruent and consistently observed in the daily realities of organisational life, only then can organisations proclaim that they are progressing from a diversity and inclusion perspective. Any award received before such time is probably a PR exercise in a profession aiming to build its legitimacy while delivering little but cupcake parties or other pointless celebratory gatherings that achieve very little of substance for those marginalised in workplaces. PR activities designed to boost the profile of award-winning practitioners and the companies they represent generally do little to produce ground level impact and they should be recognised as cosmetic. Perhaps it is time to look behind the façade of unnecessary accolades and examine more thoroughly what is actually changing, or not, in the daily realities of those marginalised within corporations.

 

Redefining Diversity and Inclusion impact

 

Drafting up and rolling out diversity and inclusion policies are very basic steps in diversity and inclusion work and it does not warrant awards or official recognition. It is the most rudimentary part of a practitioner’s job, preceding the really important responsibilities required of diversity and inclusion managers – albeit responsibilities that are rarely accomplished. That is, work that shifts the collective cognitive processes of organisational members, including those of upper echelons, to consistently demonstrate an organisation’s espoused diversity and inclusive culture, unfailingly enacted, carefully observed through behavioural interpretations indicating that the organisation’s culture is reflecting what it is preaching. 

 

Another difficult, yet vital, component of diversity and inclusion work for which the practitioner is responsible is shifting the power dynamics within organisations to reflect greater equality. This is achieved by moving the rigid psychological and physical boundaries of organisational privilege. In my professional opinion, few have managed to execute thoughtful strategies to achieve this successfully and this is why the dial has moved very little on gender pay gaps, board compositions and cohort heterogeneity within the upper echelons of ASX organisations.

  

To summarise, diversity and inclusion awards should be based on the impact that diversity and inclusion work has on the marginal worker and their membership role within the organisations wherein they work. This should be measured through the observable, direct and indirect daily actualities of organisational life. From this perspective, the ethnographic approach to organisational research is the most appropriate method of analysis.

 

Theaanna Kiaos is an organisational anthropologist, specialising  in organisational culture and diversity. Theaanna is completing  her Ph.D. in Management (ethnography) through Macquarie Graduate School of Management. Theaanna has been a sought-after and successful speaker at numerous D&I conferences. She has been interviewed on SBS World News on the topic of "Most Australian workplaces are failing to achieve diversity": she has also been interviewed as a subject matter expert by Women's Agenda and Shortlist.

 

Contact: Theaanna.Kiaos@diversityfirst.com.au

 

 

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