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 regardless of how slowly the bureaucratic organisation might move. 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.


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 some local or international diversity and inclusion award - usually based on culturally superficial (and basic) work practices, such as writing policies and delivering presentations at local and international conferences. These days, it seems that the goal of the typical diversity and inclusion practitioner is to obtain publicity of any kind. The industry is polluting itself with over-simplistic metrics and misleading outcomes. To the trained eye, these indicate, that failure has been dressed up as success in the corporations for which diversity and inclusion practitioners work. 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 opinions of those whom the profession is supposedly representing – marginal workers.


Do public relations practitioners question, the daily realities of the marginal before posting, printing or sharing boastful, yet, frankly basic, diversity and inclusion claims through commentary to their constituencies? Do they ask how working life has changed for the marginal? Are the marginal heard? Do their opinions matter? Are they encouraged to self-actualise? Perhaps public relations practitioners and those granting diversity and inclusion awards need to consider the parameters of such important, yet perhaps, undervalued details before officially recognising those who are so often delivering only lip-service to these aims through rhetoric that disguises culturally incongruent D&I workplaces. It is possible to predict, sadly, that the outcomes of such PR work and poorly targeted awards will not benefit the profession in the long run, and in reality, they are likely to damage it. The trust of marginal workers will be lost and, more broadly, the profession will rightly be recognised as little more than a house of cards.


Diversity and inclusion cultural incongruence: what the organisation claims 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. Diversity and inclusion policies, procedures and standards are not well enacted by organisational members who hold important and influential membership capacities. 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 D&I policies and procedures, they seek, consciously or subconsciously, to observe the everyday diversity and inclusion values 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, ambiguities and complexities within the culture emerge. There is no behavioural consensus. 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 D&I awards, yet, 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 corporate D&I 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 morally and ethically from a D&I 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.


Do the marginal care about such awards, redundant events and pointless other self-serving, time-wasting activities that aim to produce legitimacy? It is possible, but unlikely! Rather, they care about their daily workplace reality and how organisational life will change for them on the ground, if and when, diversity and inclusion policies are rolled out. 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. This is simple diversity and inclusion work per se: 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 D&I 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.


Who sponsors or hinders diversity and inclusion change?


I am not suggesting that the whole burden of D&I cultural congruency should be placed on the practitioner. This is an impossible task. In fact, if one is well-versed in the divergent perspectives of organisational culture, it is clear that complete congruence is rarely, if ever achieved. Rather, always present is a plethora of perspectives from the various observers of the culture of the organisation. Put differently, organisational members can and do represent their organisations in a variety of ways: however, which of those representations are perceived as most important and are thus communicated at particular moments in organisational life depends on who the organisational members are speaking to, and why. Consider a powerful manager versus a marginal subordinate: the sponsorship for change and associated diversity and inclusion perspectives is likely to be very different for these two demographically different members. Hence, divergent cultural perspectives emerge. This complexity, of course, does not take into consideration another vexing problem that convolutes organisational members' representations even further: that of D&I jargon. Words that rarely sustain exactly the same meaning from and for everyone in the organisation at any time.


Nonetheless, the profession of diversity and inclusion in organisations has often been used to present a quasi-corporate façade, which allows the power constructs to remain as structurally strong as ever. In other words, the diversity and inclusion profession has largely permitted and, in many ways, propelled, power construct obscurity. In reality, the same privileged cohorts still hold the power, albeit less visibly. To an organisational outsider, diversity and inclusion activity thus appears valuable: yet, reality evidences very little significant change on the ground level for the marginal worker. It is not only the marginal worker’s experience that requires unearthing: equally important is the uncovering and deep analysis of the psychological constructs of those in possession of power and their resistance to change. I hold this view strongly: redirect privilege, and psychological constructs become more humanised, empathy evolves and insight grows - albeit after some psychological discomfort. Keep privilege as the status quo and nothing changes - no matter how many diversity and inclusion managers an organisation may hire.


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. Ethnographic approaches to organisational research are the most appropriate methods of analysis. Other methods of gaining diversity and inclusion diagnostics are typically oversimplified and often misleading. Consequently, they result in an insecure profession, obsessed with promoting its legitimacy through undeserved publicity that boost the corporate profile of the apprehensive diversity and inclusion practitioner and, more notably, their employer.


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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