Ten Barriers to Effective Diversity Policy

Creating policies and programs to increase diversity, equity and inclusion can be difficult. Don't let these 10 reasons why diversity policies can under-deliver sneak into your organization.

By Kay Formanek
Ten Barriers to Effective Diversity Policy

Insights gained through policy audits conducted at many client organizations, together with analysis of leading diversity policies reveal 10 key reasons why diversity policies can under-deliver.

1. A perception gap in the value of the policy between leaders and target groups

In one 2019 global survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 16,500 people representing women, racially or ethnically diverse employees and people of the LGBTQI+ community were asked about the diversity issues that affect them versus what the leadership thinks, particularly where leadership was made up of mostly white, middle-aged males. The results revealed a striking perception gap between employees' and leaders' perceptions on diversity issues. Such gaps can lead to the adoption or perpetuation of policies that are not required or valued—or worse, leaders failing to put in place a policy that is sorely needed.

2. An assumption that all diversity policies are equally valued by all minority groups

Leaders often institute policies that apply to all members of the organization on the assumption that these policies are equally valued by all members. This is not the case in practice: for example, parental leave policies may be valued by parents but less so by employees without children. In the same way, policies may be applied generally to all minority groups, even though there are clear differences between them regarding which policies are most valuable and most likely to support equity and its advancement.

3. Minority employees not sufficiently consulted

Perhaps surprisingly, the intended beneficiaries of policies are often left out of the loop when it comes to the development and application of diversity policies. This is particularly likely to occur when leaders' perceptions of what is valuable diverge from those at whom the policies are targeted. Employee resource groups (ERGs) are a great way to tap into employees' views on diversity policies and practices, but they are currently not leveraged enough. These groups are a great potential entry point for more effectively integrating diversity policies and practices within the organization.

4. Policy effectiveness is overlooked

There is considerable scholarly and business research into what constitute the most effective diversities policies and practices. One key finding is that while diversity policies can bolster workplace equity and business performance, poorly developed policies can prompt resistance and surface more difficulties for marginalized or underrepresented workers.

5. A disconnect between policies and diversity protections

Policies are valuable when there is consistently applied recourse and when individuals are confident they will not be harassed or penalized by seeking recourse. Yet incidences of retaliation are rising and not adequately satisfied in policy. Retaliation charges accounted for more than half (53.8 percent) of all charges in a review of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's litigation in 2019. Together with policies that prohibit discrimination and harassment through a clearly stated zero tolerance for retaliation, leaders and team members can be educated about the prerequisites for creating a safe and respectful environment for those claiming and/or experiencing discrimination.

6. Policies are not pruned

Many organizations have too many diversity policies which are not integrated, and thus difficult to apply in practice. It is like having partial rules for the game applied by many different coaches. For instance, HR, risk management or the DE&I function may all have responsibility for different diversity-related policies. Compartmentalizing policies in this way can lead to a plethora of policies each tackling one aspect of diversity performance without considering potential synergies or crossovers. In such a scenario, there is no overall diversity policy playbook to support the organization's strategic diversity narrative. The remedy is to review and prune the policies to weed out those that are not serving the organization because they are unnecessary or ineffective and focus instead on those policies which are impactful.

7. Failure to harness technology for engagement

Technology can play a critical role in helping to engage the organization around policies and practices. Employee engagement digital platforms can help organizations in a number of ways, not least with real-time onsite and remote engagement. Sophisticated metrics and real-time data make it easier to track ERG activities and measure engagement for a clear view of ROI. Such platforms facilitate mentorship programs, increase employee referrals, improve employee orientation, and segment groups to promote richer employee self-identification and deeper inclusion. Sharing resources, educational opportunities, upcoming events, and inclusive stories with the broader company in real time becomes easier through technology. Not least, pulse surveys are also easier to facilitate for gathering information on what is important to employees, which policies they value and the organization's inclusive leadership performance.

8. Legalistic language that does not inspire

To bring diversity practices to life, policies need to stir the conscience and stimulate desired behaviors among all members of the organization. To do this, policies need to be translated or communicated to the organization in a way that is not only understandable but resonates with individuals' values. This means avoiding technical jargon where possible and instead harnessing familiar language and imagery that aligns with the organization's culture and purpose.

9. Governance of policies is lacking

Like a handbook for the rules of a game, good governance around policies needs to be clear, transparent and consistently applied. A frequent problem is that governance of diversity policy becomes too distributed within an organization and there is no oversight on policy implementation. Once policies have been inventoried and linked to key diversity outcomes, it is important to establish clear oversight. For some organizations, the policy governance overview may sit with risk management and/or HR. Once organizations evolve to higher maturity levels, governance may be concentrated within one function of the organization— such as the diversity and inclusion office—with operationalization distributed across various functions, such as HR.

10. Linkage of policies to diversity narrative and goals

To ensure relevance and effectiveness, policies need to collectively and individually support the strategic narrative for diversity performance and the organization's strategic diversity goals. Policies are often developed bottom-up, with reference to best practices and as a response to legal requirements. While this is a good source of innovation, it needs to be done with a clear view of the diversity outcomes being sought and a clear sense of how these will be operationally supported.

To create policy alignment, some organizations develop a policy hierarchy map that links each policy into a 'family of policies' that, together, contribute to key strategic outcomes that in turn link into the organization's strategic diversity narrative. With a clear hierarchy of targeted and strategic policies in place, it is easier to collectively monitor progress towards key diversity outcomes.

This is an extract from Beyond D&I: Leading Diversity with Purpose and Inclusiveness by Kay Formanek, published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Kay Formanek is founder and CEO of KAY Diversity & Performance B.V. and author of Beyond D&I: Leading Diversity with Purpose and Inclusiveness.


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