Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. Jathan welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the email address at the end of this column.
Speaking both personally and professionally, I think there is a big misfire when discussing inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D) in the workplace, specifically as it relates to white men. As a former employment law attorney and someone who has worked with many organizations on culture, leadership and HR issues - and as a white man on Medicare - I know that white men often feel marginalized or even cancelled. The results are resentment, defensiveness and passive (or active) resistance to IE&D initiatives.
"The largest demographic group I've trained in 30+ years of DE&I consulting has been white males," said Eric Ellis, president and CEO of Integrity Development in Cincinnati. "I've gained valuable insights from them, including an understanding of key factors that often make them feel excluded from DE&I conversations." These include:
- Addressing bias: "Why am I the only one expected to acknowledge my biases when everyone has them?"
- Stereotyping: Expressing frustration about being generalized as the "stereotypical white man" who doesn't value IE&D and whose career success is solely attributed to their race and gender.
- Lack of advocacy and support: Being concerned that IE&D advocates rarely stand up for them when they experience discrimination in the workplace based on their identity or characteristics.
Relevant to any IE&D initiative are three mental heuristics (brain shortcuts): 1) unconscious bias; 2) confirmation bias; and 3) the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Diversity training invariably includes the discussion of unconscious bias. As I've written before, unconscious bias is the tendency to favor what is most like us. An important related concept is confirmation bias, which is the tendency to resolve competing facts, ideas and options by selecting what we're already inclined to believe. Perhaps most important for understanding white men's resistance to IE&D initiatives is the Fundamental Attribution Error: how we assess ourselves versus others.
For example, if I succeed, it's due to the tenacious application of my talent, knowledge and skill, plus my perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity. Unless I already know and like you, if you succeed, it's primarily due to you being lucky. Conversely, if I fail, it wasn't a lack of talent, perseverance, tenacity, etc. It was my lousy luck! Your failure, however, was due to your lack of one or more of these qualities.
Here's another way to think about it. When you inadvertently cut somebody off in traffic, which prompts a horn honking and perhaps a raised middle finger, you tell yourself, "It was an accident. I was distracted. I was under stress. I'm a courteous driver who made an innocent mistake." By contrast, if you get cut off, it's because that driver "is a selfish #$@%^&*!"
These three heuristics present challenges for everyone during IE&D training, especially white men. If I'm a white man who's achieved organizational power, influence and substantial compensation, you're telling me it's the sheer luck of my gender and skin color. If people who aren't white and/or male haven't enjoyed my level of success, you're telling me it's because of their bad luck in not overcoming the obstacle of people like me. I ain't buying it!
A New Inclusion Strategy
My advice is to create a specific white male inclusion strategy. That starts with a holistic message about the benefits to everyone of a more diverse workforce. There is ample evidence that diversity improves organizational health, benefiting everyone, including white men. Emphasize that the diversity initiative is not a zero-sum game with white guys being the zero. For example, some internal IE&D leaders have told me that when they began their work, it was 100 percent diversity-related. Since then, they've had to allocate substantial time to requests from white men to join them on customer or client pitches or visits.
Seek out white men to participate in your initiative. For example, when one of my clients formed a IE&D committee, a higher-ranking white man was recruited to be co-chair. This move later proved crucial when tough messages needed to be communicated to the overwhelmingly white male leadership group. White male participants can help overcome resistance and promote successes.
IE&D also shouldn't be another box-checking exercise or training program. In my experience, to be effective, it needs to be part of a disciplined strategic planning process following guidelines such as the ones I describe here. Start with a mission-centric approach. As I explain here, good sports teams excel at diversity and inclusion. A key reason: Everyone shares the same goal and knows their respective roles in achieving the goal.
In addition, key metrics need to be identified, such as the demographics of who holds what positions and at what compensation levels. More than just the obvious numbers, however, the due diligence component of strategic IE&D planning should include a close assessment of how employee selection decisions are made and how careers are developed. For example, consider my former career. I founded my own law firm and became what's known in the trade as a "rainmaker," meaning I generated enough work to keep myself and other attorneys, paralegals and support staff busy. How did I get there? Talent? Perhaps a smidge. Luck? Certainly. Critical mentorship? Absolutely!
When I was a young attorney in a large law firm, two senior partners took an interest in me. They gave me opportunities for face time with clients and increasingly responsible roles at trials and other legal proceedings. I got included on business trips and client pitches, and advice, instruction and correction for my many mistakes were constructively given. These two partners were absolutely essential to my rise as an attorney, and eventually to me having the ability to launch my own firm. As you might suspect, both attorneys were older white men, people who mostly look like me today.
Use Star Profiles
In past columns, I've made the case for using a star profile approach, including here and here, which involves identifying and succinctly expressing the core behaviors of what a successful person does on the job. Focusing on the actual behaviors that are necessary for success makes it less likely that subjective gut feelings of fit will dictate the choice.
Besides leading to better employee selection decisions, a star profile can go a long way in helping managers prevent or resolve workplace relationship issues, such as the one I describe here between an older white male boss and a younger African American woman who reported to him. As the article describes, through a constructive star profile intervention, the two learned to trust one another and work well together.
Mutual focus on the core behaviors needed for success creates a solid workplace relationship, regardless of race, gender, national origin and other differences. It converts potential mistrust into synergy. I've also written about the human tendency to put off tough conversations, only to have the problem fester and get worse. I call it the "insidious instinct to avoid." In my experience, the avoidance instinct is even stronger in relationships among employees from diverse backgrounds. There's added fear about what the response will be if the problem is confronted directly.
When an IE&D initiative is being pursued in an organization where white men still disproportionately hold positions of power, accountability has to work in all directions. And at one end, resistance must be confronted. If you have a senior white man in a key position who is actively or passively resisting the IE&D initiative, he needs to know that it is a nonnegotiable organizational commitment. If it's not for him, he needs to go someplace else.
Similarly, as people besides white men are selected, it needs to be clear that performance expectations remain the same. HR and other leaders should be vigilant to ensure there isn't an avoidance problem in which a white male manager avoids confronting a subordinate employee due to fear of being accused of racism or sexism. As noted previously, star profiles create excellent relationship reset opportunities.
"If our organizations are to be truly diverse, we will ensure that ALL voices are represented at the table," said Colleen McManus, SHRM-SCP, a senior HR executive in Arizona. "That includes white males, and those who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and those of multiple national origins and races, and those who identify as gender-fluid or -neutral as well as our binary colleagues, and those who are of religious affiliations different than ours - or no religious affiliation whatsoever. Let's open our minds and our diversity programs to the value that ALL can bring to the table. Our organizations will be the richer when we do."
Connect on a Personal Level
To promote IE&D, you don't have to wait for a formal initiative to begin. Get curious and learn from others. Here are some starter questions.
- What's most important for me to know about you?
- What suggestions do you have for how we can best work together?
- How can I help you succeed?
- Who do you admire most and why?
- What's your favorite thing to do when you're not at work?
- What was your childhood like and how has it impacted your adult life?
To improve active listening skills, I often recommend using the EAR listening method, and for tough conversations, the No-FEAR method. The key is to initiate a conversation with someone who might otherwise strike you as "the other" and truly listen and learn. Abundant research (and probably your personal experience) show that once you connect on a personal level, the three challenging heuristics no longer become obstacles. A positive relationship ensues, and inclusion is complete.
"Inclusion efforts must be inclusive," said Ellis. "This approach doesn't ignore or downplay the reality of unequal power distribution among different demographic groups. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of avoiding exclusionary practices while striving to dismantle them. Success is best achieved by tailoring DE&I strategies and solutions to meet the unique needs of these various groups and individuals, including white males."
There are many great ways to support IE&D initiatives. Find and incorporate the ones you think will be valuable in your organization. Just make sure that your overall strategic IE&D plan includes white men.
Jathan Janove is a SHRM columnist, a former state bar "Employment Law Attorney of the Year," author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins, 2017), Master Coach and "Ask the Coach" columnist for Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered CoachingÒ, and author of the upcoming book Radically Rethinking HR: Culture First; Compliance Second.
If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to JathanJanove@comcast.net.