Is the Millennial Approach to Diversity Troublesome?

As Millennials dominate workplaces, their idea of what makes a ‘diverse’ workforce is scrutinized 

By Dana Wilkie May 21, 2015
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At a time when there are more Millennials holding U.S. jobs than any other single age group, their viewpoint on workplace diversity is becoming increasingly important.

And it seems that 18-to-34-year-olds are less focused on hiring people of varying races and genders than they are on employing those with different cognitive views based on where they grew up or attended school, according to a recent studyfrom Deloitte and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative.

That’s a problem, according to Adia Harvey Wingfield, who studies issues of race, class and gender, and how they affect the workplace.

“As Millennials increasingly become the group that has greater say and control in work environments, we are likely to continue reversing the initial progress that was made when managers sought to redress systemic racial and gendered inequalities by proactively hiring groups who had been—and continue to be—historically underrepresented in these workplaces,” said Wingfield, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.

For instance, some sociologists have documented that—since the Civil Rights movement and the dawn of affirmative action programs—there’s been a decline of racial minorities in professional, white-collar occupations. That theory was examined in a 2013 papertitled “Public Sector Transformation, Racial Inequality and Downward Occupational Mobility,” written by researchers at the University of Miami, Ohio State University and the University of California at Irvine.

Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorks, which provides companies with goal-setting software,said Millennials’ approach to workplace diversity shouldn’t be troublesome.

“Millennials were born during the height of the experience economy,” he said. “They are accustom to expecting, seeking and even paying for better experiences. It only makes sense that these concepts would infiltrate their mindset at work as well. I don’t think we should look at their view of diversity as just an accumulation of experiences though—I’d argue that they see their peers in light of their abilities and how experiences have shaped their co-workers to become talented and specialized in their jobs.”

Millennials now make up a third of the U.S. workforce, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data. And in part because immigrants coming to the U.S. are disproportionately in their early working years, the number of Millennials in the workforce is likely to grow considerably in the near future, Pew reported.

By 2020, Millennials are expected to comprise half of the U.S. workforce, which means they will increasingly be in positions to hire, groom and promote workers.

“It’s important for companies to begin preparing now for this Millennial tipping point in five years,” said Millennial expert Lindsey Pollak, a spokeswoman for The Hartford, an insurance and investment companies that’s creating a 2020 Millennial Action Plan (2020MAP) to help train Millennials to be leaders.

“We always need to be vigilant in discussing diversity and incorporating it into education and training at all levels,” Pollak said. “The good news is that I have observed Millennials to be eager learners and very desiring of coaching and training. To help ensure hiring practices are continued as leadership passes from previous generations to Millennials, employers should plan for this knowledge transfer. Set in place now the hiring practices and processes that reflect your approach to diversity and be sure to offer coaching on how to keep this underway in the years to come. One idea is co-mentoring, also known as reverse mentoring, where members from each generation mentor each other.”

The Deloitte study found that when Millennials define diversity, they think less of demographic features, such as race or gender, and more about different cognitive viewpoints that may arise from where a person grew up or attended school. Differences in race or gender may play a role in this, but Millennials may not single out race or gender as important diversity characteristics on their own. 

“Diversity means to me your background based on your previous work experience, where you were born and raised, and any unique factors that contribute to your personality and behavior,” said one Millennial who was surveyed.

The authors also noted that Millennials already appear comfortable with the idea of diversity in a traditional sense—and they’re looking to expand the definition.

“Millennials’ definition of diversity may be different simply because the traditional definition of diversity is ‘normal’ for them,” Pollak said. “Also, Millennials are often more interested in experiences than owning ‘stuff.’ For example, Millennials are leading the trends of adventure travel and obstacle course races, such as Tough Mudder. They are shaped by experiences, as well as coaching and mentoring from parents, teachers, coaches and professors.”

But if Millennials are only looking for “cultural” or “experiential” diversity, does that mean they may end up inadvertently hiring and promoting people who have experiences comparable to their own?

“It’s very possible, even likely,” Wingfield said. “Research clearly indicates that without explicit, intentional efforts to offset ongoing practices that leave racial minority men and all women underrepresented in high-status professional jobs, these groups remain disadvantaged when it comes to hiring and retention in these jobs. If Millennials, despite their best intentions, are not concretely focused on creating a workplace that reflects racial and gender diversity, it’s pretty probable that it won’t occur.”

Wingfield acknowledged that Millennials have grown up with more exposure to an increasingly multiracial society than previous generations. They are the first generation, she said, to have grown up with representations of other races prominently displayed in media and in popular culture, and in a culture where overt racism is publicly disparaged.

But she said it would be a mistake to assume that this exposure means that this generation will automatically approach hirings and promotions in a manner that embraces different races, genders, cultures, religions and sexual preferences.

“Research shows that neighborhoods, schools and other institutions remain stubbornly racially segregated,” Wingfield said. “So while Millennials may have grown up listening to rappers like Jay Z or Kanye West, or may have cast their first-ever presidential vote for a black candidate, they are still embedded in social structures that don’t offer them the opportunities to embrace, learn from and appreciate interaction with equal status peers of other racial groups.

“I think it is dangerous to assume that members of this group will somehow sidestep the in-group biases and structural processes that keep our workplaces from reflecting the racial diversity that is part of our society, but isn’t yet present in our boardrooms, C-suites, administrations and management ranks.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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