Uncover Obstacles to Diversity with Honest Conversations

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 13, 2016

Are you color-blind or color-brave?

That was the question Marlin D. Smith, director of HR for Woodridge, Ill.-based Hendrickson Truck Commercial Vehicle Systems, raised during a packed concurrent session at the Society for Human Resource Management's 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in June in Washington, D.C. 

"We have to be color-brave and tackle the issue [of workplace diversity] head-on, and have some really honest conversations with ourselves and with our organizations," Smith said during his concurrent session, "The Black Guy in the C-Suite: Diversity Hiring Practices." 

What is really meant, for example, when a job candidate is deemed not a good fit for the organization? 

Be aware of unconscious, as well as conscious, bias, Smith said. Unconscious bias often surfaces in the workplace when we are drawn to others who enjoy the same hobbies or pursuits that we do.

"That creates this affinity bias" that affects resume-screening and career advancement, Smith said. An employee's social success, he said, should not equal his or her professional success. 

He shared the following tips for HR to increase diversity in their organizations:

  • Have a diversity plan and communicate it.
  • Take an honest inventory.
  • Include questions about organizational diversity in attitude and engagement surveys, consider global diversity, and hold managers and business units accountable for diversity goals and outcomes.
  • Review your sourcing strategies so you are using a variety of avenues—not just social media, or not just employee referrals, for example.
  • Review your selection criteria.
  • Benchmark and partner with companies that have had success with their diversity efforts.
  • Partner with educational institutions and professional and governmental organizations.

Diversity Inc. magazine singled out 25 organizations, including AIG, Boeing, Caterpillar, Humana, Lockheed Martin and Wal-Mart, as noteworthy for their diversity initiatives, Smith said. 

Those organizations have made a business case for diversity within their talent pipelines, their CEOs and senior leadership are committed to diversity, their efforts at equitable talent development are exemplified in their mentoring opportunities and employee resource groups, and they seek out business with minority-owned vendors.

However, Smith thinks diversity initiatives are losing ground among organizations overall. He cited a 2014 SHRM Diversity & Inclusion Survey that found over the previous eight years, fewer organizations had reported having staff exclusively dedicated to diversity. That same survey, though, reflected a slight uptick—from 13 percent in 2010 to 15 percent in 2013—of organizations that have staff dedicated exclusivity to diversity efforts.

However, only 12 percent of organizations had a diversity training budget in 2012. 

"What gets measured gets done ... and in most cases, we're not getting measured in diversity," Smith said of organizations.  

He suggested HR professionals and their organizations take the following steps to increase diversity and avoid biased behavior:

  • Increase purposeful mentoring and coaching. Be proactive about recognizing different capabilities and help prepare employees to take on challenging assignments.
  • Consider who might consistently feel like an outsider and take steps to actively address the situation.
  • Have staff attend professional affinity group meetings and inclusiveness events to enrich their understanding of diversity. Smith noted that Microsoft's Unconscious Bias training is available online to the public.
  • Evaluate your actions daily and seek out regular feedback on your own behaviors and actions from trusted, yet objective, colleagues.

Smith pointed to the "privilege walk" activity that organizations can use to promote discussion and break down assumptions about others. In the activity, a diverse group of employees stand shoulder-to-shoulder but take a step forward or backward as each responds to a question, such as "If you went to school speaking a language other than English, take one step back." It can be eye-opening, he said, to see who ends up at the head of the line. 

It's important that diversity initiatives are led by senior leadership, Smith noted. Leaders should reflect on whether plum assignments are routinely assigned to the same person or type of person. Who are leaders taking to important client or cross-team meetings? How are employees identified for promotion and succession? Are leaders speaking up if the slate of job candidates is not sufficiently diverse?

​"How many times do we have an HR-led initiative and it becomes exactly that," an initiative that only HR cares about. "We have to push and push to make it happen." If [senior leaders] are not accountable for the results ... you're going to have trouble pushing this forward because it'll just become another HR initiative," he said.


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