With most of us still working from home, one of the issues critical to the technology segment’s future — diversity — isn’t getting the attention it needs to drive necessary change. People tend to gravitate to groups with similar interests, beliefs, and orientations if there isn’t a significant and recurring effort to drive different groups together.
With people working at home, the opportunity to socialize and interact with fellow employees from diverse backgrounds has been significantly reduced. This is likely reinforcing, rather than offsetting, our natural tendencies to avoid and perhaps even fear those that aren’t like us. This is problematic not only for productivity but also for the unit’s effective functioning. Microsoft, this week, stepped up to the plate with Include, a conference providing insights from a variety of experts on dealing with the challenges and promise of a diverse and inclusive workforce.
Let’s talk about why programs like Microsoft Include are critical to making authentic, lasting change in what should be a far more diverse and inclusive workforce than we currently have.
The Difficult Path to Changing Perceptions, Increasing Diversity, And Reducing Discrimination
Changing bad behavior is incredibly difficult. I recall my first corporate briefing in IBM in the early ’90s, where we were told IBM was implementing a zero tolerance program for sexual and racial harassment. The executive giving us the talk was crystal clear that off-color jokes would result in immediate termination. A very popular, successful, and influential sales executive in the audience decided to test the policy by telling, in class, an off-color joke. The speaking executive made a quick call, and two of the largest security guards I’ve ever seen came in, grabbed the joke-telling sales rep under the arms, and perp-walked him out of the building. I never saw him again.
It wasn’t until sometime later it occurred to me that that entire event might have been staged to drive the point home. Regardless, after seeing that, I was not even tempted to tell an off-color joke, not just at IBM, but ever again. Watching one of the most potent and typically untouchable employees instantly lose his power, status, and job made one hell of an impression on all of us in the audience. Still, it seemed only to drive their behavior underground for many others, which arguably made it harder to correct.
We spend years with our parents and in schools that typically don’t do a good job teaching diversity acceptance, which results in employees who have, over time, been trained to be intolerant. To reverse that, firms have to purge some of these employees and retrain them over a long period to see the world differently. Diversity isn’t the natural state of our current world, even though it should be. As a result, we need programs like Microsoft Include to drive change.
Microsoft Include: A Template
What Microsoft Include did was, as noted, provide expert speaker after expert speaker, many of whom were minorities themselves and experts on the topics of diversity and inclusion. It provides insights into the capabilities of minority workers, causes for the anger that minority employees may have, how to mitigate bad behavior, the need for an ongoing conversation on why diversity and inclusion are critical to the future of the company, the executive support for the effort, and best practices to achieve this difficult goal.
This kind of effort should take place annually alongside a near-constant process to reward employees and managers who drive diversity and encourage the growth and expansion of a diverse workforce.
Part of this effort is also to alleviate the concerns that diversity efforts put existing employee jobs at risk and puts in a place a reward-and-recognition structure for those employees that are the most engaged and successful in driving diversity and inclusion.
Driving Diversity From All Perspectives
One of my undergraduate degrees is in Manpower Management, a scientific approach to acquiring, motivating, training, and assuring a large workforce’s productivity. A data-based practice was discredited mainly because the data tended to drive biased hiring and promotion practices. But this outcome was significant because the existing education and training systems were biased against minorities, resulting in them being under-trained and not competitive in the workforce. Sadly the fix the government drove with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) was to get rid of the data-based tools and instead force diversity regardless of skills or training, which only seemed to reinforce the belief that minorities were less capable.
If the workforce’s inequality is to be addressed, the fix needs to be based on data and it should attack the problem’s causes, starting with a biased education system. With their Networking Academy effort, companies like Cisco are directly addressing this training inequality and significantly improving the quality of a diverse workforce as a result.
But it is equally critical that powerful companies like Microsoft stand up and be counted, not only driving diversity inside their firms, but also driving it outside. That is what Microsoft Include was about; it framed the problem. It provided the depth needed to understand how to craft a solution, providing resources to help, such as the Brookings Institution. It provided a perspective that made diversity a goal that would improve all our lives rather than a scary disruption that puts the dominant race at job risk.
Through efforts like Microsoft, it includes that opinions change and those fighting change can instead be encouraged, not threatened, to change sides and instead promote this change. If you are a manager or an executive, I will encourage you to attend some of the Include sessions; they’ll not only help you create a better team but make you a better employee and manager.