We’re Number One!

Are diversity awards a help or a hindrance to true diversity and inclusion success?

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, what is the true measure of success?

For some companies, being named to a “best of” list for diversity and inclusion is the ultimate trophy, giving chief diversity officers an achievement to justify their growing budgets. But true diversity and inclusion go much deeper, experts say, and using awards to gauge progress could be setting D&I efforts back.

Awards, like everything else, have their place, says Melissa Lamson, founder and president of Lamson Consulting, a Scottsdale, Arizona–based company that provides global D&I strategy. They get companies thinking about diversity and what steps they are taking to build an inclusive environment. “But awards can’t be the sole approach to a diversity initiative,” Lamson says.

One of the biggest problems with awards is they don’t all come with feedback from those who matter most. The best way for a company to evaluate its D&I efforts is to ask its employees directly, says Steve Pemberton, chief diversity officer for Walgreens. When companies are being considered for an award, evaluators “are not talking to the people who work there,” Pemberton says.

A better approach is for diversity managers to ask employees directly whether they feel part of the organization. You want to ask employees how they feel about themselves when they’re at work, says workplace diversity consultant Sondra Thiederman. “Do they feel like they’re being noticed and like they’re being utilized to the maximum of their ability?”

To get company feedback, Walgreens has worked with Gallup to create an engagement survey that asks employees such questions as whether they believe their opinions count and whether their supervisors create an open and trusting environment. With such information, “I can say, based on the responses of women in our organization, they feel more included or less included,” Pemberton says. “That’s very different than saying ‘I’m number one’ on a list because a third party has come in and benchmarked my company against other organizations that are very likely not in my space.”

Another way to ensure that you’re getting input from everyone throughout the company is to implement a 360-degree feedback process, says Lenora Billings-Harris, co-author of Trailblazers: How Top Business Leaders Are Accelerating Results Through Inclusion and Diversity. With that in place, not only does each employee get evaluated by her manager, but she also gets evaluated by peers and direct reports. By asking employees to evaluate their manager’s ability, companies make employees feel included, as well as gain a wealth of knowledge.

A moving target

Another problem with using awards to measure progress is they can give companies a false sense of complacency. Diversity managers may think that since the company is in the top five, what more do they need to do? Such thinking is a huge mistake, says Billings-Harris. “Achieving true diversity and inclusion is really an aspirational goal.” In other words, companies can always improve. Even among those companies that win awards year after year, “I haven’t come across a company that is perfect in every area,” Billings-Harris says. Some in the D&I industry say a day will come when diversity conferences will no longer be needed, but Billings-Harris disagrees. “If we stop talking about it, it’ll go back underground, and the pendulum will swing in the other direction.”

One way to keep companies from becoming complacent is to tie diversity to compensation. Just as sales executives get bonuses and raises when they meet their sales goals, managers should have financial incentives to meet diversity goals. Billings-Harris suggests including diversity and inclusion measures in leadership’s performance evaluations and connect merit increases or bonuses to those outcomes.

So if you meet one goal, you don’t talk about how great you are; you create another goal that’s a little more difficult to reach. “You’d be hard-pressed to look at any other function within an organization where declaring victory is standard operating practice,” Pemberton says. “We never stop trying to build a better finance function or marketing function. You acknowledge progress, but it doesn’t trump the idea that you are always trying to become more perfect.”

Creating internal benchmarks
Another problem with the awards process is it compares companies that are inherently different and applies one set of criteria on which to judge them. “Companies are at different stages of their journey,” Pemberton says. “There are some that have been at it for 4 years, some for 40. Ironically, diversity is meant to celebrate differences, yet “this whole industry around awards has been built on seeing just how much like somebody else you are.”

Instead, companies must create internal benchmarks to measure their own progress. After asking employees how they feel about working in the organization and seeing where the company falls short, there must be a plan to implement changes and gauge whether improvement is made from year to year.

One way to do this, Lamson says, is for companies to turn employee resource groups into working teams, leveraging employee input to come up with solutions and monitoring their implementation. Not only do you incorporate employee feedback, but you “have employees act as consultants and guides” to make sure the organization is experiencing true change, Lamson adds.

Setting meaningful goals
As companies create their own benchmarks, they must continue to raise the bar. “Best of” lists typically use the same criteria year after year to evaluate organizations, so once a company has mastered those criteria, it will likely continue to win awards as long as it keeps doing what it’s currently doing.

But that doesn’t mean the company is making progress. It just means it knows how to score well on the test. Some of the criteria are rather elementary, Pemberton says. For example, companies may be judged on whether they have employee resource groups, but “that’s 101 stuff,” Pemberton says.

The awards criteria also often focus on how many people within the organization are women or Latino. That information is useless if the company keeps those numbers up by constantly hiring new people to replace those who have fled for greener, more inclusive pastures.
Focusing on awards may even tempt some companies to use recruitment as a way to solve their diversity problems. But “if the culture hasn’t changed first, then they’ll bring in people who are different, but those people won’t stay because the culture’s not ready for them,” Billings-Harris says.

Awards should be seen as a starting point. And companies should do some soul-searching, asking themselves if they truly deserve the recognition. “Let’s make the award a motivation to make sure that we do measure up to all the words on that wonderful plaque handed to us,” Thiederman says.DW

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, DC- based journalist who writes about diversity and careers.

Three Ways to Use Awards Effectively

Diversity awards are not bad; they just must be kept in proper perspective. Here are three ways to use awards effectively as part of your D&I strategy.

To serve as a launching point. Instead of focusing on your successes, look at areas where you don’t perform as well, says Melissa Lamson, founder and president of Lamson Consulting, which provides global D&I strategy. Then create your own internal goals to do better.

To share best practices. Although sizing up another company’s diversity achievements can be like comparing apples and oranges, you can get some good ideas by learning what strategies other organizations have implemented.
To open a dialogue. Share news about the award with employees, but use it as an opportunity to ask them what you can do better.

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