If you’re the smartest person in the room, GTFO of that room

Please proceed calmly (but quickly) to the nearest exit

Effective Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging requires robust worker support, or it becomes mere window dressing for inadequate core organizational practices.

Photo by John Schaidler on Unsplash

If companies do not pay their employees enough to give them stability, implementing social inclusion and work wellness programs won’t increase diversity, inclusion, sense of belonging or well-being. It might instead brew resentment — against diverse groups for being protected, and against managers for promoting people ‘without actual merit’ — increasing the sense that the company is not genuinely committed to fairness and equity.

No One Was Ever Fired for Buying IBM

Companies hire based on their image of success. This behavior has been very much reinforced by industrialized production: if two pieces are made from the same materials and under the same specifications, then they must perform the same (within margins of error). Therefore, if purchasing from [vendor] did wonders for my direct competitor, it will also do wonders for me. Or if graduates from [fancy education institution] statistically perform better at their job in [industry], then I should hire these graduates. You can spot the flaw in the logic from a distance.

Companies hire based on their image of success, which has consistently blocked other, competing definitions from proving themselves as equally or more effective. Humans naturally form us vs them groups for self-protection, often based on identifying who is ‘like us’ and who is not. This includes those we believe will protect or advance our interests versus those we see as a threat. However, centuries of discrimination against various groups have narrowed what is considered friendly and protective, while reinforcing stereotypes of what is seen as threatening or menacing.

Companies are made of people, and hire based on their image of success. By defining ‘diverse’ persons, we implicitly define ‘non-diverse’ persons. In the so called West, the latter generally refers to people who are White, male, between 20 and 40 years old (though this range may vary in some places), heteronormative, and cis-gendered. In contrast, ‘diverse’ refers to almost anyone else; the further one is from those ‘non-diverse’ categories — such as being Black, female, non-heteronormative, or transgender — the more ‘diverse’ one is considered. Unfortunately, this often means being seen as an anomaly: at best a hindrance, at worst a threat, and certainly one of them.

Democracy Doesn’t Work on an Empty Stomach

DEIB is a democratization tool, meant to increase the visibility of non-White, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-cis-gendered employees, and to promote respect and acceptance for people’s different creeds and social customs. It also aims to give visibility to the quality of their work, supporting them in reaching higher positions and getting promotions that once were out of reach due to their diverse status.

The underlying context is that such employees are prevented from reaching their true professional potential due to discrimination against their ‘diverse’ personhood, given that the largest part of senior roles are occupied by (mostly White) men, and that DEIB would function as a corrective to ensure hiring and promoting practices are blind to anything but merit. The assumption is that once they reach positions of seniority, diverse people would be more open towards considering diverse candidates, making the cycle self-sustainable and generating workplace equality over time.

However, actual practice seems to go in the opposite direction. Referencing a 2017 study from the University of Colorado on whether exhibiting diversity-valuing behavior diminishes performance ratings for non-White and female leaders, Siân Harrington writes:

The authors’ conclusion is that most senior staff generally see diversity-promoting behavior as favorable except when it comes from minorities, when it is seen negatively; creating concerns of nepotism or of opposition to the interests of the majority and a desire to undermine the status quo. It appears female and ethnic minority leaders are being discouraged from showing diversity-valuing behavior because it can actually impede their career.¹

Tony D. LaMontagne, professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, drives the point further home: “Employers want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t want to look closely and change the way work is organized.” After all, it is cheaper (and more profitable) to invest in painting office walls a nice, calming color, than it is to make structural changes that also impact profit such as increasing employees’ wages. The same goes for other modes of ‘social support’ such as workplace wellness programs. Studying the impact of such individual-level offers in the British job market, Dr. William J. Fleming concludes the large majority of initiatives are ineffective. As Ellen Barry writes:

Dr. Fleming’s analysis suggests that employers concerned about workers’ mental health would do better to focus on ‘core organizational practices’ like schedules, pay, and performance reviews.²

Writing about companies that invested in higher salaries — either by directly increasing payments or reducing work hours without pay cuts — Harvard Business School professor Mike Wheeler highlights the positive impact on worker and customer retention, as well as increased work quality. Although he raises (unspecified) concerns regarding the scalability of such actions, he wonders why employee motivation and engagement haven’t been given more attention, saying:

As Pulitzer Prize-winning financial columnist Steven Pearlstein notes, it’s curious that boards of directors implement elaborate compensation schemes for top-level managers, but seemingly give little notice to the fact that money matters to all the people doing the day-to-day work.³

All of us need money, good working conditions, and opportunities to grow in our profession — regardless of our diversity status. Offices turn into competitive arenas when companies fail to pay their workforce a fair salary and instead use corporate-speak to deflect arguments towards living standards. In these cases, introducing DEIB is actually more likely to harm the cause of diversity, because it will breed resentment and decrease morale. Workers question the reason and values of whatever promotions are given, dispute the merits of those who do get promoted, and object to management’s allegations of intent to improve. Ultimately, it dents company culture.

…and After All, We’re Only Ordinary Men

DEIB is a multiplier, and anything times zero equals nothing. As Dieter Veldsman writes:

In the spring of 2022, a Gallup survey reported that 84% of CHROs surveyed said they were increasing their investment in DEIB. During that same period, we saw many layoffs in the technology sector, with DEIB departments and professionals being the first target.⁴

Caesar said “my family should not only be free from guilt, but even from the suspicion of it.” If companies are serious about their intentions to build more diverse and inclusive workforces, they must make sure such attempts are not undermined by other managerial actions. We either work cooperatively or competitively.

Writing about her experience disputing the current (positive) economic forecast in the face of economic, geopolitical, and ecological instability, climate corruption journalist Rachel Donald describes bewilderment from rich business people in the private aviation industry at the fact that protestors and activists want them to change their businesses radically and overnight, or shut them down. She writes “Someone explained to me: ‘They didn’t listen to us. They said we provide no public good. We explained why that wasn’t true, but even afterwards they still said simply that they just want to ban us. They weren’t listening.’”⁵

Even though she was delivering essentially the same message as the activists, they perceived her as someone they could work with because she was not in complete and direct opposition. As she writes,

Collaboration is critical, and allyship may be found in the most surprising corners of the world.

This reminder is true for both sides. Employees need to be aware of the constraints placed upon businesses, which often hamper their ability or liberty to make significant changes in a short period of time. But executives and senior leaders must also stop seeing workers as a variable expense to be tossed around in a spreadsheet. Businesses only flourish when all sides come together as us.

Employees pick up when the company appears to be fixing the books — e.g., through diversity washing — and even if unwarranted, such suspicion breeds dissatisfaction. It fosters distrust in leadership and pits employees and managers in adversarial positions. It hollows out company culture and merit recognition because employees start questioning the merit in others’ promotions (and individuals never think they are recognized enough). It achieves the opposite of what DEIB aims for.

We must take responsibility for our actions and use them to make real the promises we make in order to avoid infighting and finger-pointing. Because as Terry Pratchett wrote

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.⁶


¹ Siân Harrington @ Linkedin, Diversity and inclusion is the new greenwash, Mar 5, 2020.

² Ellen Barry @ The New York Times, Workplace Wellness Programs Have Little Benefit, Study Finds, Jan 15, 2024.

³ Mike Wheeler @ Harvard Business School, A Bold Wage Move That Still Pays Off, Jan 11, 2018.

⁴ Dieter Veldsman @ Linkedin, A Rethink of DEIB is long overdue, Jul 14, 2023.

⁵ Rachel Donald @ PlanetCritical, Even The Millionaires Are Fed Up, May 13, 2024.

⁶ Terry Pratchett, Jingo (Discworld #21), November 1997.

The hidden costs of real diversity and inclusion was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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