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Are workplace diversity programmes a thing of the past?

Are workplace diversity programmes a thing of the past?

The first corporate diversity programme sprang up in the US in the late 1960s when Xerox launched a diversity programme for Black employees following a series of widely publicised race riots – the purpose of which was to give these employees a voice within the organisation.

Since then, diversity programmes of all types have cropped up within most large organisations related to sexuality, gender, ethnicity etc. – all with hopes to give marginalised groups a centralised voice.


But diversity groups also have another function within organisations - helping employees feel more included and engaged in the workplace, which can be a useful asset in a work culture that has historically been dominated by the male, stale and pale. 

Last week, Deloitte announced plans to abolish its diversity groups in favour of a more holistic approach to diversity and inclusion, which brings up the all-important question – do traditional diversity programmes have a place in the new world of work? 

Big businesses struggle to improve employee diversity.

Diversity, fairness and equality in the workplace are all particularly hot topics as of late. Only recently the BBC came under fire for its shockingly biased pay-gap between male and female stars, sparking a media flurry.

In recent years, many major corporations have made high-profile efforts to improve diversity within their organisations. Google recently plugged $265 million into its own diversity programme to widen the diversity of the organisation’s employee population, for example. Despite their efforts, the company’s ethnic makeup has stayed exactly the same since 2014 - 59% of Googlers are white, 32% are Asian, 3% are Hispanic, and 2% are Black. 

Just this week the search giant came under an entirely new wave of scrutiny after an employee memo claimed women had biological issues that prevented them from being as successful as men in the technology sector.

Over here in the UK, more than half of the biggest listed businesses have a shockingly low percentage of senior management staff stemming from ethnic minorities.

According to CMI and the British Academy of Management, over half (54%) of the hundred biggest listed organisations in the UK reported having less than 5% of senior management coming from an ethnic minority. 

And when it comes to the gender balance, the number of female employees in senior business roles is remarkably low. According to Grant Thornton, only 19% of senior business positions were held by women in 2016, a 2% drop from the year before.

Deloitte throws in the diversity programme towel.

Last week the global consultancy firm Deloitte announced it was axing its women’s diversity group, WIN, alongside plans to phase out other minority employee groups.

Deloitte, which has over 70,000 employees worldwide, will instead focus on meeting the objectives of gender equality and underrepresented groups at a higher level.

“A lot of our leaders are still older white men, and they need to be part of the conversation and advocate for women. But they’re not going to do that as much if they don’t hear the stories and understand what that means,” says the current leader of WIN group, Deepa Purushothaman.

“By having everyone in the room, you get more allies, advocates, and sponsors,” she says. 
Another reason behind Deloitte’s controversial decision is its large millennial makeup. With 57% of Deloitte’s workforce belonging to the millennial generation, this younger workforce don’t like being placed into demographic pigeonholes. 

Now the buck has passed to senior level employees, such as Brent Bachus, who now holds the title of Managing Director for Talent Inclusion and Engagement.

Bachus and other members of Deloitte’s inclusion council are responsible for creating an environment that persuades employees from all different backgrounds not to leave the company and also to attract fresh talent.

While their approach goes against the norm, Deloitte’s Chief Inclusion Officer, Deb DeHaas, explains the firm’s attitude to diversity: “The key to unleashing the power of our diversity is inclusion. To us, inclusion is leadership in action…. It’s everyone’s responsibility, every day and at every level, to create the culture that can make that happen.” 

Do Deloitte have a good point?

Deloitte have undoubtedly raised a serious problem – keeping key diversity and inclusion discussion points isolated to these groups does make a statement that diversity isn’t everyone’s issue, it is only the issue of people from minority groups.

Of course, diversity and inclusion agenda should be planned and executed as a part of an organisation’s overall objectives rather than restricted to diversity groups in an extracurricular-like fashion.

However, it could also be argued that these groups are vital in giving marginalised employees a sense of belonging, which has a significant impact on talent retention and engagement.

The Global and Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer, Karyn Twaronite, at EY, the highest ranking company in Diversity Inc’s latest Top 50, sums the organisational necessity for belonging up well:

“To realise the business benefits of inclusion, all of our people must feel a strong sense of belonging. Belonging is the key to ensuring that our people feel engaged, valued and free to be themselves.”


But to achieve this sense of belonging, organisations cannot rely on diversity groups alone – diversity and inclusion should be deeply embedded in a company’s culture – it should be a part of who you are and what you do as a business. And as we know, culture is influenced (if not set) by those at the very top of an organisation.

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