Getting diversity right in the workplace

Nic Hammarling discusses the need to speed up the progress of minority groups in the workplace.

Mentoring and coaching activities are consistently linked with an increase in diversity at senior levels. Photo credit: Fotolia 
You know things are truly ridiculous when you hear that the rate of promotion of women to board level being equated to the pace of a snail travelling around the M25, or when you read that ethnic minority representation on Boards is stuck at the same level female directorships had reached almost 20 years ago.  

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For too long we have hidden behind the story we like to tell ourselves that if someone has the capability, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age and so on, then they will magically rise to the top like cream.

Meritocracy is indeed a seductive concept, after all, we like to think that the decisions we are making are fair and unbiased, but if that really were the case then quite simply we wouldn’t be using snail-based metaphors to describe progress of minority groups. 

Slowly, slowly, realisation is dawning that there are other factors at play which inhibit the progression of some groups, and that additional action is needed to provide at least half-decent opportunities for people who are under-represented at more senior levels.  
Organisations are therefore increasingly turning to positive action initiatives as a way of taking some steps in helping minority employees build their path towards achieving more senior posts. 
Historically, these positive action schemes have been somewhat unpopular, with suspicion not only arising from the non-beneficiary, majority population (usually white males), but also from the intended beneficiary groups as well.
However, research-based positive action initiatives that are effectively planned and executed have a huge impact on the progression of employees who are under-represented at more senior levels.
Research conducted by our team of diversity and inclusion specialists has identified the key characteristics of successful positive action initiatives. In essence, these characteristics can be grouped into four areas that we need to get right in running positive action development programmes: 
A) Support 
B) Communication 
C) Programme Structure 
D) Rollout
Get the support right 
1: Understand current attitudes towards positive action  
One of the most common mistakes that we see with regard to positive action programmes is the assumption that the beneficiaries of the scheme (still largely focused on ethnic minority employees and women), will automatically welcome the scheme, while non-beneficiaries (usually white men), will not take much notice of the scheme because it does not directly affect them.
These assumptions are both wrong and dangerous to the subsequent success rate of the positive action programme. Research has consistently found that positive action programmes need the support of both beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries if they are going to be successful.
Attitudes towards and in support of, positive action programmes are affected by a range of factors, and understanding these is a critical success factor. For example, perceived levels of discrimination in the workplace influence support: the higher these perceptions, the stronger the level of support.
Indeed, these perceptions have more influence over whether someone is going to support the programme than whether they hold racist or sexist beliefs. Some background work is therefore advisable in raising awareness of levels of bias and discrimination evident within modern working environments. 
2: Ownership from the top 
Once an individual becomes personally invested in ensuring a positive outcome of something, they are more inclined to feel responsible for its success; this is known as psychological ownership.
Increasing the participation of majority employees at both senior and peer levels has been found to promote a sense of psychological ownership for the positive action, in turn helping to secure a successful outcome for the programme.
For example, both white participants and male participants are more supportive of positive action programmes if they are given the opportunity to provide comment on the policy that was being developed.  
Mentoring and coaching activities are consistently linked with an increase in diversity at senior levels; this is also a great way of building psychological ownership among the senior team, as well as increasing the informal sponsorship of their mentees.  
Get the communication right  
3.  Guard against attribution error 
One of the most dangerous unintended consequences associated with positive action programmes is a form of attribution error, whereby majority employees misattribute the subsequent success of minority colleagues to their participation in a positive action programmes, rather than to their abilities.
This is especially evident in organisations where communications about the programme are focused on numbersfor example “only 5 per cent of our senior teams are women” or “since the programme started, representation of women among the senior teams has shot up to 20 per cent.” Avoiding the trap of focusing on numbers and instead highlighting the benefits for the organisation is key in avoiding attribution error. 
4. Avoid stereotype threat 
The attribution errors made by colleagues are not the only potential unintended consequences of positive action programmes. Those who believe they have benefited from positive action programmes, can experience negative emotions and subsequently self-doubt about their ability.
For example, participants in one experiment who were led to believe they were selected for a project because they were from a minority group subsequently made lower ratings of their general ability as well as their performance on specific tasks.  
Perhaps more worryingly still is the link between these beliefs and subsequent self-limiting behaviour, such as subsequently selecting less challenging tasks and making lower self-ratings of competence. This factor highlights the need for an emphasis on merit as part of the positive action programme. 
5. Reflect – does this need to be communicated as a positive action programme? 
A fundamental confusion still exists regarding positive action and positive discrimination. Even where understanding exists, there is an almost universal assumption among employees that a positive action programme means that somewhere along the line something fundamentally unfair or un-meritocratic is about to take place.
One of the most successful formats of positive action programmes is for them to be designed and communicated as mainstream developmental programmes rather than positive action programmes. All too frequently this option is ignored because of internal politics and the need to be seen as ‘doing something.’
Get the programme structure right 
6. Make the programme merit-based  
If we are to avoid stereotype threat and self-doubt among programme beneficiaries as well as attribution errors by their majority counterparts, then participation in the positive action programme must be merit-based. Moreover, one of the most common pieces of feedback from positive action participants is that having successfully passed a selection process in order to be eligible for the programme gave them a significant sense of pride in being part of the programme.  
7. Involve majority employees 
The involvement of majority employees in the scoping and development of programme brings about three key benefits. Firstly, they develop that all-important psychological ownership. This means they are less likely to (consciously or unconsciously) sabotage programme participants.
Secondly, this closer level of engagement brings a better, more accurate understanding of the issues and blockages faced by minority employees. Thirdly, a lack of understanding of what the programme involves is associated with more suspicion, negative perceptions, and sabotage behaviour towards the programme and its participants. Involvement in the programme design helps significantly in negating this problem.   
8. Make the programme available to majority employees as well  
This is difficult, both for reasons of budget restrictions associated with development, and the political environment in which positive action programmes often take place. However, it is quite clear that something Darwinian occurs around positive action programmes that are only available to minority employees; they are identified as something ‘other’ by the majority and rejected.
Some argue that this inclusion of majority employees reduces the ability of under-represented employees to share their experiences of discrimination or their day-to-day life during the programme; this is however not the objective of a positive action programme.
The objective ultimately is to help place participants in the best possible position for promotion. Protecting or ring-fencing places for minority participants and designing it around their needs are effective strategies for achieving positive action objectives.
Get the rollout right 
9. A tap-on-the-shoulder is not all bad 
All too often, the callout for participants for positive action programmes goes unanswered by the very people it’s supposed to help. This is especially the case when the programme has been communicated as a positive action initiative.
The most common reasons for reluctance given by minority employees include not wanting to be seen as needing extra help (hence why the communication about the need for the programme is so important) and secondly because they weren’t sure they yet have the capabilities to be part of the programme.
This is especially evident when the mentors are drawn from the very senior board members, people who are seen as having the ultimate impact on whether a career flies or fails. In these situations, asking managers to tap the shoulder of talented minority employees in their team to encourage them to apply is a very helpful intervention.  
10. Involve key players 
Managers who do not know what is happening on a positive action programme have little hope of being able to fully support their team members as the programme progresses.
That is not to say that managers should have an automatic access to the results of any assessments included as part of the programme, but rather that they should be briefed comprehensively on what the programme covers, given ideas regarding how they can support their team members, and team members should be encouraged to share their learnings and outcomes from the process.
This open communication is particularly important when mentors are involved, as all too frequently, managers can feel that the presence of a mentor means that they are seen as not managing their team effectively. Having clear boundaries between the role of a mentor and the role of a manager can reassure as well as provide boundaries for over-zealous mentors.
11. Leave responsibility for career progression with positive action participants   
Finally and perhaps most fundamental of all, is a programme ethos of responsibility for career development remaining solely with the participant themselves. It is not the objective of the programme to ensure that participants are promoted; nor is it the measure of success for mentors. Instead, the programme is there to provide support and opportunities.
Supporting this sense of ownership over their own career development is incredibly empowering when combined with expert developmental support. 
Running positive action programmes can at times feel like navigating a minefield. Indeed for some time I was sceptical about the impact of positive action programmes, having spoken to intended beneficiaries who were concerned about being seen to be part of such programmes, and having witnessed the fallout of badly executed programmes.
But if you are able to address these issues, it is clear that well executed positive action programmes can play a significant role in supporting employees in their career development. 
About the author 
Nic Hammarling is a partner and the head of diversity at Pearn Kandola. You can contact Nic by emailing her at


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