Diversity & HR…less talking, more doing.


Good post, and really good comments from Eric and Ben and Jay.  I do not think that HR and Diversity are soulmates, and I am not sure that they should be.  Diversity and inclusion work today touches a lot of stuff far outside the realm of HR and I have been suggesting that the two should go their separate ways for some time.  Which is probably not very likely to happen; I think that HR as an absentee landlord for diversity and inclusion efforts will continue to be the norm.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that HR does not actually understand diversity and inclusion work, but thinks that it does.  If HR actually understood diversity and inclusion we would see them doing things differently than they do and we would see things more strategic than ethnic food festivals and MLK Day scholarships  as “diversity programs.”  If HR understood diversity and inclusion they would see it as the powerful strategic lever that it is rather than running away from it.

I delivered somewhere between 80 and 100 presentations and workshops in 2010 on diversity and inclusion, and the most consistent feedback I get is that the content was something very different than what was expected…people (including HR people) have some very specific things in mind regarding diversity and inclusion.  There remains a very 20th century understanding of diversity and inclusion that is not completely relevant or terribly actionable in today’s context.  And that is true of HR as much as it is of anyone.

It is one thing to not understand something, it is quite another to not understand something while believing strongly that you do.  It is a hard and slow process to change a paradigm, but we are changing it.  You are an example of that Jason, and there are other examples out there.  More people are coming to realize that our organizations are changing, that what is of value to our organizations is changing, and that diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of that.  The work of building talented teams and talented organizations is about much more than simply finding and hiring talented individuals.  On the group level we can actually say that diversity is one of the variables determining “talent,” but there is clearly not much evidence that we are embracing this or integrating this into our work yet.

I do not think that HR should own diversity and inclusion, but I do believe that HR has the potential to be a tremendous champion for recalibrating our understanding of and our approach to diversity and inclusion.  Three suggestions for getting started:

First, HR has to do its homework.  It has to forget everything that it thinks it knows about diversity and inclusion and start over.  Difference is part of every interaction between human beings and if you want interactions involving employees, clients and other stakeholders to be successful then you need to understand the role played by difference.  Diversity is not something that you get to talk about one time and then receive a lifetime exemption, as many folks wish.  It is a fundamental component of nearly every aspect of HR work and needs to be treated accordingly.  Stop saying “yeah I get it,” and become a student of diversity; when you can explain (in a way that makes sense to another human being that is awake and paying attention) what diversity and inclusion mean for your organization, why they are valuable for your organization and what you are doing to deliver that value, then you then you can say that you get it…until then, you have work to do.

Second, HR professionals also need to become students of human nature…we work in human resources we should be a little bit better informed regarding the human being.  Not only does the HR profession have an antiquated understanding of diversity and inclusion, it has an antiquated understanding of the human being.  I think that HR professionals should be the organizational experts on human nature and social dynamics and how we make decisions about each other…not understanding this stuff makes the rest of HR knowledge and competency considerably less valuable.  I keep hearing HR folks say things like “at the end of the day inclusion is really just about respect,” and it is really about a lot more than respect.

And third, stop talking about it and start doing it…tackle a real diversity project…you can start close to home and you do not need a budget or anybody’s permission.  In the next six months, make it your mission to get the different parts of your organization to work together better, share information and resources with each other better.  Break down those silos, build real collaborative relationships and make your organization better.  You cannot be successful at this without working with some of the most basic dynamics of difference and inclusion and you cannot do this without benefitting your organization.  And this is an area where there is room for improvement in most organizations…yet more evidence to me that most HR folks do not get it…they walk around talking about how they get it and overlook stuff like this every single day.



  1. Joe, I love your three suggestions. As I think about committing myself to integrating D & I into my work (not as a task, but integrated into HOW I work) I am realizing I have so much learning still to do. I’m glad you and Jason are not afraid to push us in the HR world to get beyond what we’ve convinced ourselves is true, and to take ourselves, and our organizations to a better place.

  2. I was caught by this observation in Joe’s post:

    It is one thing to not understand something, it is quite another to not understand something while believing strongly that you do.

    I have talked to people immediately after they attended one of Joe’s workshops and they have expressed the same insight he notes above “the content was something very different than what was expected” and then immediately after affirming that Diversity is really something different than what they thought it was, they make statements that indicate that their antiquated concepts of Diversity and Inclusion are still firmly in place. People that really should know better have not assimilated the new view of Diversity.

    I agree that it takes time to change these things, but when do we just take matters into our own hands and stage a revolution? (or has that already started…?)

  3. i enjoyed eavesdropping on this exchange, especially the main point: “doing diversity” is not in isolation of the business’ work. it is the business’ work.


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