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Why Diversity Initiatives Fail

Updated: Apr 23, 2022

In the United States companies spend billions every year implementing diversity initiatives into their workplace. The hope behind these diversity initiatives is to achieve their goals of boosting inclusion and equity within their organization; However, these initiatives are not correctly implemented which leads to more damage than good.

Dr. Lisa Leslie, an Associate Professor of Management and Organizations in the New York University Stern School of Business, published a theory as to why diversity initiatives continue to fail at carrying out their intended purpose. In Dr. Leslie’s 2019 publication: “Diversity Initiative Effectiveness: A Typological theory of Unintended Consequences”, Dr. Leslie proposes that current diversity trainings have “Unintended consequences” that can be classified into four distinct categories.

Backfire: Undesirable outcomes are created that negatively affect the inclusion of the company's workplace. Backfire can be seen when diversity initiatives create an unintentional expectation that members of the minority group (women, people of color, underrepresented groups) are unable to succeed if diversity initiatives were not set in place.

Negative Spillover: Negative effects are created that do not create any progress in the goal of diversity within the company. An example is when members of the majority group feel like their job environment is unfair due to favoritism toward minority members. Negative spillover creates the perception that the chances of non-minority members to reach success is negatively affected due to the introduction of diversity initiatives.

Positive Spillover: Positive effects are created but lack the creation of genuine diversity and inclusion in the workplace. This is exemplified when trainings turn diversity into a moral obligation that causes workers to feel as if their participation in diversity trainings and inclusive behaviors must be rewarded.

False Progress: Diversity initiatives create progress through metrics, but they have not addressed the issues within their establishment, thereby creating the illusion of progress. This is most prevalent when diversity and inclusion in the workplace is advertised as being important increase company popularity and profit, thereby increasing the extrinsic rewards for both non-minority and minority groups, a false “Win-Win” scenario.

These unintended consequences will continue to hinder the current diversity initiatives that are implemented in today’s workforce. Company leaders must consider these unintended consequences and understand that diversity initiatives have a broader impact outside of just the company. Understanding opens the door for more effective and mindful approaches towards diversity and inclusion.


Learn More About Dr. Lisa Leslie- Associate Professor of Management and Organizations

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