Diversity is well-established as a way to improve organizational performance. Most legal organizations say, rightly, that they value diversity and are attempting to improve their numbers, but how to do that often remains an open question. The statistics of gender and racial diversity at all seniority levels are dismally stuck in low digits. Should we change our hiring criteria? Reconsider our evaluation and promotion standards? Add additional training for those most at risk for not succeeding? Or add training throughout the organization to eliminate the biases that may impede diversity success? That last approach has been a popular step.
While there are many arguments (that won’t be recited here) as to how and why diversity training programs are not moving the needle, a recent article by Dr. Art Markman, a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas and the Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations, has made some strong claims as to why implicit bias training, currently in vogue, is “rarely effective.”
Professor Markman points out that the concept of implicit bias allows people to believe they are not biased except, perhaps, in some unconscious instances that are not intentional. It avoids a head-on examination of one’s prejudices, which is often highly resisted. Yet, Bertram Gawronski‘s review of studies using the Implicit Association Test, the standard assessment for implicit bias, suggests that most people are in fact aware of their biases. And a comprehensive analysis of techniques used for reducing the influence of implicit associations found that, while some strategies may initially improve people’s performance on the Implicit Association Test, those effects are short-lived, with little change in performance in the long run.
What Markham suggests is that organizations explicitly hire a diverse base of employees, provide mentoring for future leaders, and seek out opportunities to enable more women and people of color to take on key roles. He acknowledges that sticky wicket that many firms and departments have run into. These changes in hiring, mentoring and promotion policies may be quite unpopular among those with whom the diverse candidates are competing. Markham apparently recommends making these diversity goals something that all employees embrace, a good objective, to be sure, but again not one easily accomplished.
The other way to approach this is to articulate the value of diversity in thought and skills, rather than judging diversity candidates by the same group-think standards that have brought the white middle-class professionals to a majority or, alternatively, by the simple fact of their race or gender, which may or may not achieve true attitude diversity. This is a goal which can be embraced by everyone because it provides opportunity for all races, genders and orientations. And research shows that using these kinds of skills as a guide for hiring, mentoring and promoting does in fact on its own merits result in more racial, economic and gender diversity. Diversity in those skills is also truly valuable to the organization. Hiring for emotional intelligence, for example, or for atypical thinking processes, as indicated by assessments like MBTI and a number of others, can bring more diversity and more productivity to our workforces than we’ve had for generations.