Thursday, August 26, 2010


I work with large companies attempting to express their innermost desires to customers, employees, mutants and regular Joes all around the world. This usually begins with a mission statement and some articulation of their corporate values. Inevitably, one of those values is “A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.”

Frankly, they should really just compress it into one word, diversityandinclusion. It rolls off the corporate tongue so effortlessly. Thoughtlessly, in fact. Because if they gave it any thought they would realize quite quickly that diversity and inclusion are mutually exclusive.

Diversity celebrates our differences. Inclusion transcends our differences.

You can’t have it both ways which is one reason why I’m not the captain of the African-American bowling team at TimeWarner Inc. What’s worse, in practice only some differences are celebrated as anyone who’s ever tried to organize an evangelical Christian prayer group in the company cafeteria has discovered.

Diversityandinclusion is a verb that means to assume a defensive crouch while paying nominal tribute to potentially disruptive social aggrievement groups. Everyone in the organization knows diversityandinclusion is a corporate posture rather than a corporate value. And in that way it becomes demoralizing for everyone in the organization – from the aggrieved who never seem to be taken seriously as individuals to the white males who feel targeted as oppressors-by-association. And since white males typically make up a plurality in most large American corporations, this is a pose that alienates your employees.

If these corporations were sincere and smart about the issue of diversity and inclusion they would develop an entirely new phrase that recognizes the value of individuals and accepts them within an organization of like-minded individuals.

It would begin with a recognition that there are some characteristics inherent in an individual employee – their ancestry, genetic code. Let's call them their "ethnicity." These are things are involuntary associations.  They are beyond the individual’s control. They are the cards you are dealt at birth. To discriminate against a person because of their ethnicity is unjust. Therefore an organization of individuals that justly overlooks one’s ethnicity is likely to be an organization of many ethnicities.  Multi-ethnic.

Culture, on the other hand, is a more voluntary association. You choose your beliefs, your values, and your opinions. There is a natural human tendency to propagate those beliefs particularly if they are deeply held. I mean, if you believe you know the truth why wouldn’t want to change the minds those who don’t yet know what you know?

Cultures inevitably cause friction when they come in contact with each other and in cases of extreme friction will need some sort of coercive force either to separate conflicting cultures or to enforce a preferred culture. That’s what a voluntary organization is all about. It enforces a consensus culture.  Or else it should be.

You can join our organization as long as you believe in our culture and promote it through your behavior. For an organization like Google that means looking for ways to monetize public information while wearing sandals and attempting not to be evil. For S.P.E.C.T.R.E. it means looking for ways to monetize terror while wearing Nehru jackets and integrating evil into everything you do. The ethnicity of Sergey Brin or Ernst Stavro Blofeld is of no importance.

Rather than try to embrace diversityandinclusion which is impossible, organizations should declare that they are multiethnic and unicultural.

If you join our company you are voluntarily endorsing a distinct culture that transcends your ethnicity. That culture may be one that values profits about everything else, like a hedge fund in the Cayman Islands. Or it can be a culture that views profits as secondary to some greater social good, like one of those threadbare organic pizza joints in Burlington, Vermont. Every organization has a culture and the sooner they recognize that fact and channel it into ways that help everyone achieve what they define as success, the better.

But for many corporations that process of expressing their culture is unnerving. It means being truthful about motivations, rationales, and deepest beliefs. For BP it would mean admitting that they really have no intention of moving beyond petroleum. For Pepsi it would mean that they are actually more interested in selling salty snacks and sugary soft drinks than in saving the world. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of because no one really believes the Corporate Social Responsibility messaging anyway. Defining your culture and expressing it in actions is well worth the effort because in the end people appreciate clarity and authenticity more than apologetic poses.

Right now, diversityandinclusion does not have the ring of authenticity about it. It sounds contrived and in fact it is contrived. It doesn’t advance the cause the tolerance and understanding because it’s promoted by consultants who benefit from more grievance not less. Far better to shelve the term altogether and be truthful about what the organization expects of its people – care and attention to work, respect for colleagues, pride in a job well done whatever that job may be.

If you can do that consistently, who cares what your DNA looks like?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You seem to be saying that all corporate mission statements are false cover for "to make more money by doing whatever makes more money" whether it's petroleum or Pepsi, and that a shallow endorsement of diversityandinclusion is just one particular example of the pernicious hypocrisy of the whole exercise.

I agree about the shallowness of some corporate understanding, which is not unlike "greenwashing" - the point is to appease critics with some cheap words without changing behavior any more than absolutely neccessary.

But I think you may have followed that path in oversimplifying diversity. The relevant concept of diversity is that of accepting a range of non-harmful differences whenever possible, rather than arbitrarily and unconsciously accepting what we are more familiar with. This stands as an attempt (at best partially successful) to counter common tendencies to apply unfounded biases or prejudices, confirmation bias, personal cultural expectations, etc - which can be healthy. Of course, if the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme that would be harmful too, a balance is needed. However, people do not as readily fall into excessive love of diversity as into their own little bubbles of seemingly self-consistent reality. So I appreciate your attempt to refocus and rethink, but I think you may have thrown a bit of the baby out with the bathwater, and a further refinement may be justified.

I think you may be conflating different uses of "culture" a bit too much also - while there is some useful commonality between "corporate culture" and the broader cultures in which we live, they are not the same thing. Describing a corporate climate as "unicultural" sounds a bit too totalitarian (as in all controlling, not as a epiphet). There may be a shared work ethic (not harming or mistreating fellow employees or customers, being honest, working for your money, etc) which could be to some useful degree described metaphorically as a "culture", but within that there is still room for multiple cultures in other areas - a concept in conflict with the "unicultural" designation.