The Latest DEI Obstacle

A new study shows the usual way of resolving work conflicts can actually get in the way of diversity and inclusion efforts.

Passing along racist memes at work. Not promoting Asian workers to management because they are “too valuable” as individual contributors. And normalizing pay between employees of different backgrounds.

Trying to resolve all these conflicts, along with making organizations more diverse and inclusive overall, is part and parcel of the post-George Floyd corporate world. But there’s growing evidence that the decades-old tools executives use to manage conflicts are inefficient—or even counterproductive—when it comes to making organizations more diverse and inclusive, according to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Companies need to move away from resolving conflicts over diversity and inclusion the usual way, and instead lean toward managing them, say the study’s authors. Traditional conflict-resolution techniques are geared toward solving one-off problems and de-escalating tensions. Diversity and inclusion efforts, however, are inevitably tension-filled and ongoing. “Companies want to avoid conflict,” says Andrés Tapia , Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In the study, researchers cite a $200-million, two-decade inclusiveness effort at one university. Yet only 38% of the university’s Black and Latino candidates received tenure, while 50% of its white candidates did. More than half of female academics complained of harassment by colleagues. During this time, the university relied on traditional conflict-resolution tactics, the study said. It called many of these methods, such as trainings, seminars, and negotiating sessions, a “superficial bandage” approach to underlying issues.

Flo Falayi, a Korn Ferry associate client partner and leadership coach, say companies are discovering that becoming—and staying—inclusive isn’t a short-term project. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. Indeed, experts point out that representation of women, Blacks, Latinos, and other ethnic groups on corporate boards or in the C-suite hasn’t moved much. For instance, Black Americans make up more than 12% of the country’s population, but fewer than 6% of its chief executives.

The slow pace, along with reliance on old conflict-resolution methods, has been frustrating to many of the leaders charged with making organizations more inclusive. A new study suggests that the tenure of chief diversity officers at large, publicly traded US firms is shrinking dramatically. Indeed, 60% of diversity officers at S&P 500 companies left their positions between 2018 and 2021. The average tenure of CDOs at those big firms is now less than two years.