Do Your Diversity Initiatives Promote Assimilation Over Inclusion?
Professional development initiatives intended to help underrepresented employees don’t always lead to the progress leaders think they will — especially if those initiatives are designed around a harmful expectation of assimilation. The authors suggest examining the company’s expectations of assimilation and professionalism, reframing professional development programs, adjusting feedback processes, and focusing on relationships.
Recently, a client asked us to put together a program to accelerate promotion opportunities for what it referred to as its “diverse talent.” Based on our additional research, we realized the requirements for promotion at this company were skills that many employees were struggling with at the time — both those folks with marginalized identities and those without.
By targeting only a select few with this promotion program, it created a false narrative that only individuals from underrepresented backgrounds needed help developing these skills and that something was inherently wrong with how they performed. What’s more, these kinds of programs set a single standard for professionalism and therefore promote and lead to assimilation — the opposite of real inclusion.
Approaches like these might broadcast that the company devalues the need for change at all levels. It is not uncommon to see the group with the least privilege expected to change its behavior to help achieve equity in an organization. Rarely does anyone feel safe and included in any dynamic where they are the only ones expected to change. We suggest examining your company’s expectations of professionalism, reframing professional development programs, adjusting feedback processes, and focusing on relationships. This way, your organization can create an inclusive culture that celebrates diversity instead of flattening it.
What Expectations of Assimilation Does Your Workplace Have?
It’s time to rethink your expectations around assimilation. Assimilation means absorbing the cultural traditions of a population or a group, and every one of us makes decisions to assimilate or not assimilate in the workplace. Nearly all companies have implicit and explicit expectations of “professional” assimilation in the workplace when it comes to language, behavior, or processes.
Examples of positive assimilation will vary depending on the organization and its mission. A great example of a realistic and healthy expectation of assimilation is when a company asks employees to be on time. Cultural norms regarding punctuality vary and can have a significant impact on behaviors and perception, but not being on time could have severe consequences depending on the nature of the business. When there is a vital need for assimilation to achieve a meaningful outcome, it is important for an organization to be transparent and clear about the need to assimilate and why. For example, some organizations might set strict policies for dress code, whereas others might have unspoken rules about appropriateness, leaving the burden on employees to interpret what will and will not be acceptable. Assimilation becomes a huge problem when the expectation falls primarily on the shoulders of those whose backgrounds are underrepresented and these expectations for assimilation have been unclear or unspoken from the beginning.
Showing up at work without expending all of your energy to assimilate is a privilege. Imagine the emotional effort required to analyze, monitor, and perform to consciously assimilate into a workplace. You might have to adapt your accent, for instance, or avoid certain words that are common in your culture while at work. All of this energy requires emotional and mental sacrifices, thus impacting an employee’s ability to feel psychologically safe and their ability to perform. After all, when we do not feel we are part of a safe and stable environment, it is difficult to focus our energy on growing and developing personally and professionally.
For these reasons, asking others to assimilate will likely sabotage diversity-focused professional development by promoting conformity. This conformity can be reinforced by managers who are supporting certain cultural standards. To analyze your workplace’s expectations of assimilation, ask yourself:
- How am I contributing to a culture of conformity?
- What’s the motivation behind my request for assimilation?
- Does my motivation align with our DEI initiatives and values?
DEI efforts work best when they are centered on identifying a realistic and healthy expectation of assimilation that still allows employees to thrive and contribute in unique ways.
Reframing Your Professional Development Initiatives
With the above in mind, it’s important to ask the following questions when designing your professional development approach:
- Why is this training important?
- Who needs to participate?
- What message are we sending to the participants?
- What is systemically contributing to the problem we are trying to solve?
Acknowledge how the organization contributes to the challenges that employees are experiencing. The mindset of “if we could fix them, our problem will be solved” is a sign that your organization is moving in the wrong direction.
The solution for getting traditionally marginalized employees into leadership positions isn’t just about expecting them to adapt to the current standards of professionalism. Instead, it requires creating the right conditions for employees to contribute, receive developmental feedback to grow and develop their talent, and gain equitable access to promotions. Many organizations will need to examine their existing processes and criteria to reveal gaps that disrupt opportunities.
Here are a few steps you can take to set more individuals from diverse backgrounds up for success in leadership within your organization:
1. Reevaluate your relationship with the idea of “professionalism.”
Carefully explore the biases and mindsets underpinning how “professionalism” is defined, and the expectations that employees must meet to get promoted into leadership that disproportionately affect employees of color. It’s important to note that this step is not about lowering your standards of leadership qualifications and behaviors. It is about recognizing when you might have “standards of convenience” that change depending on who is being evaluated.
When evaluating an employee, prioritize being aware over being right. Many leaders have biases about clothing choices, body language, and what vernacular they deem is appropriate to use in a business setting. If you are not aware of your own assumptions, you will likely operate with self-righteous ideals that could derail someone else’s career. Take the time to challenge how you perceive someone and the standards you hold them against. Think about where those standards originated. Imagine what it is like to be in their shoes. Are you there to help them grow and develop, or are you looking for a reason to determine that they are not a “good fit?”
Leaders can challenge their own beliefs about professionalism by asking themselves the following questions:
- How are my beliefs about professionalism aligned with the organization’s values?
- How does my unconscious bias impact my ideas and beliefs about professionalism?
- How do my beliefs about professionalism support the growth and development of others?
Honest answers to these questions will help you reveal outdated views and embedded biases within your own mindset. If you are struggling, engage an extra pair of eyes and ears to help you check your bias at the door and make sure your definition of professionalism aligns with your diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.
2. Reconsider how you use and give feedback.
Feedback has long been touted as a critical component for leading and developing talent. It’s also necessary to think about the purpose of your feedback models and how they might be contributing to or detracting from a DEI-focused environment.
Research has shown that managers are more likely to give actionable and in-the-moment feedback to men than to women. Similar dynamics have been observed based on race, ability, and sexual orientation. Employees who aren’t given actionable feedback are less likely to become aware of potential areas of improvement and leverage the benefits of that feedback. In many cases, they might become frustrated or feel like they aren’t recognized for their work, often resulting in negative outcomes such as reduced engagement, impostor syndrome, and even turnover.
This is especially important when those who aren’t given actionable feedback are leaders. At most organizations, there is less diversity at higher levels. As more women and people of color achieve higher levels of leadership, there is more pressure to be successful, set an example for others, and “justify” their role. Stress about being seen as a good leader makes it more difficult to seek feedback and grow from it.
Another important aspect of feedback is to limit it to work-related topics and what is actually necessary for someone’s role. Our expectations are usually a reflection of ourselves. When we focus on creating employees who are just like us, we either ignore people who have different experiences and knowledge or create strain for employees to work extra hard to emulate us — which is effort that could be better used to develop their skills. Here are a few questions to identify productive versus harmful feedback models:
- Is the feedback based on subjective criteria and biased expectations?
- Is the feedback aligned with the requirements of their role and a business need?
- Am I expecting employees to assimilate unnecessarily?
3. Focus on the quality of your relationships.
It’s important to be aware of the beliefs, biases, and mindsets that might drive our behavior. What’s equally important is developing relational maturity that reflects our values and supports our vision. Without the ability to think and behave relationally, we will be unable to sustain any progress that we make.
Upskilling our capacity to actively listen and be more empathetic, vulnerable, and compassionate are a few ways that we can ensure that our diversity-focused professional development will stick. This work requires patience, understanding, and grace in the face of our challenges. We truly believe that diversity-focused professional development is a relational practice that requires conscious, intentional focus and commitment no matter what program you choose to implement.
Along those lines, it’s vital to remember that authorship is ownership. We see many companies trying to create DEI programs to support a particular group without including this group in the process. It’s surprising how often this piece is missing.
To serve marginalized employees, you need to give them a say in these initiatives, design programs that consider their needs, and gain their buy-in. At the same time, ensure that your efforts don’t place the burden or responsibility solely on them. Be clear about your rules of engagement and clarify your efforts to avoid “spotlight stress” and tokenization. You need to ask:
- What role have the program participants played in the decision-making process?
- How did I determine the needs of the participants?
- How will I check in with the participants to determine whether the program was successful?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t realized as a result of a program or because of good intentions. If your organization’s process for professional development places the burden solely on the individual, it’s time to reexamine your approach and expectations. Just like the need to prioritize this work is unquestionable, so is the understanding that if employees change and their environments don’t, diversity-focused professional development won’t lead to progress.