By Janet Crenshaw Smith and Gary A. Smith Sr., PDJ columnists for 2019

Group of young business people working together in creative office.

It’s funny how often that question is asked when we are implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and programs for our clients. In fact, the question has become somewhat predictable. We’ll start here by first answering the question, and then we’ll explain more. The simple, direct, and most appropriate answer is, “Yes!” But you probably already know, it’s never quite that simple or direct.

We have successfully designed and executed programs that accelerate professional opportunities for women and people of color (and other groups who are underrepresented at the top). These programs are created not because the racially or gender diverse employees are in any way deficient, but because their workplace experiences are sometimes different or even subpar. The differences in their experiences can be attributed to numerous factors, including lack of opportunity, unconscious bias, lack of relationships or familiarity across differences, or even human capital systems that have bias built into them.

Take something as simple as performance feedback. Everyone needs to know what they’re doing well and what needs improvement. Yet time and time again, organizational assessments reveal inequities in the frequency and quality of feedback. We continue to find statistically significant results by race and gender, and sometimes other dimensions of diversity. The differences in their experiences may be attributable to a leader’s discomfort providing feedback across difference. The gaps created by those experiential differences can prove to be meaningful and impactful with regard to opportunities for women and people of color.

In an effort to close the gaps, we often suggest that strategies and programs be implemented that focus on the most impacted groups. It’s this focus that usually generates questions.

  • Why do we need to focus on diversity?
  • Why is this even being classified as diversity?
  • Isn’t that just good management?

Remember, from the very beginning we said the answer is, “Yes, this is good management.” The problem is that “good management” isn’t being provided consistently to everyone.

Disappointing questions come next.

  • What if we’re not good at doing this for anyone?
  • What if our managers don’t manage well?
  • Why would we focus on specific groups?
  • Shouldn’t we just implement this initiative organization-wide?

Those are trickier questions. First, we would LOVE to have organizations invest more heavily in people. We dream of organizations that provide managers with the time and resources to teach, coach, and nurture their staff. Second, the “we suck at managing everyone” argument overlooks the fact that you are indeed sometimes good at doing these things. Not consistently, not for everyone, but someone is getting the feedback, the mentoring, the coaching, the development, the special stretch assignment, the opportunity. We know because we see it—and other employees see it—being done well for some but not for others. It is the inconsistent execution that creates the gaps in employee experiences in the first place. If all employees were valued, treated equitably, and the beneficiaries of good management practices, then diversity, equity, and inclusion might not ever be necessary. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Yet when we launch initiatives to close the statistically significant gaps in how different groups are cared for, led, and managed, the notion of improving good management for all emerges. So while it is good management, if it isn’t being applied consistently, or in a way that avoids creating gaps in the employee experience, then why does it only come up when we set out to address the inequity? Why isn’t equity a driver of diversity and inclusion instead of a counterbalance to it?

Consider this: Many office buildings installed ramps because the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) required public buildings to make adjustments that would make them accessible to everyone. While the ramps were installed for people with mobility issues, who until then could not easily have building access, today many others also benefit from those ramps. For example, when we’re rolling luggage, we appreciate them. A solution intended for a smaller group also benefited a larger one.

If your diversity, equity, and Inclusion efforts can drive a sea change in how your organization prioritizes people management, that’s great! But remember how you got here; you identified inequities. So begin with a focus on closing those gaps. Identify the biases in the systems, norms, and practices that caused those gaps. Then design strategies and programs for groups who have been missing out. “Good management” could be a byproduct of your D&I programs.

Janet Crenshaw Smith and Gary A. Smith Sr.

Janet Crenshaw Smith and Gary A. Smith Sr.

Janet Crenshaw Smith and Gary A. Smith Sr. are the cofounders of Ivy Planning Group, a 29-year-old consulting and training firm. Ivy won Profiles in Diversity Journal‘s 2018 Innovations in Diversity Award. Profiles in Diversity Journal has also named Gary and Janet Diversity Pioneers and Diversity Leaders.