Why are Diversity Initiatives Failing?

The past few months have been eye-opening for me. I’ve been working with housing organisations on improving their performance in equality, diversity and inclusion. I used to work in this area, but having had some time away the roles have now been reversed and I’m the trainer and consultant and not the client.


It has meant that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the amount of work that organisations have done on diversity initiatives and why many people feel that on the whole these initiatives have failed.


It’s not as if housing organisations haven’t tried. We’ve been at the forefront of trying to ensure that we provide training on equality and diversity. We started off with equal opportunities training (mostly about recruitment), moved onto diversity initiatives (about services) and now the talk is about inclusion and unconscious bias.


So why then are we here. By suggesting that diversity programmes haven’t succeeded I might be in danger of upsetting those who’ve worked hard in the field and seen some success. Indeed Howard Ross in his book Reinventing Diversity makes some similar arguments, but here are my top five reasons why some diversity programmes don’t succeed;


  • They see diversity as a problem to be solved. Introduce some new policies, amend recruitment procedures for example and you’re moving forward. At HDN we have started using polarity thinking as a way of encouraging organisations to develop their work on equality and diversity; acknowledging that there is no right or wrong answer here but the subject is a polarity that the organisation has to manage;


  • We measure success in terms of activity. We look at inputs (hours of training, number of online courses etc) rather than outcomes (employment or service user statistics) as a way of assessing whether we’ve been successful. In some cases we’re even using wrong and superficial measures – are levels of complaints a true indicator of whether you’re on the right track? What do our eyes tell us? How many board members have driven into a car park at (the nearby) school closing time and seen that the school intake and parents are almost exclusively from a different ethnicity to the staff in the housing association building? Does the organisation truly reflect the community that it serves?


  • The level of myth and misinformation out there is (still) staggering. But have we helped matters by providing reams of information rather than changing attitudes and mindsets? As an analogy I’d much rather value attitude over experience when recruiting but how many of us have changed our model of recruitment? Again at HDN we have been moving towards training that is based on using the power of conversations and examining our own biases as a way of addressing how people see the world;


  • Leadership is key and to me inclusion is about how much people from different backgrounds are involved across the whole organisation. Housing is a little better but we know that it is a problem across the board (no pun intended) and more people called David and Steve lead FTSE 100 companies than women or ethnic minorities. Some organisations have started to take the first steps -we’re working on a board diversity programme with two housing associations and early results are encouraging. We’ll be sharing more feedback later this summer;


  • We’ve heard about intelligence quotients, done work on emotional intelligence, but how many have us have thought about cultural intelligence? In today’s everchanging world are we creating organisations that understand the people that we are working with and serving? We think there is more to do on ensuring that managers can lead a diverse workforce and work in culturally flexible way; our new coaching and mentoring programme will be launched shortly.


The past two years following on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy have bought into stark relief the intersection between poverty and ethnicity in the UK. Data in housing allocations and homelessness (over a third of homelessness acceptances are from a minority background) have highlighted that no matter what we have done in the past there is much to do. As a sector we need a new and co-ordinated approach.

Mushtaq Khan, Director, Think Inclusive and Board Member, 3SC