“Best for Diversity” lists actively hinder progress. Stop submitting to them.

There’s a huge industry for diversity awards. It allows companies to hold themselves up as being good for underrepresented people, while spending money on PR firms instead of improving underrepresented employees’ experiences.

Every year, I watch companies proudly announce that they have made one of the many “Best Workplaces for Diversity” lists that populate the internet. They hold these up as proof that they are a business where underrepresented people can thrive.

But many of these lists are, I’m sorry to say, simply allowing companies to project a positive image while not doing a thing to evolve the discriminatory structures that created their homogeneous workplaces in the first place. That’s not universally true, but it’s true enough that this practices diverts millions of dollars from programs that could drive change to PR fluff and protection of the status quo.

Why this doesn’t work

The fact is, the way most lists are currently structured, they simply aren’t set up to hold companies accountable and certainly don’t help drive change.

This is mostly pay-to-play. Companies pay upwards of a hundred thousand dollars to submit to these awards. And sometimes, that doesn’t even include the PR firm that they hired to write the application. Consider how many professional development programs for Black employees that could fund. Or how many sessions of emotional intelligence & cultural competency training for managers. Or boosting the salaries of ERG leaders. Or…you get it.

From @jboyolee on Twitter: The open secret to many “best employer” and “best diversity” lists is that big companies outsource the application to PR/consulting firms that specialize in them.

They create junk data. When taking these surveys, employees know what the stakes are. Even when companies don’t explicitly pressure employees to give positive scores, because of the often razor-thin margins between companies on ranked lists, a bad score can meaningfully negatively impact your company’s ranking. This is true even when a company truly wants to use this data for honest benchmarking, because it often puts underrepresented employees in a tough spot: reveal their true experiences or hurt one major way companies say they are growing representation of people from their community.

They incentivize competition instead of collaboration. Fundamentally, companies shouldn’t be competing with each other on this. The global business community doesn’t win if one company does: that just encourages companies to continuously poach the few underrepresented people who have successfully dodged institutional exclusion long enough to make it to the Director, VP, and C-level. If companies have to compete, it incentives them to hide what works (Remember when IBM sued Microsoft for hiring their CDO, arguing it caused “real and immediate competitive harm”?!), and makes sure that all D&I teams spend a big portion of their resources re-inventing the wheel or on strategies that are predictably ineffective for their organization.

These problems are not an inevitability. These are design choices.

All is not lost: what works

Let me be clear: I firmly believe that benchmarking is important, and is an important way that companies understand how effective their current programs are, and where they should pivot their strategies. But those benchmarks have to be structured in a way that incentivizes companies to spend on things that work. In fact, I believe that these types of initiatives are key to the broader business community making progress. The fact is, PR and a company’s external reputation is often a key reason that companies invest in diversity & inclusion programs in the first place. But external credit should be apportioned for actual impact, not pressuring your employees to give positive answers to a survey.

For organizations that truly want to support their underrepresented employees, D&I teams should look for benchmarking with the following features:

  • Focus on policies, programs, practices, and partnerships: These basic pieces of infrastructure are the inputs that determine whether a company treats people equitably. Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s annual report provides a good model.
  • Requires relevant data: Where possible, don’t just rely on sentiment data, which can be gamed. Require hiring, representation (especially at senior levels or in especially underrepresented specialties), and attrition data. They can collect this confidentially.
  • Be free (or at least only cover your evaluation costs): Adding significant financial costs to the evaluation creates a conflict of interest, lowering trust and validity. Look for organizations that don’t charge — or only to cover their evaluation costs (they’ve got to stay running, after all).
  • (Bonus) Raise the bar annually: Partner with organizations that require greater improvements every year in order to maintain your status. Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index does this very well.

We can choose what we support

As we look to building the business community we all deserve, we all have choices. As someone who has lead global diversity & inclusion departments, I’m calling on my peers to lead this change where they can.

Don’t let corporate leaders get huge public credit for doing this on easy mode.

Work with partners that truly hold us and our leadership teams accountable.

Refuse to spend thousands of dollars on obfuscation that reinforces the exclusionary (and often discriminatory) status quo.

We have the power to make change. Let’s get to it.

Equitable Design & Impact @CultureAmp. Advisor, investor. Mathpath = (Math Nerd + Empath). Queer dog mom, Latina. Your contribution matters. She/her.