Progressive Corporations at Work: The Case of Diversity Programs


During the civil rights era in the 1960s, the federal government passed a series of measures to end racial and gender discrimination in the workplace. Yet the laws and regulations did not clearly define what constituted illegal discrimination and gave only weak enforcement power to federal agencies. As a result, over the following decades, corporations themselves have defined how they will comply with civil rights law. Human resources managers have created a series of programs designed to improve the status of women and minorities in the workplace, from formalized hiring and promotion procedures to diversity training to mentoring programs. Since firms have made different decisions about which programs to implement, researchers can track firms across time to study the causes and effects of the various programs.

In this article, we review many studies, some of which are our own, to find out what factors lead firms to implement anti-discrimination programs and which of these programs are actually successful at increasing workforce and management diversity. We find that regulatory pressure from the federal government has become less influential in driving firms to adopt diversity programs. Instead, advocacy from groups within the firm and industry culture have played greater roles in recent decades. We also find that some of the most popular equal opportunity programs are not actually the most effective. Formalized hiring and promotion procedures, diversity training, and grievance procedures do not lead to improvements in workforce diversity. We argue that these programs are ineffective because they treat managers as the source of the problem. The programs that do lead to results, such as recruitment initiatives and diversity taskforces, are successful because they engage managers in finding solutions. We also conclude that members of historically disadvantaged groups do not benefit from networking programs, but they do benefit from mentoring programs, which link them directly to managers who can help them advance in their careers.

Our findings have important public policy implications. Despite progress since the civil rights era, women and minorities are still underrepresented in management-level positions. Therefore, it remains as pressing as ever to understand which programs are effective in promoting workplace equality. The conclusions we present here offer guidance for managers deciding which programs to implement, courts awarding injunctive relief in discrimination suits, and agencies enforcing equal opportunity laws.

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