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Diversity Programs Often Make Workplaces Less Diverse, New Study Finds Sociologists have found that the diversity strategies companies most readily adopt end up failing. To start, don't use the word 'diversity' often.

By Lydia Belanger

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Despite multi-billion-dollar lawsuits, cultural shifts and even good intentions, the demographic makeup of most major companies remains largely homogenous. Across industries, from the increasingly obsolescent world of investment banking to the relatively young tech sector, businesses have not made significant progress toward ethnic and gender diversity.

Sociology professors Frank Dobbin of Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University studied three decades of data from 829 U.S. companies and conducted hundreds of interviews with managers and executives to determine the effectiveness of common diversity strategies. Their findings, published in the July-August 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review, outlined approaches that stifle or even reverse diversity efforts, in contrast with one that proved far more likely to succeed.

Related: Overcoming Unconscious Bias Is Key to Building an Inclusive Team

Here are the study's main takeaways:

Don't: Force it.

Diversity stagnation and regression are most commonly rooted in top-down directives -- those that mandate new ways of thinking and hiring. Although the lack of diversity in workplaces is a serious issue that many executives believe must be resolved, when companies adopt rigid formulas for achieving diversity goals, their efforts often backfire. Simply put: People don't like being told what to do, even when it comes to enriching their workplaces with diverse perspectives.

Don't: Be negative.

The researchers point out that 75 percent of companies in their study resorted to negativity in their internal messaging about diversity. They focused on the threat, legally and reputationally, that the company would face if it failed to become more diverse. Similarly, three-quarters of companies made diversity training mandatory, though after five years, the proportions of some demographics within companies actually diminished. If participation in diversity trainings at a company was voluntary, however, diversity frequently improved.

Don't: Trust your employees to follow through.

While 40 percent of companies have instituted job tests as a means to combat discrimination, some biased hiring managers may choose to quietly skip this step, or they may interpret results differently depending on the candidate's sex or ethnicity. Along these lines, employee performance reviews do not necessarily protect against bias. Women and minorities tend to receive lower ratings. It's also common for managers to inflate reviews across the board to avoid confrontation or to diminish the weight of the reviews in their promotion decisions.

Related: Meet the Executive Leading the Charge to Change Stereotypical 'Women at Work' Stock Photos

Another strategy that is inherently negative is a system for reporting grievances. Even when an employee reports unfair treatment, managers can dispute their claims and may even demote them as a result, Dobbin and Kalev explain. Managers don't want to be humiliated, and repercussions deter employees. A resulting lack of grievances brought forth may falsely suggest that a company's employees are free of discrimination concerns.

Do: Give your employees something to feel good about.

While voluntary diversity training is one alternative to these poisonous practices, the researchers found other strategies work even better. When companies provide positive reinforcement to managers who volunteer to help recruit women on college campuses, their managers often return having recruited not simply women, but minority men as well.

Formal mentoring programs are also effective, in part because of their voluntary nature. They offer built-in support for members of underrepresented demographics and they reward white male managers, who feel good about having helped someone else. They also may become biased toward their mentees, the researchers explain, regardless of sex or ethnicity.

Do: Encourage collaboration across demographics.

When mentors are assigned mentees from different backgrounds, members of both groups gain exposure to a perspective they may not have encountered otherwise. The same is true when it comes to self-managed teams. When employees from across a company come together to work on a project, chances are, the newly formed team will resemble a cross-section of the company demographically as well. This is because the racial and gender makeup within companies often varies by department. To a similar end, companies may rotate management trainees through departments.

Related: Sponsorship Has More Promise for Executive Diversity Than Mentorship

Forming diversity task forces is another way to foster collaboration. These tasks forces are made up of representatives from various departments and demographics who meet periodically to address diversity concerns. By making diversity improvement the responsibility of departments, it makes all employees accountable without singling out individuals.

"On average, companies that put in diversity task forces see 9 percent to 30 percent increases in the representation of white women and of each minority group in management over the next five years," Dobbin and Kalev explain. However, only 20 percent of the companies the researchers studied had diversity tasks forces in place.

Do: Downplay the word "diversity."

Aside from diversity task forces, many effective strategies (such as mentoring) are not explicitly "diversity" efforts. The authors cited research from the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Washington in which white men interviewed at one of two types of companies: Those that emphasized their diversity efforts during the interview process, and those that did not mention diversity to interview candidates. Turns out, an emphasis on diversity can make white men feel pressured or threatened.

"In the explicitly pro-diversity company," the authors explained, "subjects expected discrimination against whites, showed cardiovascular distress and did markedly worse in the taped interview."

Lydia Belanger is a former associate editor at Entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaBelanger.

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