HR has made little progress on D&I. Here’s why

In his more than 40 years in the HR industry, Skip Spriggs has seen tremendous progress on myriad HR-related challenges. However, one segment has remained stagnant: diversity and inclusion.

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“D&I is the only business issue I’ve seen where we’ve made little to no progress,” says Spriggs, whose leadership positions have included president and CEO of The Executive Leadership Council, CHRO at TIAA and Boston Scientific, and chief diversity officer and senior vice president of HR at Cigna Corp.

Skip Spriggs

Spriggs attributes the inertia to two factors: First, most companies don’t set goals around D&I.

“If we have an issue around a shortfall in sales,” he says, for instance, “we do the diagnostics, put goals in place, hold the management team accountable and, if they don’t meet the goals, they don’t get their bonus.”

But very few organizations are inclined to follow a similar strategy for boosting D&I; those that have found success, he notes, have relied on goal-setting.

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Related: Using data, accountability to make the D&I difference

The other complication is the lack of disaggregated data–a trend that has resulted in too many companies painting a false picture of D&I progress. For instance, Spriggs points to the #MeToo movement. As part of their response, many companies aimed to hire and promote more women, which, in turn, allowed them to claim rising D&I numbers.

“But then you have the black population listening to the executive team saying they’re doing so much better on D&I, but the numbers are moving higher because of the hiring of white women,” he says. “Brown and black people aren’t moving at all, and we know it.”

That disparity can create an unproductive environment, he adds, which–when coupled with the systemic racism that is pervasive in corporate America–continues to stymie career development for employees of color. For evidence of that, he notes, look no further than the Fortune 500–where only four companies are headed by Black CEOs. And, you have to expand to the Fortune 1000 to find the singular Black woman holding a CEO role.

Spriggs shares that the CEO of one of the nation’s largest retailers once mentioned he was looking for a diverse candidate for an open seat on the company’s board. When Spriggs asked for his ideal find, the leader replied that he preferred a seated CEO–which inherently limited the pool of picks.

See also: Why this D&I leader got personal about racism

“ ‘If you’re looking for a black CEO of a Fortune 500, you have four to choose from–and they’re all oversubscribed,’ ” Spriggs recalls telling the CEO. “So I said, ‘Forget about the title of the person you’re looking for. Let’s talk about the skills and competencies: Do you want someone with international experience? Someone in a certain segment like sciences or retail? Someone with experience running P/L or marketing?’ When you look just for the title, systemically, you eliminate a large portion of the population.”

To root out systemic racism, Spriggs says, companies need to not only start setting goals and measuring progress for D&I but must also be transparent with their employees–both about progress and pitfalls–to support an authentic commitment to creating a diverse workforce. Transparency is especially important now, as employees pay closer attention than ever, given the widespread racial-justice protests in the past few weeks.

While such unrest isn’t necessarily new, the number of non-Black allies supporting the cause is, Spriggs notes, which in part has been fueled by how social media and other outlets have exposed the realities of racism.

Related: How the world’s most admired companies drive D&I

“My generation has tolerated less than my parents’ generation, and my kids aren’t going to tolerate it at all. When I talk to my 20-something kids and their white friends, they talk about where they’re going to protest on the weekends,” he says. “And it’s because of what they’ve seen on these devices in their hands; the cell phone has made it impossible to hide injustice.”

Employees are bringing that recognition to the workplace. So, if a company purports to care about diversity, Spriggs notes, but its senior leadership team is all-white, employees are going to take issue.

“I think the best business leaders are transparent about what they do good and transparent about what they don’t do so good,” he says, “but whether you’re transparent or not, employees will see through it.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].