Inspiring Leadership with Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Competence

By Leah Smiley

A few months ago, I started to write a blog but I did not. I was concerned that my assertions would be viewed as too negative. The topic pertained to exercising caution when embarking on a new diversity and inclusion effort. The blog was driven out of concern for two local government agencies that were creating diversity plans. I warned both organizations of the potential negative impacts, in spite of the positive intentions. Caution was necessary in three areas: (1) choosing a consultant; (2) creating strategic interventions; and (3) handling resistance.

Choosing a Consultant

Here’s the reality. Everyone who says that they are a diversity consultant is NOT. On the surface, diversity and inclusion seems like a relatively easy profession. A person of color or a woman may say, “I AM diversity” therefore, I should be able to do the job well. Wrong. Possessing one, two or three dimensions of diversity will not produce a great diversity practitioner. I hope everyone understands the illogical reasoning here. A person who is the child of a physician, and frequently visits the doctor for his/her own health issues, is not quite qualified to be a medical practitioner. Likewise, a person who has completed 12 years of primary and secondary education is not yet qualified to be a teacher.

Doctors and nurses are certified. Teachers are certified. Lawyers are certified. Accountants and financial planners are certified. Even human resource professionals are certified. Certification is different from a ‘certificate’ program. In a certificate program, individuals affirm that they have acquired a certain level of knowledge, usually by taking a class. Certification, on the other hand, represents a declaration of a particular individual’s professional competence through knowledge and experience. When an individual is certified, credentials are used after the person’s name to indicate mastery of a particular subject.

A certified consultant, or executive, will offer strategic interventions versus simplistic solutions.

Creating Strategic Interventions

An example of a simplistic solution occurs when an organization says that they want to increase representation of a particular group. It’s tempting to say, “OK, let’s place an ad online and hire some people of color.” But this is far too simplistic.

Most of us prefer to keep it simple versus making our work complex. But using the example above, an organization can waste a lot of money in turnover because of a simplistic approach to diversity recruiting. A 2007 Korn/Ferry report, The Corporate Leavers Survey, shows that “unfairness costs U.S. employers $64 billion on an annual basis – a price tag nearly equivalent to the 2006 combined revenues of Google, Goldman Sachs, Starbucks and or the gross domestic product of the 55th wealthiest country in the world. This estimate represents the cost of losing and replacing professionals and managers who leave their employers solely due to failed diversity management. By adding in those for whom unfairness was a major contributor to their decision to leave, the figure is substantially greater. This study also shows how often employees who left jobs due to unfairness later discouraged potential customers and job applicants from working with their former employer.”

That was in 2007. In 2013, EEOC received 93,727 total charges of retaliation, discrimination and harassment. Should we compare years, in 2007, there were 82,792 EEOC charges. I wish there was data on the total number of diversity professionals and how that number correlates to the increase in EEOC charges. It would be interesting fodder for the people who wish to do away with the field altogether.

Nevertheless, an adequate solution to increasing representation requires a little more introspection. First, why is there a need for diverse representation? Second, what do the demographics and statistics say? What is the current and projected connection between diverse employee representation and customers/clients/students? Are there losses from turnover? Is there a burgeoning market that the organization is missing? And third, is the organization inclusive enough to handle increased representation? Are managers prepared to engage and retain diverse workers? Do employees have skills, such as conflict management, communication, and team building, to handle the complexity that diversity brings? How difficult is it for diverse individuals to get into the succession pipeline and move up the ladder? All of these questions, and more, require answers before even asking “What kind of diversity would benefit the organization most?”

A similar approach is taken when one considers offering “diversity training”, for example. You can’t just hold one diversity training session, and expect genuine change. But again, you learn these things when you get certified.

Handling Resistance

Finally, Diversity and Inclusion professionals must anticipate resistance, as well as plan how to respond to it. The largest city in the State of Vermont, Burlington, is a perfect illustration of this principle. According to 2012 U.S. Census estimates, the metro area had an estimated population of 213,701, approximately one third of Vermont’s total population. Yet while the City is busy finalizing its diversity plan, the voters are planning to dismantle diversity and equity in the schools at the June 3rd election.

In Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the Supreme Court concluded that it was not up to judges to overturn the 2006 decision by Michigan voters to bar consideration of race when deciding who gets into the state’s universities. According to an article in the Washington Post, the recent Supreme Court decision will cause “Those in states without [affirmative action] bans to be prepared to justify why consideration of race is essential for assembling a diverse class.” This post-secondary decision is bound to trickle-down to creative localities in this “Post Racial America.”

Hence, a skilled diversity practitioner will also be wary about how resistance will manifest. The city of Burlington does not have a superintendent for the next school year. Neither does the school district have a CFO. But one thing is for sure, someone is determined to place diversity and inclusion on the ballot for voters to decide whether it should be a school funded initiative. Because the school district is grappling with a budget shortfall, WPTZ-TV reports that voters will decide whether to “downsize the central office staff, ask teachers to spread out negotiated raises over several years, or gut the diversity and equity department.”

So here’s the challenge. You can’t create a one-dimensional response to inequity. A plan to remediate inequity needs to address the perceptions of as many stakeholders as possible. Otherwise, resistance will result in the loss of thousands of dollars spent defending the need for diversity and inclusion. It will also cause decision makers to exercise caution when allocating much needed resources for intervention efforts—which will ultimately affect diversity and inclusion outcomes.

The moral of the story is that diversity practitioners must obtain the knowledge and skill to effect change. We have to move beyond race and gender, toward purposeful interventions. We must also advance past good intentions, toward meaningful outcomes. Accordingly more diversity and inclusion professionals must get certified.



Leah Smiley is the President of the Society for Diversity, the #1 and largest professional association for diversity and inclusion. For more information about the Society for Diversity, log onto


Comments on: "A Cautionary Tale: We’ll Let the Voters Decide" (4)

  1. Excellent think-piece. I found the most interesting phrase to be that, “You learn these things when you get certified.”

    Getting hired in I.T. as a programmer often requires a Microsoft Certification these days. The folks who built Microsoft didn’t have those certifications. Ironic, yes? They built it with innovative thinking, creative solution sets, revolutionary programming structures, then they decided that you had to get certified by learning the things the early practitioners did, those who have been in the Microsoft programming business the longest to prove you know and understand what they did.

    That may not be a good thing. Microsoft isn’t exactly at the front of the pack for innovation anymore.

    Getting certified to do the same things that have been done by the best in the D&I business for the past fifty years will get the same things that doing them for the last fifty years got.

    African American businesses today produce less than one percent of the US GDP, same as 50 years ago, despite the proliferation of Supplier Diversity Programs.

    Black unemployment rate today is twice that of whites, same as it was in 1954, and has remained consistently so, despite the proliferation of Corporate Diversity Programs in virtually all of the nations’ largest employers.

    The black-white economic gap hasn’t budged in 50 years, even with Oprah Winfrey and all the NBA players included, despite the generous sprinkling of African Americans on television, in the movies and on billboards thanks to the same 50 years of “Diversity Awareness” and training.

    And that’s only blacks. The Bamboo Ceiling for Asians, the Glass Ceiling for women, women’s pay disparities…all have held steady through a half century of Diversity, only to discover that “Inclusion” was somehow overlooked as a component of the first five decades of work. I guess no one was measuring that part. But metrics is a whole different story.

    There’s an ancient proverb I made up a few years ago. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been driving. If you can still see where you left in the rear view mirror, you haven’t gone very far at all.” [ ]

    The point is this: Certifications are fine, if you want to hire someone to do more of what has already been done to get more of what you’ve already gotten. If your company is fine with where things are, then by all means, make sure your company hires a D&I consultant certified to do what’s always been done.

    But if you’re you’re not all that happy about where things are, nor truly confident about where our children can go by standing on our shoulders while doing what we’ve already done, you’ve got to look for another way.

    Has anyone ever seen a certificate for doing what’s never been done? That’s the kind of certification I’m looking for, and I hope you are, too.

  2. Excellent points Rob! You’re right we haven’t made as much progress as we would like to have made as a nation– but we have made some. I don’t want to discount the blood, sweat and tears of our pioneers. Nevertheless, in order for us to push the needle even further, we need people to go beyond “feel good” work– and certification helps people to do that. The Institute for Diversity Certification program for example, does not provide a specific blueprint for doing innovative and game-changing work. What it provides is a formula for how to create unique and robust interventions at one’s organization. Therefore, if you understand the formula, as well as apply innovation and strategy, everything else will fall into place.


  3. Yeah it’s humorous how issues like this one begin looking ridiculously trivial when compared to the world events. Another chapter of the cold war, the actual true war that erupts, Russia-China gas deal axis… Nonetheless here we are with this social-media issues, – may we notice the globe has modified? Iam not declaring that which you reveal is unnecessary, I’m stating that the certain level of detachment is healthy. Thanks, Sarah @

  4. Good point Sarah, but world events become major because people are unattached to the trivial things…

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