The Diversity Paradox No One Talks About

I recently read an article in which AT&T Chief Diversity Officer Cynthia Marshall said, “It makes good business sense to have an employee base that looks like our customer base.”

I suspect most of her peers agree. Her statement is exactly what you’d expect a diversity and inclusion leader to say. It’s about as controversial as what I ate for breakfast. Probably because it intuitively makes sense.

It made sense to Pepsi. Years ago, the company realized that women and minorities drink soda, so it launched a major campaign requiring that half of all new hires be women and minorities. Business improved.

Causation? Correlation? Does it matter? No corporation will claim that its diversity efforts aren’t valuable. Neither will any argue that hiring for diversity actually hurts business — nor am I insinuating that it does.

But here’s the problem: If what Marshall and other leaders say is true — that your workers should reflect your customers in order for your business to thrive — then they create a twisted paradox that scrapes at the core of diversity and inclusion. What if most of your customers are women? Or black? 

Then you are Fashion Fair. If you’ve never heard of the brand, it’s probably because you’re pale and have a penis. Fashion Fair is a cosmetics company founded in 1973 to sell to black females. Back then, the big brands wanted to make only white women look pretty. As a Washington Post story points out, “When the brand arrived at retail counters, with its little pink compacts and pink lipstick tubes, it wasn’t just promoting beauty and glamour but also self-esteem and confidence.”

Today, all the major beauty behemoths court and hire a wide array of faces. (You don’t even have to be a girl to be a model for Cover Girl.) But what about Fashion Fair? It remains the only major department-store cosmetics brand strictly targeting black women. Does that mean it shouldn’t hire someone like me? Of course, the law says one thing, but those who promote the mirror test say something else, something they likely don’t mean to say.

You see where this is going. Should Maidenform not hire men? Should Fox News not recruit sane people? Should a gay club not employ DJs who don’t like Lady Gaga?

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Some years back, I posed this conundrum to a diversity chief. She replied that every company eventually wants to expand into new markets. Her answer was lame, yet semi-accurate.

Lame because it’s clearly a copout. Take Fashion Fair. It remains committed to its core customers. And semi-accurate because the company seems to be struggling as a David in a landscape of Goliaths. In many industries, big businesses are stomping on smaller ones not just because they’re better at mass marketing but because their vast resources enable them to micro-market effectively.

So yes, companies are making greater strides to bring in diverse people. And yes, that’s great. But their reasoning nonetheless implies that workplace diversity is not an inherent necessity.

(And for the record, I once called 311 to complain that a gay bar I’d been dancing at for four hours had not played Lady Gaga or Madonna. So you know where I stand on that question.)

This originally appeared on Vadim Liberman’s ’s blog at VadimLiberman.com.

Vadim Liberman is a talent strategist, pundit, and advocate—a chief renegade officer advancing how we think, work, and live. With an expansive background in employee engagement, internal communications, and business journalism, Vadim mixes skepticism and hope to challenge conventions and create better workplaces. Check out his blog, vadimliberman.com.

Currently, Vadim is a practice leader at The Starr Conspiracy, a marketing agency that embraces humanity in business to build emotional resonance with enterprise software and services brands. Prior, Vadim managed talent engagement at Prudential, where he often battled bureaucracy and sometimes even won. Before that, he was senior editor at TCB Review, the thought-leader magazine of The Conference Board, where he explored ideas and opinions related to business management and the myriad ways that leaders fail their organizations.

Vadim also co-organizes and speaks regularly at DisruptHR events, where he has injected Madonna, cats, and ’80s television characters into presentations to inform and energize HR and other business executives. Contact him at vadimsviews@gmail.com .

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