Middle Management May Hinder Diversity Initiatives

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By AMA Staff

Middle management buy-in is essential to the success of any diversity initiative, since managers play a key role in hiring, development, and promotion decisions. But all too often, middle managers are at direct odds with diversity practitioners, according to a report from The Conference Board.

The report, which outlines a number of strategies for getting middle managers involved in the diversity process, is based on a meeting of The Conference Board Diversity Business Council. Participants include senior diversity officials from Hewitt Associates, United Technologies Corporation, ADP, Avon Products, Merrill Lynch, Colgate-Palmolive, Safeco, Lucent, PepsiCo, and others.

Middle Management: Roadblock to Diversity and Inclusion
Middle managers focus on long-term strategy and the status quo. Because they’re generally rewarded for maintaining current results, they often become roadblocks to inclusion initiatives. There are many barriers to engaging middle managers. “Beneath the headlines are layers of complexity,” notes the report, “including a lack of understanding for the business case for diversity, competing priorities, time pressures, legitimate questions about how they’ll be rewarded for their efforts, measurability, lack of authority to make much of a difference, and a sense that they’re at the mercy of the candidates recruiters provide them.”

Middle managers need to see what’s in it for them and the overall business. Key to winning them over is demonstrating that diversity and inclusion will contribute to goals such as increased capacity, better solutions for business challenges, employee engagement/ownership, innovative ideas, reduced turnover, and the ability to resolve complex business issues.

Getting Middle Managers Involved
Members of The Conference Board Diversity Business Council offered a number of strategies for getting middle management involved in the diversity process:

  • Executive leaders must carry the banner of diversity more deeply into the organization. They should model the behaviors they want from middle management, such as attending diversity training and mentoring diverse employees.
  • Companies should ask affinity groups to ground their efforts in business relevant issues. Ensure their programs have broad appeal beyond their direct constituency by addressing broad-based business issues or employee needs such as career development. Ask affinity group members to invite their managers to events.
  • Require all affinity groups to have executive sponsors that come out of the middle management ranks.
  • Find a highly-respected manager who is ready to be a champion and ensure the person gets high-profile visibility for his or her diversity commitment.
  • Enhance education and awareness through relationships; for example, reciprocal mentoring with someone culturally different.
  •  Encourage middle managers to participate in local diversity councils. Have middle managers participate in diversity events as a speaker, panelist, or host.
  • Reward the champions. Tie financial rewards to performance and development plans. Recognize managers by putting role model awards on the corporate intranet.
  • To make diversity sustainable, embed it in the performance management system. Conduct a 360-degree feedback process to gain input and observations on inclusive behaviors.
  • Include cultural competence as a component of an interview skills workshop to enhance managers’ ability to connect with potential diverse candidates and ensure they hire the best talent.
  • Use employee satisfaction surveys to identify areas where diversity resources could be used to help resolve what would otherwise be identified as HR or general organization issues.
  • Be transparent about how goals are set and measured.
  • Provide middle managers with internal and/or external resources—including an online resource—when they need help dealing with diversity-related issues and challenges.
  • Develop a balanced scorecard and publish it in a highly public way. A scorecard should have measurable behavioral changes such as employee satisfaction surveys, exit interviews, as well as measurable representation changes such as attrition, succession, and so on. 
  • In talent reviews, include diversity/cross-cultural competency as a valued competency for the advancement of managers.
  • Create a diversity index—a series of diversity-related questions asked of all employees through an existing employee engagement survey or as a stand-alone effort. Track trends over time.
  • Identify middle managers who have several open positions and provide them with invitations to attend diversity recruiting fairs so they can meet a critical mass of candidates.

Source: Middle Managers: Engaging and Enrolling the Biggest Roadblock to Diversity and Inclusion
Executive Action No. 234, The Conference Board

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