Can corporate America be forced to end its diversity obsession? Abolishing racial and ethnic preferences has proven difficult enough in higher education and government employment but stopping private businesses from “trying to look like America” seems nearly impossible given their freedom to recruit whoever they want (save, of course, hiring only white males). Are airline passengers forever doomed to watch safety videos where no two pilots, cabin stewards, ticket agents, ground crews or corporate executives share the same racial background? An uphill battle, to be sure, but let me offer a possible albeit deceitful solution: let the market decide so if consumers believe a diversity-rich product to outperform one wholly created by white males, these marketplace choices will boost quarterly profit, which, in turn, will enrich executives. Or, the opposite might happen—consumers will avoid diversity. Transparency is critical so those shopping for, say, a new car must be able to compare automobile manufacture’s workforce composition just as they now compare the EPA’s estimated gas millage numbers.
Such labeling is commonplace in today faddish retail environment. Supermarket shelves are filled with products that are organic, free of genetically modified organism, “all-natural,” contain no antibiotics, or are endorsed by celebrity chefs. Corporate environmental commitment is especially ubiquitous—hard to enjoy a cup of coffee without seeing signs announcing that all beans are fair-traded so no worker is exploited, the paper cups are bio-degradable and, rest assured, all barristers (some of whom assuredly are LGBTQ community members) are paid a fair wage and receive ample company-paid benefits.
Key is recognizing that consumers will generally pay extra for a product perceived as socially “better” though the link between the corporate policy and a palpable “better” is typically murky. Is a $5.00 Starbuck’s coffee organically and sustainably grown objectively healthier for the planet than the humdrum $2.50 Dunkin Donuts version? Conceivably, Starbuck’s is charging a premium solely to give its customers a feel-good high. Hard to tell.
How, then, do we create a diversity rating system that is reasonably credible and independent to provide consumers with concise diversity quotient? Let me suggest a private firm akin to the bond rating Moody’s financed by licensing fees—a business could append the diversity rating on its products only after paying a fee, a perfectly rational arrangement if we assume that a “strong” diversity rating would be perceived as a marketing plus. This is comparable to the sought-after “UL” label of Underwriters Laboratory for electrical appliances. An advantage of having a non-governmental, non-profit rating agency would be its need to protect its reputations for honesty—fewer incentives, for example, to re-classify Dominicans from “Hispanic” to “black” to disguise a shortage of African American employees.
This firm—let’s call it The American Council on Diversity (ACD)– would navigate all the familiar diversity-related tribulation and award a well-researched diversity rating. Conceivably, a star system, from zero stars for no diversity to the maximin Five Stars rating. A Five-Star firm, we might predict, would not only have a workforce, from the lowest to the boardroom, that “looked like America,” together with outreach programs targeting historically marginalized populations (e.g., Native Americans) plus in-house training/role model/mentoring programs to help minorities advance up the corporate ladder. Also included would be multiple protections to prevent job discrimination, especially of the invidious variety such as penalizing African Americans for not embracing “white” cultural traits such as obsessing over punctuality. Everything possible, from the initial hiring decision to on-going job evaluations, would reflect the highest possible commitment to diversity.
So, a consumer booking a flight with a choice of carriers might see that, hypothetically, Delta Airlines enjoys a “Five Star” diversity rating while Southwest scores “One Star.” A link to the ACD website would explain the score—Delta has invested millions in training women and black pilots, works diligently to accommodate the disabled, has programs to help minority firms win Delta contracts while at Southwest’s minority employees are almost all low-wage baggage handlers. Surely, all other factors being roughly comparable, and diversity were an asset, consumers would click on Delta.
Or would they? My guess is that Five-Star firms would suffer in the marketplace since the unspeakable truth is widely known. Indeed, the diversity craze may be strongest within firms with near monopolies (e.g., Google) or institutions (e.g., Ivy League schools) where demand far outstrips supply. After all, if diversity is so wonderful, why must government pressure compel it with countless anti-discrimination laws and bureaucratic edicts? The opposite is more plausible: hard to imagine the seriously ill choosing a hospital because of its top diversity rating. (A lawyer friend once told that an effort to make the Chicago’s Public Defender Office more closely resemble Chicago’s “criminal community” instigated a near riot when defendants awaiting trial demanded “fat-assed Jew boys” to represent them.) In the final analysis, the corporate (and higher education) diversity obsession is a well-known fraud though few dare to say this in public.
That uncooperative reality understood, compelling businesses to provide certified data regarding the size and scope of their diversification will be devastating. To be sure, firms might refuse to cooperate, try to fake the data or drag their heels, but this reluctance is itself significant information. To return to the airline booking, a “Not Currently Available” rating statement will probably be more appealing than a stellar Five Star one. How many flyers might prefer an airline boasting of recruiting pilots and mechanics from labor pools shunned by other carriers? In effect, the likely decline in Delta’s business will be a de facto opinion poll regarding what many truly think about diversity. Financial analysists will plot changing profits across dozens of firms in multiple industries to calculate the impact of diversity ratings on profits.
Hopefully, this unwelcome news—diversity is a market liability– will cool the current ardor for racial/ethnic bean counting and this fad will follow countless other failed corporate gimmicks into oblivion. Savvy airlines will learn their lessons and just limit themselves to carefully crafted hyper-diverse safety videos as their commitment to social justice though, to cover its tracks, carriers might add a flaming cross-dresser or an obese Polynesian to the ensemble.