What can a large corporation do when it comes under scrutiny for poor diversity efforts?

03 June 2019

Building and nurturing a diverse workforce may have risen to the top of HR considerations in recent years, but behind closed doors, it seems the positive headlines don’t always translate into daily practice. In an internal message board, IT giant Microsoft recently came under fire from a female programme manager employed by the company who doubted their commitment to boosting diversity.

Criticising the company for their ‘discriminatory hiring’, her posts on the message board questioned Microsoft’s diversity stance and the company’s genuine commitment to improving inclusion.

“Does Microsoft have any plans to end the current policy that financially incentivizes discriminatory hiring practices? To be clear, I am referring to the fact that senior leadership is awarded more money if they discriminate against Asians and white men,” one of her posts read.

“I have an ever-increasing file of white male Microsoft employees who have faced outright and overt discrimination because they had the misfortune of being born both white and male. This is unacceptable.” 

The employee condemned the financial bonuses awarded to senior leadership teams for hiring female or minority employees – and understandably so. While quotas can be a good starting place to increase diversity in the workplace, the will to create inclusivity in a business should not be driven by personal financial gain. Attaching performance metrics to diversity recruiting will not promote culture change, as another post on the internal message board highlighted:

“We must immediately cease the practice of attaching financial incentives and performance metrics to ‘diversity hiring’ – as long as we give more money and higher annual reviews explicitly for not hiring/promoting white men and Asians, this will continue to be a serious problem at the company.”

Microsoft’s response was somewhat predictable, with a member of the firm’s employee investigations team stating that they do not tolerate any form of discrimination. They further explained how linking compensation to diversity aspirations is important in getting executive buy-in to something they strongly believe in.

The tech giant also made a point to state that there had been a significant amount of pro-diversity counterpoints expressed in the comment threads, and that the criticism of their practices came from a small number of employees numbering in the dozens. However, Quartz reports that one of the most active anti-diversity threads included more than 800 comments.

The response has naturally drawn criticism from other employees who feel the company simply pays lip service to diversity but takes little meaningful action to reinforce them at a cultural level. Rather than refuting the points made on the board and playing down their significance, the company would be wise to get back to basics and focus on measures that all employees agree are effective in driving inclusion in the organisational culture of the business.

According to an email sent by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has instructed its employees that pushing back against the company’s diversity measures may negatively impact their careers.  The situation at Microsoft highlights a worrying trend in the tech industry whereby leaders are quick to impose restrictions on free speech rather than focusing on creating inclusive environments and addressing the issues raised by the people in their teams.

When a large corporation such as Microsoft comes under intense scrutiny by their own employees, they would be wise to reconsider their approach: after all, it’s the employees who experience the culture and the impact of such diversity initiatives day-to-day. If they aren’t working, listening to their concerns rather than rushing to silence the voices speaking up should be the first response from leaders of the company.

“All the leadership are sending out emails that they want to have an inclusive culture, but they’re not willing to take any action other than talk about it,” one employee told Quartz. “They allow people to post these damaging, stereotypical things about women and minorities, and they do nothing about it.”

Instead of treating diversity as a label that can be gained by recruiting a certain number of people into a certain level of the business, corporations such as Microsoft should keep in mind that it’s what’s inside that counts.

A diverse culture is one in which employees feel comfortable speaking up about injustices and all opinions, beliefs and backgrounds are welcome; it is one in which assumptions about minorities do not fuel initiatives but instead, leaders listen to their people and put in place measures that will inspire behavioural change across the business.